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Thompson and the Astorians

While Fraser was working down the wild canyons of the great river which now bears his name, other fur traders were looking towards the Pacific Ocean. In 1810 John Jacob Astor, a New York merchant, who bought furs from the Nor'westers in Montreal for shipment to Germany, formed the Pacific Fur Company, and took into its service a number of the partners and servants of the North West Company. Some of these men were dispatched round the Horn in the Tonquin to the mouth of the Columbia; while another party went overland from Mackinaw and St Louis, following the trail of Lewis and Clark. One of the Nor'westers who entered Astor's service was Alexander Mackay, Mackenzie's companion on the journey to the coast; another was a brother of the Stuart who had accompanied Fraser through New Caledonia; and a third was a brother of the M'Dougall who commanded Fort M'Leod, the first fort built by the Nor'westers in New Caledonia.

In the light of subsequent developments, it is a matter for speculation whether these Nor'westers joined Astor purposely to overthrow his scheme in the interests of their old company; or were later bribed to desert him; or, as is most likely, simply grew dissatisfied with the inexperienced, blundering mismanagement of Astor's company, and reverted gladly to their old service. However that may have been, it is certain that the North-West Company did not fail to take notice of the plans that Astor had set afloat for the Pacific fur trade; for in a secret session of the partners, at Fort William on Lake Superior, 'it was decided in council that the Company should send to Columbia River, where the Americans had established Astoria, and that a party should proceed overland to the coast.'

It puzzled the Nor'westers to learn that the river Fraser had explored in 1808 was not the Columbia. Where, then, were the upper reaches of the great River of the West which Gray and Vancouver had reported? The company issued urgent instructions to its traders in the Far West to keep pushing up the North and South Saskatchewan, up the Red Deer, up the Bow, up the Athabaska, up the Smoky, up the Pembina, and to press over the mountains wherever any river led ocean wards through the passes. This duty of finding new passable ways to the sea was especially incumbent on the company's surveyor and astronomer, David Thompson. He was formerly of the Hudson's Bay Company, but had come over to the Nor'westers, and in their service had surveyed from the Assiniboine to the Missouri and from Lake Superior to the Saskatchewan.

Towards the spring of 1799 Thompson had been on the North Saskatchewan and had moved round the region of Lesser Slave Lake. That year, at Grand Portage, at the annual meeting of the traders of the North-West Company, he was ordered to begin a thorough exploration of the mountains; and the spring of 1800 saw him at Rocky Mountain House1, on the upper reaches of the North Saskatchewan above the junction of the Clearwater. Hitherto the Nor'westers had crossed the mountains by way of the Peace River. But Thompson was to explore a dozen new trails across the Great Divide. While four of his men crossed over to the Red Deer River and rafted or canoed down the South Saskatchewan, Thompson himself, with five French Canadians and two Indian guides, crossed the mountains to the Kootenay country. The Kootenay Indians were encamped on the Kootenay plains preparatory to their winter's hunt, and Thompson persuaded some of them to accompany him back over the mountains to Rocky Mountain House on the North Saskatchewan. This was the beginning of the trade between the Kootenays and white men. Probably from these Indians Thompson learned of the entrance to the Rockies by the beautiful clear mountain stream now named the Bow; and Duncan M'Gillivray, a leading partner, accompanied him south from Rocky Mountain House to the spot on the Bow where today the city of Calgary stands. It was on this trip that Nor'westers first met the Piegan Indians. From these horsemen of the plains the explorers learned that it was only a ten day journey overland to the Missouri. Snow was falling when the traders entered the Rockies at what is now the Gap, on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Inside the gateway to the rugged defile of forest and mountain the traders reveled in the sublime scenery of the Banff valley. At Banff, eastward of Cascade mountain, on the sheltered plain where Kootenays and Stonies used to camp, one can still find the circular mounds that mark a trading station of this era. Whether the white men discovered the beautiful blue tarn now known as Devil's Lake, or saw the Bow River falls, where tourists today fish away long summer afternoons, or dipped in the famous hot springs on the slope of Sulphur Mountain, we do not know. They could hardly have met and conversed with the Kootenays and Stonies without hearing about these attractions, which yearly drew Indian families to camp in the encircling mountains, while the men ranged afield to hunt.

Thompson and M'Gillivray were back at Rocky Mountain House on the Saskatchewan for Christmas. Sometime during 1800 their French Canadian voyageurs are known to have crossed Howse Pass, the source of the North Saskatchewan, which was discovered by Duncan M'Gillivray and named after Joseph Howse of the North-West Company.

