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August 30th, 2010
The Mapmaker’s Eye – David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau

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thumb_mapmakers_eye_200Unlike many of his sea-going counterparts, explorer and geographer David Thompson spent most of his life on the ground paddling and walking the rivers and land of western Canada and the Pacific north-west. His mark was made throughout these regions, extending from Hudson Bay to British Columbia and into the United States where he crossed lands previously touch by Lewis and Clark to those in the headwaters of the Missouri River. Mapmaker’s Eye traces the life and journeys of David Thompson whose efforts charted the Columbia River’s length and crossed much of western Canada for the first time while working for the North West Company.






The Spatial Turn
Interdiscplinary perspectives
Edited by Barney Warf and Santa Arias
The Mapmaker’s Eye
David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau



Jack Nisbet


 180 pages, Softcover ISBN: 0-87422-285-0


Review by Jeff Thurston




The Hudson Bay Company operated in northern Canada as a major trader of furs and other goods. In 1784 the Company hired the freshly educated David Thompson at the ripe age of 14 years old to become an employee involved in its operations in Canada. Thompson who could call central London his home and St. James Park his local playground, set sail aboard the Prince Rupert for a land and journey he only vaguely knew about. 

Author Jack Nisbet describes in detail the vivid images and experiences of David Thompson upon his explorations. By 1786 Thompson was charting land in western Canada and had traveled as far inland as North Battleford. Phillip Turnor, the first chief surveyor of the Hudson Bay Company was at this time forming a new survey party to explore those areas further to the west – including the headwaters of the Athabasca River.

In 1789 Thompson was selected and set out. Upon taking up this challenge Thompson would begin the journey that would ultimately lead to the discovery of the upper Columbia River, following it down into the United States and even crossing the lands Lewis and Clark had explored at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia River some six years earlier. 

North of this point was not well known at this time, yet. While Capt. George Vancouver had explored the west coast of North America, charting it in detail, the Louisiana Purchase was only recent as France sold the claim to much of the western United States, thereby setting in motion Lewis and Clark’s explorations to the west.

At one point Thompson ventured as far south as the Missouri River, and attempted to map it in relation to known lands of the North West Company in Canada’s ‘Lake of the Woods’ district, but incorrectly place it close to that area – much was still unknown in the northwest at this time.

David Thompson was active. His trail led down through present day Rocky Mountain House in the Province of Alberta, Canada, along the Kootenay Plains to the west into the Rocky Mountains as he attempted to find a pass through these lands. We learn about his strong communication and friendship skills, that he deployed to work with both colleagues and native indian populations to great effect – many helping him to discover places based on their own knowledge, which had not previously been tapped.

The author describes the many fish and animals in the area from historical notes. Thompson’s calling elk by the name of red deer – a name used to identify the present day Red Deer River. At times, during the winter, we learn about Thompson’s innovation in such things as placing animal hides on the bow of his canoes to act as ice breaking functions, thereby allowing his travels through the ice waters at higher elevations and as winter came early in many places.

Thompson was an avid charter, often making maps and keeping many notes about his travels. Operating with a sextant, his great interest lied in scaling the upper regions of the Columbia. This was not easy and involved much portaging.

Indeed, we learn that while Thompson preferred to pass the Rocky Mountains on his most famous journey, he was barred from passing through those areas of the Clearwater region by natives, then chose a more northerly route. This route took him around the natives, but also placed him squarely through those areas known as the Athabasca headwaters and further west toward the Columbia River.

Nisbet provides a wealth of detail about these explorations, often drawing about historical notes and including several maps that help the reader to understand travels and locations. It is interesting to see some of the earlier artworks from Thompson’s drawings because while they are highly accurate, he also attempted to include 3D perspectives into topography in rudimentary ways. 

The challenge David Thompson faced is daunting. Having visited many of these areas, it is hard to imagine someone living through the elements for so many years and covering such wide-ranging distances with not much more that a canoe – and in hostile lands. 

While the 49th parallel dividing Canada and the united States was known, Thompson went so far as to plant a British flag on lands near Spokane, Washington at one point. He would later venture back up the Columbia, and toward the east, once again meeting his wife. Throughout his journeys, we are left with the impression that communication with HBC remained and the North West Company continued to supply his travels, no doubt aware that the pelts and furs could be readily sold in Europe.

Much of Thompson’s final efforts laid in creating the ‘Map of the North-West Territory of the Province-  of Canada’ – a map that he credited also Philip Turnor, HBC chief surveyor, Sir Alexander MacKenzie and John Stuart, a member of Simon Fraser’s expeditions. Nisbet notes the chart from the sale of Fort Astoria (Oregon) currently hangs in the Archives of Ontario reading room in Toronto.

Those interested in the Pacific North-West and the Columbia River region will find this book fascinating. David Thompson is undoubtedly a legendary figure that discovered much of the region straddling Canada-United States west of the 84th parallel. The images are exceptional, some colored, and the detail causes the reader to maintain interest with revealing facts and observations.


Jeff Thurston is co-founder and co-editor of V1 Magazine / Asian Surveying and Mapping for Vector1 Media. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

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