The Man Who Mapped Canada

August 31, 2016 | Stuart Wachowicz

This year, 2016, is the 230th anniversary of the start of a fateful journey that would result in the shaping of western Canada and the mapping of the U.S.-Canadian border.

In 1786 a 16-year-old apprentice was selected to take part in his first trip to the vast, little known interior of northwestern North America. The young man was David Thompson.

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He had spent two years working in remote posts along the shore of Hudson Bay after being apprenticed to the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) upon completion of his education at the Grey Coats Charity School in London. While at school, young David showed significant aptitude for geometry, trigonometry, algebra and navigation; and at 14 years of age he was sent to what now is northern Canada, never to see his homeland again.

Two years later he was selected to be part of an exploration party that would travel over one thousand miles inland, up the North Saskatchewan River. On this first trip he had a tragic fall, resulting in a severely broken leg, hundreds of miles from any medical help. For months his survival was in question. The party managed to get the injured Thompson back to Cumberland House in northern Saskatchewan. He took a year to recover, and he would develop a permanent limp. While recovering, Thompson met Phillip Turnor, the Chief Surveyor for HBC. Turnor was an outstanding teacher, and Thompson seemed to grasp the concepts of surveying and astronomical observation with ease. In the years between 1794 and 1812, Thompson traveled 55,000 miles, often alone and in arduous conditions, and managed to accurately survey 1,900,000 square miles, equal to one half the area of the United States–a previously uncharted territory. The accuracy of his measurements was not exceeded until the period of aircraft and satellite mapping.

Thompson became known throughout the territory to both aboriginals and Europeans, as a man of integrity and honour. He always kept his word, he diligently discharged his duties to the HBC and later the North West Company, but especially to his wife and family. In June 1799 he married Charlotte Small, a young Metis lady. It was a time when European traders frequently took "country wives" whom they usually abandoned when they returned east. Thompson was different. He loved Charlotte and was faithfully married to her for the next fifty-eight years. Charlotte actually traveled with David frequently. They had 13 children and are buried together at Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.

In 1817 this brilliant cartographer was commissioned by the International Boundary Commission to survey and establish a large part of the boundary between Canada and the United States. The opinion of the head of the USA Boundary Commission, David Adams, said much about Thompson:

"A gentleman, whom for his rectitude of heart, honesty of disposition, integrity of character and abilities in his profession I shall ever hold in the highest estimation."

Thompson's work still astounds modern cartographers. With primitive instruments, operating in brutally harsh and dangerous conditions, he was able to map a huge portion of the North American wilderness with great precision, while still managing to conduct a fur trade with many different aboriginal nations. Later in life he ran into financial difficulties, and the Foreign Office reneged on a promise to fully reimburse Thompson for a completed atlas he had prepared and delivered.

While the end of his life was a financial struggle, complicated by failing eyesight, the love he and Charlotte had for each other remained constant for over half a century. David died in February of 1857 at the age of 87, and Charlotte lived only three months afterward.

While the world may remember David Thompson as the greatest land geographer in history, we might take time to reflect on the uplifting joy that David and Charlotte drew from years of faithfulness to each other. They were able to benefit from that which God had ordained for mankind through the institution of marriage.

If you would like to learn more about the God ordained institution of marriage, read online or order a free print copy of God's Plan for Happy Marriage.

Stock media provided by NEJRON PHOTO /