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The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 1: The Travels, 1850 Version

By William E. Moreau, editor

The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 2: The Travels, 1848 Version, and Associated Texts

By William E. Moreau

Review By Barry Gough

October 27, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 149-152

At age 14, a well-educated Londoner of Welsh parentage entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) as an apprentice clerk. He would have preferred to enter the Royal Navy. He was strangely unsettled in character. Given the mathematical education he had received at Grey Coat School, Westminster, he had expected better, but found himself at Fort Churchill, then assigned to the life of northern posts. Disenchanted, he left the service of the Bay traders and joined its archrival the North West Company and held the view that the HBC did only what the British government required of it in the way of discoveries. The Nor’Westers he regarded as far more liberal and public in spirit. He became a tireless, inveterate traveller, sometimes accompanied by his wife Charlotte Small and their children. He unlocked many secrets of the rivers of the west. His powers of observation were acute and the subjects of interest to him unbounded in number and various in character. The Nez Perces of the Snake River called him “Koo-Koo-Sint,” that is, “Star Man” or “He who Shoots the Stars.”

From the time he began with the North West Company in 1797 until the summer of 1812 Thompson did more than any other, perhaps save Sir Alexander Mackenzie, in plotting the rivers and watersheds of western North America. He ranks in the highest category of discoverers, and he revealed to the wider world many little known facts about native peoples, geography, and geomorphology. Of a thoughtful disposition, he recorded his observations in various journals. The geological surveyor, Joseph B. Tyrrell, discovered Thompson, or, as he says “re-discovered” him, and in an article in the 1928 Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada explained how in his own work as a surveyor he still consulted detailed surveys compiled by Thompson in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. It was the meticulousness of these maps of a tortuous network of mountains, valleys, passes, and rivers that attracted Tyrrell. Unusual in the fur-trading line of work at a time of competition between the HBC and Nor’Westers, it is said that Thompson would not trade spirituous liquor to the aboriginals. He had a strong puritanical streak. Thoroughness invited or necessitated slowness, and Thompson was methodical in carrying out duties entrusted to him. He went in search and found one of the sources of the Mississippi. He charted the Saskatchewan and the Columbia rivers. In later years he surveyed sections of the Canadian-American border in that essential line of work delineating, as it were, the extremity of the future Dominion and giving special unity to the whole in terms of longitudes and latitudes. He was a creature of the empirical age, a deft hand with a sextant, and a sure draftsman when it came to mapmaking and views of rocky ramparts. That he acted almost alone is part of the charm of the whole story, and it is this that has attracted many a neophyte biographer to try to step in his shoes and paddle with him in his canoes. We wait in hope for a psychological profile of one of the outstanding characters of all history.

His journals, which survive in the Archives of Ontario, Toronto, have never been published in toto, though many regional clusters have appeared in works such as Catherine White’s David Thompson’s Journals Relating to Montana (1950) and Barbara Belyea’s edition of his Columbia Journals (1994). The Champlain Society, modeled on various British records societies such as The Hakluyt Society and the Navy Records Society, has always been the leader in printing documentary editions of David Thompson’s writings. In 1916 the Society published Tyrrell’s edition Thompson’s Travels, and collectors have found this edition so important and attractive that on occasion they have bought whole sets of the Society’s works just to get it. Only 562 copies were published, and it was never reprinted (which it certainly could have been, though now it can be found in digital form on the Society’s website). In 1962, under the editorship of the remarkable and inquisitive Richard Glover, the Society produced a new edition with a more critical and scholarly apparatus than had appeared in Tyrrell. For all their differences, the beauty of the Tyrrell or the Glover is that they are each one volume. For years the Council of the Champlain Society adamantly feared publishing works that required two volumes, and the journal of the Nor’Wester Alexander Henry the Younger, published in 1988 and 1992, is the last of a breed.

Enter partners in a renewed enterprise. Now, tracing over the collected manuscripts and in a new editorial format, two volumes of a projected three have been published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (and the University of Washington Press) in cooperation with the Champlain Society. Subscribers to the Society have happily been able to purchase copies that bear the emblematic hallmark of the organization and are bound in its handsome, iconic, and legendary red covers and gold imprint. As a Life Member of this Society, and at one time owner of the full set (Number 75), I can testify that members of the Society guard their treasures; indeed I have witnessed many casting their eyes with wonderment for the first time on shelves of red and gold, a testament to the finest printed legacy of the pre-digital era. When combined, as mine were, with the Hudson’s Bay Records Society — with which the Champlain Society had a working arrangement for thirteen years, resulting in the joint publication of twelve volumes — it was a sight to behold. Some full sets may still exist in private hands.

