English-Canadian Fur Trader, Surveyor and Explorer
David Thompson has been characterized as "one of the greatest practical land geographers the world has ever known," having done all his work in western North America, principally Canada and the northwestern United States.
Thompson was born in London, England, of Welsh immigrants. His father died when Thompson was only two years old. His formal education was limited to seven years of attendance at a London charity school for the poor, where he learned something of navigation and mathematics. In 1784 he went to Canada as an apprentice with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), landing at Fort Churchill on Hudson Bay. Though principally assigned to do clerical work, he soon became a competent woodsman, familiarizing himself with the countryside. He learned surveying, astronomy, and applied mathematics with the HBC surveyor Philip Turnor (1789-90). During this time, he also lost the sight in one eye. Over the years, he spent some time living and trading with the various western Native American tribes. In 1794 he became an HBC surveyor, having decided to make that his profession.
In 1797 he accepted employment with the North West Company (NWC), remaining with them for 15 years. His motives for leaving the HBC without the customary one-year notice were controversial. This probably happened due to friction with his supervisors, since he was in a good position to advance and earn bonuses within HBS. He was at first a surveyor with the NWC, then a clerk trader, and finally a partner for six years (1806-12). During his first year with the NWC, he surveyed the 49th parallel from Lake Superior west to Lake Winnipeg, as well as the headwaters of the Mississippi River and parts of what are now the northern plains states. Over a period of several decades, he surveyed and mapped many of the river systems in Western Canada, traveling some 50,000 miles (80,467 km) over sometimes difficult terrain through what are now the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and portions of the Northwest Territories. In June 1799 he contracted a "fur trade" (common law) marriage with 13-year-old Charlotte Small, daughter of a retired Scots NWC partner and a Cree woman, with whom he had 13 children. They remained very close, and their union was regularized in Montreal in 1812.
In 1807 he discovered the source of the Columbia River, and during 1811 he mapped it from its source to its mouth. This work was accomplished in part because of NWC concern about American explorations, surveys, and business enterprises (mainly fur trading) in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon. Following his retirement from the NWC in 1812, Thompson continued a private surveying practice. At various times between 1817 and 1827, he surveyed the border between Canada and the United States from the Lake of the Woods east to the St. Lawrence River. He compiled a large, extremely accurate and detailed manuscript map of the areas he had traversed and studied. Measuring more than 5 by 10 feet, it covered approximately 1,700,000 square miles (2,735,885 sq km) in both nations, more than two-thirds of them in Canada. It included information from his own surveys and those of other explorers, among them Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838). It has been carefully safeguarded at the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. Thompson continued doing occasional smaller surveys during the 1830s. He purchased a farm in Ontario in 1815, and later was involved in several business enterprises, but afterward suffered a series of financial reverses. For a time in his mid-sixties, he was compelled to take up his old profession of surveying in order to stave off bankruptcy. Poverty-stricken in his last years, he began drafting a narrative of his experiences, which historians have found an invaluable view of exploration and fur-trading in the early nineteenth-century West. It is more interestingly written and refreshingly different from most of the official reports and histories put out over the years by the Hudson's Bay Company. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete it because he became completely blind in 1851. Fortunately, his wife was strongly supportive of him until the end. When he died in 1857, he was almost forgotten. His manuscript, dealing with events in his life and career down to 1812, was edited and published by J. B. Tyrell in 1916. In 1927, 70 years after his death, a monument was placed over his hitherto-unmarked gravesite in Montreal.
KEIR B. STERLING
David Thompson (1770-1857) was a Canadian explorer, cartographer, and surveyor. He was the first white man to descend the Columbia River from its source to its mouth.
David Thompson was born at Westminster, England, on April 30, 1770. After a surprisingly good education at Grey Coat School, a charity school near his home, he was apprenticed to the Hudson's Bay Company at the age of 14. He was sent out immediately and spent the years from 1784 to 1797 as a clerk, either at the bay or at various locations in the interior. He left the company's employ in 1797, in circumstances that virtually amounted to desertion. It was a poor repayment to an employer that had treated him well and trained him as a surveyor.
