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Was David Thompson a Canadian Marco Polo??I am unaware if mostTheatre Companies carry on the old tradition of saying ‘break a leg’ on opening night. But one of the best things that ever happened to the famous BC explorer David Thompson was when a large log rolled from a sleigh and crushed his leg. All things really did work for the good through that tragedy (Romans 8:28). His broken leg gave him time to learn math, science, and instruments of surveying, how to keep field notes and journal-keeping. As a result, David Thompson learned the necessary skills which enabled him to put Western Canada on the map.
The early 19th century Western Canada map was essentially blank until Thompson filled it in. Thompson was one of the master-builders of Canada and possibly the greatest geographer the world has known. As a land geographer, Thompson was the peer of Captain James Cook, the great sea geographer of the oceans. Thompson has been described as a great surveyor disguised as a fur trader, as a marvelous scientist with the sensitive soul of a prophet.
By his own initiative and industry, he explored and surveyed more than a million and a half square kilometres of wilderness, accomplishing the staggering feat of mapping half a continent. Even Alexander Mackenzie, the renowned explorer, was quite astounded and remarked that Thompson had performed more in ten months than he expected could have been done in two years. Thompson’s map, his greatest achievement, was so accurate that 100 years later it remained the basis for many of the maps issued by the Canadian government and the railway companies. We can even credit David Thompson with the exacting survey of much of the Canadian/US 49th Boundary.
Thompson’s written ‘Travels Journal’ shows his multifaceted gifts as scientific explorer, geographer, cartographer, and naturalist. Some scholars have described Thompson’s Journal as one of the finest works in Canadian literature. His directness in prose, his modesty and ability to see himself and others, his sharp powers of observation and intense practicality all contribute to a vivid glimpse of early Canadian pioneering. His account of his adventures has also been described as one of the world’s greatest travel books.
When David was only two years old, his father died and his mother moved to London, changing their Welsh name ApThomas to the more easily spoken Thompson. When David moved to Canada, he never saw either his family or London town again. In his journal, David wrote movingly of a ‘long and sad farewell to my noble, my sacred country, an exile for ever’.
Thompson the Canadian immigrant grew to love ‘the forest and the white water, the shadow and the silence, the evening fire, the stories and the singing and a high heart.’ He was modest, talented and deeply spiritual. The First Nations people gave him the name Koo-Koo-Sint, which means ‘Star-Gazer’, in recognition of his star-based map work. It wasn’t that he was a starry-eyed dreamer, but rather a dedicated scientist using the best mapping technology of his day.
What is it about David Thompson that always drove him onwards into the great unknown? Click to find out more…
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St. Simon's Anglican Church
North Vancouver, B.C.