David Thompson's Mapping in North America
As one of only two who are performing extensive research on the surviving maps of David Thompson (1770-1857); I am currently focussing my attention on the surviving versions of the map delivered by Thompson to his employer, the North West Company at Fort William (Thunder Bay, ON).
Commonly referred to as the Map of 1814, it was redrawn on at least two occasions for specific reasons. The first surviving version is held by the Archives of Ontario, and today is faded to the point of unread ability and was thought to have been drawn in 1816. The second is held by the National Archives in Kew England and was likely drawn in c.1826 and delivered to the British Foreign Office in November of 1826 and is entitled ‘A Map of North America from 84 Degrees West to the Pacific Ocean’. This version was believed to have been created to provide evidence to the British of the value of keeping the Oregon Territory (first thoroughly explored and mapped by Thompson) during the Oregon dispute.
Very little attention has been paid attention to the maps created by Thompson, and I dare say Peter Fidler as well. This has always struck me as odd as so much attention has been paid to map makers such as Arrowsmith. This fact is exasperating given that the maps created by the Arrowsmith Map Company, that were created at a much smaller scale, utilized a great deal of survey data exclusively from Thompson and Fidler’s work. It has always perplexed me as to why so little attention has been paid to the surveyors of the day who experienced firsthand the landscapes they wrote about and illustrated.
After over a decade of examination, it was felt that a trip to the United Kingdom was required to see what we refer to as Thompson’s 1826 map and the other five maps currently located at the National Archives and the British Library. During our visit in 2013 we also examined as much correspondence as possible at the National Archives in order to research the providence of the map and an understanding of events of what led to the maps going to the UK. This would also include a trip to the Royal Geographic Society where some of Thompson's correspondence made its way.
Also located at the RGS were sketches by John Bigsby, a doctor hired on during the International Boundary Surveys. Bigsby, who befriended Thompson during the survey had traced some of Thompson's Boundary Maps and had donated them to the Royal Geographic Society, presumably to gain admittance. Bigsby is also known for providing the only description of Thompson that we know of. An important point given that there are no known images of Thompson.
Seeing the actual map for the first time was a surreal moment. I am not sure that I can convey what that experience was like. I can say however that I am even more impressed that I was before with Thompson’s work, this after seeing the map and reading through the correspondence that we were able to go through. First we inspected the three maps located at the National Archives which included the ‘Map of North America from 84 Degrees West to the Pacific Ocean’, ‘A Map of the Oregon Territory’ (image on left) and a less known map commonly referred to as Thompson’s 'Map of the Snake River Country'.
At the British Library, we inspected another version of Thompson's Map of the Oregon Territory, another version of Thompson’s 'Map of the Snake River Country' and one of the most stunning maps of Lake Superior that I have seen from this period that was completed by Thompson after his resurvey of it during the International Boundary Survey. Unfortunately however, unlike The National Archives, the British Library did not allow us to take pictures of these maps.
Although David Thompson’s 1814 map was not the only map produced of the northwest in the early to late 19th Century, it was the first to accurately portray this portion of the continent from the Pacific to the Hudson’s Bay at a larger scale. Within the surviving versions of the 1814 map, and other maps created by him; there is evidence that provides testimony of Thompson’s remarkable talents as a cartographer, his clear understanding of surveying, his obvious desire to demonstrate his ability to understand the continent in terms of measured distance and area, and his need to say so much within the context of a map.
The research I perform serves two purposes. The first being presenting my latest finding to who various conferences and interests groups and the second is to eventually formulate all that I have collected into a book of David Thompson's mapping of North America from 1792-1818 and from 1816-1828. Until presented in an appropriate fashion, his work will forever remain forgotten. There is so much more that I could say however too much for a webpage... stay tuned for the book or a presentation if I am in your area.
Before leaving the UK, my final stop was to visit the school where Thompson received his formal education prior to being enlisted by the HBC and sent to Canada. I recall discussing with Ray Mears the placing of the plaque at the school (image to the left) during the Thompson bicentennial commemorations and his insistence that if I am ever in London to be sure and see it. The school still operates today as a girl’s school.
I was in the UK for two weeks in 2013 and did not finish the work that I had gone there for. I returned again in 2014 to complete that portion of my research. There will be one last visit likely in the fall of 2015 to finish my research on the Official Treaty of Ghent Boundary Maps.