Scenes from the life of David Thompson

Here are some observations from my forays into the life of David Thompson, the fur trader, explorer, surveyor, mapmaker (born at London, England, April 30, 1770; died at Longueuil, Canada, Feb. 10, 1857).

Thompson devoted most of his life to the study of geography and the practice of map-making. The maps, based primarily on his own explorations, were the first to provide a comprehensive view of the vast western territories that became part of Canada in 1869.

Apprenticed to the Hudson Bay Company in 1784 (at age 14), he was selected to go to North America from England, to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The account was quite brief:

“Two young men were chosen; one ran away, the other was David Thompson.”

I guess it wasn’t as desirable to come over to a wild, and untamed country as it became in later years, when immigrants poured in with dollar signs in their eyes. The fur trade was the big business in those days, and there was a note regarding an experience by the explorer Jacques Cartier, that he found the Indians so eager to trade, that they approached him in canoes, waving their furs on the end of sticks. So anxious were they to trade, that as the account says, they returned in their canoes completely naked! That must have been quite the shopping spree on their part!

I was impressed on reading through the account, of the abundance of wildlife that once existed in this vast continent. It seemed that it was quite hard to starve to death in the woods in those days, whereas the opposite is true today.

In one account, David Thompson and some others were travelling down to the Missouri River from Manitoba one winter. They hit a cold front and the temperature dropped to -20°F. The next day it dropped to -37. They spent most of that day in their tents, and for leisure, would go out and take walks in the woods. On one of these walks they killed a bison. I gather from this and other similar encounters, that wildlife must have been plentiful when you can do such a thing in the middle of winter. Oh, it also stated that the day after this, a chinook came along and raised the temperature by 56 degrees in 12 hours!

Later when they arrived at the Indian village, they were treated to a breakfast meal of corn porridge with “ashes” for flavoring! I wonder if Kellogg’s has ever considered that! But actually the ash helps treat the corn grain, to make it more nutritious. The actual chemical explanation is this (from an article on Hominy in Wikipedia):

Lime and ash are highly alkaline: the alkalinity helps the dissolution of hemicellulose, the major glue-like component of the maize cell walls, and loosens the hulls from the kernels and softens the corn. Some of the corn oil is broken down into emulsifying agents (monoglycerides and diglycerides), while bonding of the corn proteins to each other is also facilitated. The divalent calcium in lime acts as a cross-linking agent for protein and polysaccharide acidic side chains.

As a result, while cornmeal made from untreated ground corn is unable by itself to form a dough on addition of water, the chemical changes in masa allow dough formation, which is essential to the ability to fashion dough into tortillas.

Also, soaking the corn in lye kills the seed’s germ, which keeps it from sprouting while in storage.

Finally, in addition to providing a source of dietary calcium, the lime reacts with the corn so that the nutrient niacin can be assimilated by the digestive tract. While consumption of untreated corn is a risk factor in predisposition to pellagra, as in African countries, the risk is dramatically reduced or eliminated by nixtamalization.

But the Indians had no such chemical knowledge, so who taught them the importance of this treatment? No doubt they learned it by a close observation of nature, and experimentation. The Indians, although not scientists as we would consider today, were however very close students of nature.

David Thompson finally married, at the age of 29. She was a half-breed, barely 14!!

This was also around the time of the introduction of smallpox among the Indians. It was very devastating. One Indian tribe was going to attack another Indian camp, but when they came upon it, they found it full of the sick and dying, who had the small pox. Not having encountered anything like this before, they didn’t think there was any danger, and so promptly plundered the encampment, and took all the blankets and possessions they desired. This proved to be a disastrous move, and the dreadful plague soon broke out in their tribe. But they could not understand how the disease could be transmitted since

“it is not possible for one to give his wound to another”.

Some of the Indians were so afflicted with the itching and burning of the plague, that they would literally throw themselves into the river and drown in attempting to alleviate their suffering.

One other thing I remember was a description of Eagle-trapping by the Indians. They would hide themselves in ditches covered with brush right beside the bait. As the eagle swooped down, they would lunge from their hiding place, grab the eagle by the feet, and dispatch it as quickly as possible. They didn’t have much time to do this, since if the eagle started to fight back, it would be more than a match for the men. The primary purpose in trapping eagles was to get the coveted feathers for the Chief’s royal robes (or those of other dignitaries).

David Thompson had seen the Rockies from afar, and they looked stunningly beautiful, and grander than any hills he had viewed before. This however, was from the safe distance of the Prairie plains. His assessment of their grandeur and beauty quickly changed when he tried to negotiate a difficult and uncharted passage through those ancient hills:

“The scene around us has nothing of the agreeable in it, all nature seems to frown, the mountains are dreary, rude and wild, beyond the power of the pencil.”

They were trying to find that passage to the Pacific through the Rockies. One of their guides was an Indian, who had brought his wife along. During the trip, the Indian guide became very sick. The explorers were shocked to see the wife cut her wrist and drain out a cup of blood for her husband to drink, apparently to alleviate his sickness. The Indian took it gladly, and was surprised to see disgusted looks on the explorers faces. “Why,” he declared, “If she was sick, I would give her my blood to drink also!”

I remember that he used to sign his letters: “Your Humble Servant, David Thompson”. I think that was probably a customary signature in those days, although it is a shame to this generation that such words should seem unusual.