Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Travels by David Thompson

A quick jump into the world of non-fiction for me (well, not really quick, the book took me over two weeks to read). This fall, the Champlain Society released a new edition of David Thompson’s Travels. This is intended to be the first in a three volume set of David Thompson’s writings. Travels was originally written in the late 1840s and into the 1850s (there are a few versions; this one replicates the 1850 version). It was never published while Thompson was alive. Later Joseph Burr Tyrell (another famous explorer and discoverer of dinosaurs) edited Thompson’s work and published it through the Champlain Society in 1916. This new edition is edited by William Moreau and contains an excellent introduction (and very useful explanatory notes throughout the text).

For those not familiar with David Thompson, he was a cartographer and explorer in early Canada. Although born in London (1770), he left at the age of 14 to come to North America and never looked back. Thompson worked first with the Hudson’s Bay Company and later with the North West Company. He learned surveying only after an accident left him bed ridden. And survey he did- Thompson traveled vast amounts of land, becoming one of the earliest explorers to cross to the far side of the Rockies. Thompson was a contemporary of Samuel Hearne and Alexander Mackenzie, the former famously quipped that Thompson had surveyed in a short time what would have taken anyone else a lifetime to do.

Although, Thompson is known as the first European to travel the length of the Columbia River; his true legacy is in his maps. Thompson’s maps were used (largely unaccredited) into the twentieth century. His most impressive work, known as the Great Map (1814), spent many years hanging in the headquarters of the North West Company at Fort William. Having seen the Great Map in person (many times) it is impressive even today. First of all, it is massive (probably 12-15 feet long and 5 feet high) and secondly it is incredibly detailed and accurate- even 200 years on. I think Thompson is one of the most underrated ‘great men’ of Canadian history, so if you don’t know who he is head to Wikipedia ASAP.

Enough about Thompson, onto his book: Travels is definitely worth the read, particularly if you are interested in exploration or early Canadian history. It is a slow read and the writing can get a bit dense (he was a surveyor, not a writer after all). He devotes an enormous amount of detail to wildlife, geography, surveying, etc, but also provides many anecdotes about traveling in the New World and some acute observations on Native Canadian life and mythology. Thompson married Charlotte Small, a British-Cree woman, and always had an enormous respect for the people he encountered (note: his travels were in the late 18th and early 19th century, so obviously his bias was towards the ‘British way of life,’ but he remained much more respectful towards the land he was tromping through and the people he encountered than other explorers and fur traders).

If your interest in early Canadian history is fleeting, this might not be the best book for you. It takes some dedication to get through, especially if you have spent the last six months reading nothing but fiction, but the picture that Thompson paints of Canada is unbeatable.

Right now I am reading Don Gilmor’s novel Kanata, which has Thompson as a fictional character, so look forward to some compare and contrast.


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