It was his surveying skill and his wilderness experience which made Thompson welcome at the North West Company, the great rival of the Hudson's Bay Company for the fur trade of the Northwest. The wealth of the company allowed him to devote most of the time from 1797 to 1812 to surveying and exploring with only infrequent periods of actually engaging in the fur trade. In 1804 he was made a partner in the company.
For several years Thompson made extensive journeys through the western plains, the Rocky Mountains, and along the Pacific slope, mapping and surveying as he traveled. In 1810-1811 he undertook the expedition for which he is best known. The Columbia River had long been a magnet for western traders, and Thompson was the first to travel the river from its source to its mouth. In one sense, his trip was a failure since his company had hoped that he would establish a post at the point where the Columbia emptied into the ocean before the arrival of the American Fur Company of John Jacob Astor. After excessive and unnecessary delay, he found Ft. Astoria already built when he came to the Columbia's mouth.
The following year, 1812, Thompson retired from the company and settled at Terrebonne, Lower Canada, later removing to Williamstown, Upper Canada. His surveying skills were employed in the establishment of the boundary between these two provinces. Later he was engaged in surveying the Canada-United States boundary as far west as Lake of the Woods. He never returned, however, to the Northwest.
In 1799 Thompson had married Charlotte Small, an Indian woman with whom he had 16 children. He died on Feb. 10, 1857, at Longueuil near Montreal.
The most valuable source of information on Thompson is the result of the meticulous scholarship of Richard Glover, who edited David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812 (1962). Also useful are W. S. Wallace, By Star and Compass (1922), and C. N. Cochrane, David Thompson, the Explorer (1928). □
American Aeronautics Company Executive 1954-
David W. Thompson is the chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC), a space technology and satellite services company he cofounded in 1982. Before starting OSC, Thompson was a project manager and engineer who worked on advanced rocket engines at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's (NASA) Marshall Space Flight Center.
As a graduate student, Thompson worked on the first Mars landing missions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Thompson and his cofounders of OSC met at Harvard Business School, where they shared an interest in the commercial uses of space. OSC was founded on the concept of commercial companies, not government agencies, being the driving force in the space industry. Whereas most established space companies' commercial businesses have evolved from government-or military-funded programs, OSC is devoted exclusively to the commercial aspects of the space industry.
OSC is one of the world's ten largest space-related companies, with over 5,000 employees. The company has its headquarters in Dulles, Virginia, and maintains major facilities in the United States, Canada, and several locations overseas. OSC's business activities involve satellites, the Pegasus and Taurus launch vehicles, space robotics, and software. In addition, OSC provides mobile data and messaging services (ORBCOMM) and satellite imaging of Earth.
John F. Kross
Orbital Sciences Web Site. <http://www.orbital.com/OSC/index.html>.
David Thompson, 1770–1857, Canadian geographer, fur trader, and explorer, b. London, England. In 1784 he came to Fort Churchill, Canada, as an apprentice of the Hudson's Bay Company, and until 1797 he was a fur trader of Hudson Bay and in the Athabasca country to the west. Although he had little scientific training, he developed great skill in geodetic and astronomical observations, and after 1797, when he joined the North West Company, he methodically located points in W Canada and made surveys of astonishing exactitude. In 1797–98 he traveled far S to the Mandan villages on the Missouri and then surveyed the headwaters of the Mississippi River. His most notable exploring expeditions were those across the Rocky Mts. and on the Columbia River. In 1807 he crossed the Howse Pass to the source of the Columbia River and traveled its length; he then explored the Kootenai, Pend Oreille, and Clark Fork river basins. In 1810, prevented by the Piegan from using Howse Pass, he went north to the head of the Athabasca River and across the mountains and explored all of the Columbia River system. He then went to Montreal, where he made (1812–14) a large and invaluable map of W Canada for the North West Company, long the best map of the region. Thompson, however, received little open recognition except an appointment (1816–26) to the commission for surveying the U.S.-Canadian boundary. It was not until the 20th cent. that his importance as a geographer was recognized.
See his narrative (ed. by J. B. Tyrrell, 1916, repr. 1968); biography by J. K. Smith (1971).