Candy Moulton: For European adventurer David Thompson, wanderlust takes hold
David Thompson started working as a clerk’s apprentice with the Hudson’s Bay Company at age 14, soon having a chance to explore portions of Canada, where his lust for adventure was hindered when he severely broke his leg. While laid up in camp for nearly a year he learned how to survey and make maps. These were skills he would use the remainder of his life.
Thompson left HBC when he believed the company wanted to assign him to a stationary post. He soon found a job with the North West Company. Soon Thompson was exploring for this company, which was the lead rival to his former employer. He was one of the first fur traders to cross the Canadian Rockies from Rocky Mountain House, north of Calgary, into the interior valley of the Columbia River source west of the Continental Divide and he became the first white explorer to travel the full course of the Columbia River.
I picked up Thompson’s North West Company trail in Invermere, British Columbia, finding a life-size sculpture of Thompson and his Cree wife Charlotte Small at a small park near the city’s main business district. A visit to the Invermere Museum led to a small display related to Thompson and the North West Company, and more importantly at the museum I found the information I needed to locate the site of Kootenae House, established in 1807 by Thompson. From this point Thompson traded with native trappers and he explored the Kootenay River and the Upper Columbia River. Ultimately he would establish a chain of fur trade posts in northern Idaho and along the Columbia watershed. Situated on a hillside above the river, Kootenae House remained in use periodically until 1812, when it was abandoned.
David Thompson and the North West Company weren’t content to work the streams in Canada, although they did establish a post near today’s Kamloops, B.C. The Columbia rolls south flowing out of British Columbia into today’s Washington before it turns west forming the border between Washington and Oregon.
One of the North West Company’s main trading sites was Spokane House, located at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers in Riverside State Park near Spokane. Established by Thompson and North West Company in 1810, it was the first permanent white settlement in the present state of Washington.
The following year, 1811, Thompson continued downriver to the mouth of the Columbia, making him the first non-native, and indeed perhaps the first man ever, to traverse the entire length of the Columbia River from its source near Invermere north through the precipitous mountains to Revelstoke and then south to Kettle Falls and on west to the Pacific Ocean.
He was the forerunner for North West Company, which rivaled HBC for domination of the Canadian fur country, and then made a mark in the American trade as well.
I followed Thompson’s route generally by traveling from Spokane to Tri-Cities (Pasco/Kennewick/Richland, Wash.), site of the newly opened Hanford Reach Interpretive Center, which focuses much of its interpretation on the plants, animals, fish and other critters of the region.
A “Living Land” exhibit particularly lets visitors learn more about the flora and fauna and hear stories of connection to the landscape from the perspective of Wanapum and Nez Perce/Palouse people as well as fish and wildlife biologists.
Down river at The Dalles, native people routinely fished for salmon as the signature species of the Columbia drainage moved upriver each year to spawning grounds. My route took me on to Vancouver, site of the rival Hudson’s Bay Company post, before reaching the mouth of the river at Astoria. This is where Lewis and Clark wintered, when they came to the region just six years before David Thompson.
John Jacob Astor established a trade post for his Pacific Fur Company by 1812 in Astoria, a venture that he sold to the North West Company in 1813.
Thompson continued to explore such areas as the Upper Clark Fork in present-day Montana where he established Saleesh House near Thompson Falls. Earlier he had established Kullyspel House on the north shore of Lake Pend Oreille, in present Idaho.
After Thompson returned to Canada, the strong rivalry between the North West Company with HBC continued, as traders and trappers working for NWC worked their way down other streams ultimately taking beaver and other furs in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. ❖