Exploration and David Thompson in the Rockies

Design concept suggests David Thompson's crossing of Athabasca Pass. Artifacts will be loaned by the Alberta Land Surveyors Assocation

Listen to Michale Lang (Executive Director, Whyte Museum), discussing
the Exploration exhibition:


The story of David Thompson and the early exploration of the Canadian Rockies is just one of the many stories in the new Gateway to the Rockies exhibition being developed by the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. We want your input and feedback on this permanent (ten year life) exhibition that we are planning to open at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in the spring of 2012. Tell us what you think of this and the other concepts and stories featured here. Let us know how you think we could make this exhibition more interesting. Please keep in mind that this is a draft of the storyline, not the finished product. As the stories develop, information will be updated.

The fur trade drew white men ever deeper into the mountains in search of furs and a route to the west coast. They paddled from the Montreal, across the great lakes, tough voyageurs of French or Scots descent. These early explorers and surveyors came to take what nature had to offer, but adventurous men like David Thompson also left a legacy of remarkably accurate maps and descriptions of the land and people as they were when he explored these mountains.

David Thompson is one of the world’s great geographers. Mapmaking was his passion and he was the first European to map the Canadian Rockies. In 1810, David Thompson was given an opportunity to complete his great ambition, preparation of a map extending to the Pacific Coast. A trip in the fall of 1810 made Thompson aware of not only the geographic, but also the human obstacles he would face on his quest.

The Peigan First Nations had plagued the fur traders since there arrival in the area, but Thompson later wrote: “…the murder of two Peagan Indians by Captain Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) of the United States, drew the Peagan to the Missouri to revenge their deaths; and thus gave me an opportunity to cross the Mountains by the defiles of the Saskatchewan River…”

In the wake of a Salish defeat of Peigans on the western side of the mountains in July of that year, Thompson stated in his Narrative, “This was the first time the Peeagans were in a manner defeated, and they determined to wreck their vengeance on the white men who crossed the mountains to the west side; and furnished arms and ammunition to their Enemies.”

An error in navigation that took him to the Kootenay Plains on the upper reaches of the Saskatchewan River soon made him aware of a party of Peigan watching the route to Howse Pass. Retracing his steps to the Brazeau River mouth, he determined that he would cross by way of the more northerly Athabasca Pass instead.

The time of the year was not favourable. Before departing from Boggy Hall, by December 5, Thompson had reached a place on the Athabasca River where he built a hut for his goods and a meat shed. He sent men in search of birch for the manufacture of snowshoes and dogsleds. The expedition was mounted on the directions of the North West Company Partners, as a trading expedition, not a dash to the pacific coast. This meant the hauling of a great deal of supplies and materials.

There were many men in Thompson’s party: the guide, Bourré, La Fortune, Mousseau, B. Delcour, Desersier (or Desrosiers), La Course, and Canada. In addition, we learn of B. d’Eau, Coté, Forcier and Lamoreux; of Vallade, Pareil, Batoche, Vaudette and Du Nord. There was also Thomas the Iroquois and Baptiste the Hunter. The workforce on the exhibition was not happy. The temperatures were bitter and food sometimes unreliable.


On Dec. 29, the party made its initial advance towards the summit of the pass. Thompson recorded the temperature at minus 32 degrees F on December 24 and each night for the next week it was minus 30 or below. We know some estimates of the loads being transported. Each sled with two dogs carried 120 pounds, those with one dog carried 70 pounds. Four horses each carried 208 pounds of pemmican, 35 pounds of grease and 60 pounds of flour. As the party progressed, some of the supplies had to be cached, the animals being unable to move their loads.


In the early weeks of January, 1811 the party was still high in the Athabasca Pass but crossed the height of land on January 10. Du Nord beat a dog to death and tossed it aside with his sled, and was then ordered out of camp for his mutinous behaviour, but allowed to re-enter on Thompson’s orders.


The great amount of time taken to cross the mountains in the winter of 1810-11 is explained in part by the need for the trip to be a trade expedition in which not only the lower Columbia would be opened up, but previous trading relationships on the western slope reconfirmed. This involved the transport of many goods, complicated by transportation problems occasioned by the lateness of the season. Once across the mountains Thompson had to innovate the production of cedar canoe construction owing to the absence of suitable birch. Thompson finally arrived at the new Fort Astoria on July 15, 1811.


"David Thompson taking an observation" by C.W. Jefferys, from The Picture GAllery of Canadian History, Vol. 2, 1763 - 1830. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1945
On April 22, he was ready to depart the western side of the mountains and make the long trip back to Fort William. He crossed over the Athabasca Pass on May 8 and by early August he was at Fort William. David Thompson’s life in the west was now over.

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