For several years after this Thompson was engaged in making surveys for the North-West Company in the valley of the Peace river and between the Saskatchewan and the Churchill. In 1806 we find him in the country south of the Peace, which was then in charge of that Jules Quesnel who was to accompany Fraser in 1808. Fraser, as we have seen, was already busy exploring the region between M'Leod Lake and Stuart Lake, and had laid his plans to descend the great river which he thought was Gray's Columbia. Now, while Thompson spent the winter of 18067 between the Peace and the North Saskatchewan, trading and exploring, he doubtless learned of Fraser's explorations west of the Rockies and of the vast extent of New Caledonia; and June 1807 saw him over the mountains on the Kootenay plains, where to his infinite delight he came upon a turbulent river, whose swollen current flowed towards the Pacific. 'May God give me to see where its waters flow into the ocean,' he ejaculated. This was, however, but a tributary of the long sought Columbia. It was the river now called the Blaeberry. Thompson followed down the banks of this stream by a well known Indian trail, and on June 30 he came to the Columbia itself. Although the river here flowed to the north, he must have known, from the deposits of blue silt and the turgidity of the current, that he had found at least an upper reach of the River of the West; but he could hardly guess that its winding course would lead him a dance of eleven hundred miles before he should reach the sea.

The party camped and built the boats they needed, and a fortnight later they were poling upstream to the lake we today know as Windermere, where Thompson built a fort which he called 'Kootenai.' Here he spent the winter trading, and when the warm Chinook winds cleared away the snows, in April 1808, about the time Fraser was preparing to descend the Fraser River, he paddled upstream to where the Columbia River has its source in Upper Columbia Lake. A portage of about a mile and a half brought him to another large river, which flowed southward. This stream - the Kootenay - led him south into the country of the Flatheads, then made a great bend and swept to the north. This was disappointing. Thompson returned to his fort on Windermere Lake, packed the furs his men had gathered, and retraced his trail of the previous year to Rocky Mountain House. He had undoubtedly found the River of the West, but he had learned nothing of its course to the sea.

During nearly all of 1809 Thompson was exploring the Kootenay River and its branches through Idaho and Montana. Still no path had he found to the sea. In 1810 he seems to have gone east for instructions from his company. What the instructions were we may conjecture from subsequent developments. Astor of New York, as we have seen, was busy launching his fur traders for operations on the Pacific. Piegan warriors blocked the passage into the Rockies by the North Saskatchewan; so Thompson in the autumn of this year ascended the Athabaska. Winter came early. The passes were filled with snow and beset by warriors. He failed to get provisions down from Rocky Mountain House; and his men, cut off by hostile savages from all help from outside posts, had literally to cut and shovel their way through Athabaska Pass while subsisting on short rations. The men built huts in the pass; some hunted, while others made snowshoes and sleighs. They were down to rations of dog meat and moccasins, and hardly knew whether to expect death at the hands of raiding Piegans or from starvation. On New Year's Day of 1811, when the thermometer dropped to 24 below zero, with a biting wind, Thompson was packing four broken down horses and two dogs over the pass to the west side of the Great Divide. The mountains rose precipitously on each side; but when the trail began dropping down westward, the weather moderated, though the snow grew deeper; and in the third week of January Thompson came on the baffling current of the Columbia. He camped there for the remainder of the winter, near the entrance of the Canoe River. Why he went up the Columbia in the spring, tracing it back to its source, and thence south again into Idaho, instead of rounding the bend and going down the river, we do not know. He was evidently puzzled by the contrary directions in which the great river seemed to flow. At all events, by a route which is not clearly known, Thompson struck the Spokane River in June 181 1, near the site of the present city of Spokane; and following down the Spokane, he again found the elusive Columbia and embarked on its waters. At the mouth of the Snake River, on July 9, he erected a pole, on which he hoisted a flag and attached a sheet of paper claiming possession of the country for Great Britain and the North- West Company. A month later, when Astor's traders came upstream from the mouth of the Columbia, they were amazed to find a British flag 'waving triumphantly ' at this spot. Unfortunately, Thompson's claim ignored the fact that both Lewis and Clark and the Astorians had already passed this way on their overland route to the Pacific.

From this point Thompson evidently raced for the Pacific. Within a week he had passed the Dalles, passed the mouth of the Willamette, passed what was to become the site of the Hudson's Bay Company's post of Fort Vancouver; and at midday of Monday, July 15, he swept round a bend of the mighty stream and came within sight of the sea. Crouched between the dank, heavy forests and the heaving river floods, stood a little palisaded and fresh hewn log fur post - Astoria. Thompson was two months too late to claim the region of the lower Columbia for the Nor'westers. One can imagine the wild halloo with which the tired voyageurs greeted Astoria when their comrades of old from Athabaska came tumbling hilariously from the fort gates - M'Dougall of Rocky Mountain House, Stuart of Chipewyan, and John Clarke, whom Thompson had known at Isle a la Crosse. But where was Alexander Mackay, who had gone overland with Mackenzie in 1793? The men fell into one another's arms with gruff, profane embraces. Thompson was haled in to a sumptuous midday dinner of river salmon, duck and partridge, and wines brought round the world. The absence of Mackay was the only thing that took from the pleasure of the occasion.