Happy memories are revived by this new publication agenda on Thompson but, for reasons to be explained, I am not sure that the Society will conclude that this is the last they will publish of Thompson. It is claimed that this edition is definitive. But is any edition definitive? And equally important to any champion of making our history accessible to the reading public, is it user-friendly? The more extended and protracted the editorial apparatus, the more bibliographies are required (one for each volume), the more indexes are needed (again, one for each volume), and the more difficult it is, and will be upon completion, for the reader to grasp the unity of the enterprise. For the serious researcher, with time to devote to it, the rewards may be forthcoming but gained only by assiduous hard work. For the general reader, I fear, confusion and dismay may result. For myself, as a student of Thompson’s life and revelations for decades, I will still be looking for a one-volume edition of Thompson’s Travels. To date, only one such attempt has appeared: David Thompson: Travels in Western North America (1971), compiled and edited by Victor Hopwood, a professor of English at UBC. Hopwood never lived to fulfill his dream to complete his biography of Thompson.

Reverting to the books under review, this new edition of Thompson’s Travels presented the editor and the editorial advisers and overseers with a notable problem. In his latter years, those of impoverishment, encroaching blindness, and growing isolation, Thompson gathered together his main texts. The final result was a compilation of 1850. This is the text for Volume 1. Thompson’s earlier (1848) version of his Travels is here published as Volume 2. Literary sleuths will happily devote themselves to comparing and contrasting the two versions, noting discrepancies, championing literary progressions, and the like. The projected Volume 3 will consist of various notes and letters that are, presumably, supplemental to these first two volumes.

Students of BC history will be familiar with what is known as “the dalliance of David Thompson.” The argument runs that, rather than pressing on to the mouth of the Columbia River, Thompson was delayed for various reasons. Accordingly, he did not arrive at the destination before John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company’s expedition had landed from the Tonquin and built the post Astoria in 1811. It is a moot question whether Thompson’s earlier arrival would have tipped the balance in the imperial rivalry that developed between the United States and Great Britain. In any event, Lieutenant Broughton in the Royal Navy brig Chatham had surveyed the river in 1792 and had laid claim to it as a possession of King George III. Thompson was in no position to oust the American traders at Astoria; they thought him a spy. But the charm of the story of fur-trading rivalries will continue in the literature. There is much romance in Thompson’s story. He is one of the few fur-trading explorers to leave a substantial literary and documentary trail. He is one for the ages and will be with us for many a future book. It is the vibrancy of his observations and experiences that charm us most, and most of his biographers cannot touch his powers of observation or ability to transpose us in time and space, taking us back to a North American west before the sternwheeler and the railway, the barbed wire and the surveyor’s chain. Of great merit is Thompson’s famed and very large map of North America, now in the Archives of Canada, which, like James Cook’s survey of the River St. Lawrence, ranks as among our true culture treasures. Thompson will continue to fascinate, and every now and again another book appears about him – though we are still waiting for a full, comprehensive and learned biography. The new Champlain Society volumes will ease the passage of such a work, but still it is in the journals in the Archives of Ontario that the real gold nuggets are to be found.


Belyea, Barbara, editor. 1994. Columbia Journals David Thompson. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Glover, Richard, editor. 1962. David Thompson’s Narrative 1784-1812. Toronto: The Champlain Society.

Hopwood, Victor, editor and compiler. 1971. David Thompson: Travels in Western North America, 1784-1812. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.

Tyrrell, J.B., editor. 1916. David Thompson’s Narrative of his Explorations in North America, 1784-1812.  Toronto: The Champlain Society.

Tyrrell, J.B. 1928. “The Rediscovery of David Thompson.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 22.

White, Catherine, editor. 1950. David Thompson’s Journals Relating to Montana and Adjacent Regions, 1808-1812. Missoula, Montana: Montana State University.

The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 1: The Travels, 1850 Version
William E. Moreau, editor
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press; co-published with the Champlain Society, 2015. 432 pp. $44.95 cloth

The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 2: The Travels, 1848 Version, and Associated Texts
William E. Moreau, editor
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press; co-published with the Champlain Society, 2015. 436 pp. $44.95 cloth