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Manitoba History: Review: David Thompson (edited with an Introduction by William E. Moreau) The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 1: The Travels, 1850 Version

by Graham A. MacDonald
Victoria, BC

Number 63, Spring 2010

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Attempts to recapture from obscurity the life and work of fur trader and explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) commenced before his death, if one begins with the unsuccessful effort by Washington Irving to purchase the original manuscript of the work here under review. [1] Bancroft had some fleeting knowledge of Thompson, probably gleaned from Irving. Much has subsequently happened since the early 1880s when geologist J. B. Tyrrell, working in southern Alberta with G. M. Dawson, found himself puzzled about the good quality of the maps they had in hand. Who was the source? We now know that as early as 1795 the Arrowsmith Map Firm in London had been incorporating Thompson’s materials into its productions, but this fact remained long hidden. [2] Back in Ottawa, Tyrrell learned something of Thompson and of his notebook journals, lodged at that time in the old Crown Lands Department collection in Toronto. He began a quest, eventually obtaining Thompson’s biographical “Travels” manuscript from that good “Canada Firster”, Charles Lindsey. This culminated in his 1916 Champlain Society edition of a version of Thompson’s Narrative. [3]

Tyrrell was not alone in his pursuit, but had important collaborators such as the American scholars Elliott Coues and T. C. Elliott. In the 1890s, Coues, fresh from his work on Lewis and Clark, made good use of the Crown Lands Department collection, seeking a parallel documentary check on the writings of Alexander Henry the younger. [4] Elliott, on the other hand, was interested in the journals to piece together Thompson’s work west of the Rockies. [5]

A map used by Lewis and Clark shows the Missouri River and Mandan Villages. Its annotation identifies the source: “Bend of the Missouri Long. 101° 25’ – Lat. 47° 32’ by Mr Thomson astronomer to the N.W. Company in 1798”.
Source: US Library of Congress

These preliminary excavations of Thompson’s works led into a second phase of historical enquiry in which the journals and other archival sources played an increasing part. Arthur S. Morton produced a number of works bearing on Thompson as an historical figure in the grand struggles for empire and “the Columbian Enterprise”, thereby stimulating a number of scholarly debates. [6] Much of Morton’s direction was followed in the commentaries of Richard Glover, who, in 1962, brought out the second Champlain Society edition of Thompson’s Narrative. A central reason for this new edition, aside from catering to increased demand for the scarce first, was to incorporate a chapter which Tyrrell had known to be missing, but which was not located until 1957 by Victor Hopwood. [7] This, along with Professor Glover’s lively and scholarly “Introduction”, made the new edition a great success. A few years later came Hopwood’s abridged version, based on his own close scrutiny of the notebook journals. [8] Overlapping with these initiatives was further work on selected publication of the journals, commencing in 1949 with Catherine White’s valuable edition dealing with Montana and “adjacent regions”. [9] Research into the journals may be considered as on-going. [10]

With so much achieved in the rescue effort by the 1990s, one may properly ask: why yet another Champlain Society series of editions? The answer is two-fold. In keeping with recent scholarly preoccupations with textual accuracy, interest in assessing the editorial choices made in the earlier productions was coupled with a wish to bring out a version according with Thompson’s latest draft. This is the main object of Volume I, called here the “1850 Version”. For reasons made clear by Dr. Moreau, this treatment takes events down to 1807, rather than to 1812 as in earlier editions. Volume II will bring together other critically edited chapters and drafts not included in the 1850 version, bringing the account, once again, to 1812 (xii-xiii). Volume III will provide a “selection of other writings by Thompson, including letters, reports, contributions to newspapers and essays and prose sketches from his notebooks” (lix). The third volume, then, promises to be of great interest to students of Thompson’s biography.

The push for critical editions of exploration texts generally might be considered the context of this third phase of Thompson scholarship, for the object of Volume I is to provide Thompson’s Travels “as it stood when he stopped writing on 16 September, 1850” (lix). Earlier editors were all relatively silent about their selection criteria. [11] In contrast, Moreau’s Historical and Textual Introductions and well-footnoted text will satisfy the most curious reader about the ins and outs of this manuscript. [12] The editor’s Historical Introduction also summarizes the various new directions of recent Thompson scholarship, emphasizing areas of his diverse substantive achievements and preoccupations. The viewpoint displays a welcome lack of interest in some of the more distracting issues which so exercised Morton and Glover, these matters having been largely put to rest by Belyea, Jenish and others. [13] An excellent bibliography is included along with a useful appendix of biographical sketches. The original folding maps are up to the usual high standards of the Champlain Society. Volume II is scheduled for release in 2011 and Volume III in 2013.

Map showing the Souris River forts and the route taken by David Thompson to the Mandan Country in 1797-8.
Source: D. A. Stewart, MHS Transactions, Series 3, No. 5, 1930.


1. See David Thompson, Narrative, J. B. Tyrrell ed., Toronto: Champlain Society, 1916, p. lxii.

2. See Vernor Coolie, “The Arrowsmith Firm and the Cartography of Canada”, The Canadian Cartographer, 8:1, 1971, pp. 1-7; Warren Heckrotte, “Aaron Arrowsmith’s Map of North America and the Lewis and Clark Expedition”, The Map Collector, 39, 1987, pp. 16-20; and Victor G. Hopwood, “David Thompson and his Maps”, Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference of Canadian Map Librarians, 1973, Ottawa: Association of Canadian Map Librarians, 1974.

3. See J. B. Tyrrell, “The Re-discovery of David Thompson”, Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Third Series, 22:2, 1928, pp. 233-247.

4. See Elliott Coues ed., New Light on the Earlier History of the Greater Northwest: The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and David Thompson: 1799-1814, 1897, Reprint, 2 volumes, Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1965.

5. Elliott’s work was published during and after World War I. See footnote 10.

6. The literature and issues are well summarized in Barbara Belyea, “The Columbian Enterprise and A. S. Morton: An Historical Exemplum”, B.C. Studies, 86:3, 1990, pp. 3-27.

7. See V. G. Hopwood, “New Light on David Thompson”, The Beaver, 288, 1957, pp. 26-31.

8. See. V. G. Hopwood ed., David Thompson’s Travels in North America, 1784-1812, Toronto: Macmillan, 1971.

9. Catherine M. White ed., David Thompson’s Journals Relating to Montana and Adjacent Regions, 1808-1812, Missoula: Montana State University Press, 1949.

10. See the bibliographies in Barbara Belyea ed., David Thompson: Columbia Journals, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1994, and in Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America, Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994.

11. Tyrrell’s intended version was, however, given a good working over by W. Stewart Wallace, who restored a good deal of the original purity of the text. See D’Arcy Jenish, Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of Canada, Toronto: Doubleday, 2003, pp. 288-289.

12. See also William E. Moreau, “‘To be fit for Publication’: The Editorial History of David Thompson’s Travels, 1840-1916”, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, 39:2, 2002, pp. 15-44.

13. Belyea, 1990; James P. Ronda, Astoria and Empire, Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1990; and Jenish, 2003, pp. 153-186.

Page revised: 4 July 2016

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