David Thompson and the Fur Trade - Page Banner

European exploration of the interior of North America was stimulated by demand for beaver pelts. When 14 year old David Thompson arrived at Churchill Factory in 1784, the trading network of the Hudson’s Bay Company extended to the Saskatchewan River and Lake Athabaska district. Starting as an apprentice clerk, Thompson served 13 years with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Besides the fur trade his duties included hunting game, establishing new posts and compiling accounts and journals for the Company.

In December 1788, Thompson broke his leg. While recuperating, he studied under Philip Turnor, the Company’s official surveyor, to improve his skill in taking and recording astronomical observations and calculating latitude and longitude.

“David Thompson has been my assistant this year. . . [and]  has been very diligent in learning.”

Turnor to Cohen
Hudsons Bay Company Archives
B239/50


Thompson used instruments like this sextant to help him calculate latitude. By determining the angular measurement between the horizon and a common celestial object - usually the Sun or Polaris (the north star) he was able to determine his location on the globe.
Photo: Sextant. English, [ca. 1790-1810]
Sextant. English, [ca. 1790-1810]
Royal Ontario Museum,
Canadiana Department, 958.11.2
Photo: Sextant. English, [ca. 1790-1810]
Le Cochon d'inde, le Castor (Guinea pig, Beaver),
1745-1811 ? (detail) Coloured engraving on wove paper
Jean Baptiste Huet
Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana
Library and Archives Canada, R9266 02546

"This day left the Service of the Hudsons [sic] Bay Co and entered that of the Company of Merchants from Canada - May God Almighty prosper me."

Entry dated 23 May 1797, Journal #5
David Thompson’s notebooks and journals
Reference Code: F 443-1
Archives of Ontario

Thompson helped expand the North West Company’s trading network through the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast.

In 1799 Thompson married Charlotte Small, a 13 year old of mixed Cree and Scots background, at Île-à-la-Crosse (Saskatchewan). They later solemnized their marriage at St. Gabriel’s Church in Montreal.

Watercolour: Hudson’s Bay Company and Northwest Company Forts at Île-à-la-Crosse

Click to see a larger image (98K)
Hudson’s Bay Company and Northwest
Company Forts at Île-à-la-Crosse,
February 28, 1820
Watercolour by George Back
Acc. No. 1994-254-1.40R
Library and Archives Canada

Mosquitoes, bitter cold, shortage of food and occasional threats of violence from First Nations posed a constant danger to Thompson, his wife and young family as they journeyed across the West.

Watercolour: Fort William, an establishment of the North West Company, on Lake Superior, [ca. 1811]
Fort William, an establishment of the North West Company, on Lake Superior, [ca. 1811]
Watercolour by Robert Irvine
Acc. No. R9266-290
Library and Archives Canada

Thompson spent the winter of 1808-1809 at Kootenae House
in the Rocky Mountains working up drawings from his sketches and journals.

“We had a grand view of the Rocky Mountains” #8221;

Entry dated 6 October 1800, Journal #13
David Thompson’s notebooks and journals
Reference Code: F 443-1
Archives of Ontario

Sketches of elevations or mountains, [ca. 1809] - 02
Click to see a larger image (78K)
Sketches of elevations or mountains, [ca. 1809]
Thompson (David) Papers, Ms. Coll. 21, item 5(?)
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
University of Toronto
Sketches of elevations or mountains, [ca. 1809] - 03
Click to see a larger image (64K)
Sketches of elevations or mountains, [ca. 1809]
Thompson (David) Papers, Ms. Coll. 21, item 5 (?)
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
University of Toronto


Sketches of elevations or mountains, [ca. 1809]
Click to see a larger image (255K)
Sketches of elevations or mountains, [ca. 1809]
Thompson (David) Papers, Ms. Coll. 21, item 5
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
University of Toronto

“.. . . we went on west about 22 miles to the Foot of the high Cliff when at 2 pm we met the Kootanas Chief attended by about 26 men and 7 women they had 11 horses with a few Furs in Beaver and bear... The Chief made me a present of his Bow and Quire of Arrows and of a Red Fox Skin which he had for a cap also of a yellow Horse with about 50 Beaver skins but I told him to keep possession of the Horse and furs till he came to the House when I should be able to reward him for the Present, the others I took upon the spot we then all set down and smoked together....... these poor fellows are but poorly clothed notwithstanding the regions is the cold in the Mountains they give me to understand that the Pekinaw [?] Indians have stolen most of their Horses I said all I could to encourage them to come on to the House and they assured me they would preserver.”

Journey to the Kootanaes Rocky Mountain
October to Dec 1800, Journal #13
David Thompson’s notebooks and journals
Reference Code: F 443-1
Archives of Ontario



Thompson took a particular interest in observing and recording the culture, language and beliefs of Aboriginal People. While wintering among the Piegan, he listened to an elderly chief Saukamappee explain Native customs and tribal history. He later visited the Mandan on the Upper Missouri and extended trading contacts with First Nations on the West Coast.

Watercolour: Interior of the Hut of a Mandan Chief, [ca.1832]
Click to see a larger image (305K)
Interior of the Hut of a Mandan Chief, [ca.1832]
Engraving of a watercolour by Karl Bodmer
WHI-6341
Wisconsin Historical Society

In this Exhibit -