A party of the Astorians, as we have seen, had sailed round the Horn on the Tonquin; another party had gone overland from Mackinaw and St Louis. On the Tonquin were twenty sailors, four partners, twelve clerks, and thirteen voyageurs. She sailed from New York in September 1810. Jonathan Thorn, the captain, was a retired naval officer, who resented the easy familiarity of the fur traders with their servants, and ridiculed the seasickness of the freshwater voyageurs. The Tonquin had barely rounded the Horn before the partners and the commander were at sixes and sevens. A landing was made at the mouth of the Columbia in March 1811, and eight lives were lost in an attempt to head small boats up against the tiderip of river and sea. After endless jangling about where to land, where to build, how to build, the rude fort which Thompson saw had been knocked together. The Tonquin sailed up the coast of Vancouver Island to trade. On the vessel went Alexander Mackay to help in the trade with the coastal Indians, whom he was supposed to know. In spite of Mackay's warning that the Nootka tribes were notoriously treacherous and resentful towards white traders. Captain Thorn with lordly indifference permitted them to swarm aboard his vessel. Once when Mackay had gone ashore at Clayoquot, where Gray had wintered twenty years before. Thorn, forgetting that his ship was not a training school, struck an old chief across the face and threw him over the rail. When Mackay heard what had happened, instead of applauding the captain's valor, he showed the utmost alarm, and begged Thorn to put out for the open sea. The captain smiled in scorn. Twenty Indians were welcomed on the deck the very next day. More came. At the same time the vessel was completely surrounded by a fleet of canoes. As if to throw the white men off all suspicion, the squaws came paddling out, laughing and chatting. Mackay in horror noticed that in the barter all the Indians were taking knives for their furs, and that groups were casually stationing themselves at points of vantage on the deck - at the hatches, at the cabin door, along the taffrail. Mackay hurried to the captain. Thorn affected to ignore any danger, but he nevertheless ordered the anchors up. Seeing so many Indians still on board, the sailors hesitated. Thorn lost his head and uttered a shout. This served as a signal for the savages, who shrieked with derisive glee and fell upon the crew with knives, hatchets, and clubs. Down the companionway tumbled the ship's clerk, Lewis, stabbed in the back. Over the taffrail headlong fell Mackay, clubbed by the Indians aboard, caught on the knives of the squaws below. The captain was so unprepared for the attack that he had no weapon but his pocketknife. He was stunned by a club, pitched overboard, and literally cut to pieces by the squaws. In a moment the Tonquin was a shambles. All on deck were slaughtered but four, who gained the main cabin, and with muskets aimed through windows scattered the yelling horde. The Indians sprang from the ship and drew off, while the four white survivors escaped in a boat, and the Tonquiri's sails flapped idly in the wind. Next morning the Indians paddled out to plunder what seemed to be a deserted ship. A wounded white man appeared above the hatches and waved them to come on board and trade. They came in hosts, in hordes, in flocks, like carrion birds or ants overrunning a half dead thing. Suddenly earth and air at Clayoquot harbor were rent with a terrific explosion, and the sea was drenched with the blood of the slaughtered savages. The only remaining white man, the wounded Lewis, had blown up the powder magazine. He perished himself in order to punish the marauders.

Had this story been known at Astoria when Thompson arrived, he would have found the Astorians in a thoroughly dejected condition. As it was, murmurs of discontent were heard. Here they had been marooned on the Columbia for three months without a ship, waiting for the contingent of the Astorians who were toiling across the continent2. Not thus did Nor'westers conduct expeditions. What Thompson thought of the situation we do not know. All we do know is that he remained only a week. On July 22, fully provisioned by M'Dougall, he went back up the Columbia posthaste.

One year later we find Thompson at Fort William reporting the results of his expedition to the assembled directors of the North West Company. He had surveyed every part of the Columbia from its source to its mouth. And he was the first white man on its upper waters.

The War of 1812 had begun, and a British warship was on its way to capture Astoria. At the same time the Nor'westers dispatched an overland expedition to the Columbia. Among their emissaries went the men of New Caledonia, Alexander Henry (the younger) of Rocky Mountain House, Donald M'Tavish, and a dozen others who were former comrades of the leading Astorians. They succeeded in their mission, and in the month of October 1 813 Astor's fort was sold to the North West Company and renamed Fort George.

The methods of fur traders have been the same the world over: to frighten a rival off the ground if possible; if not, then to buy him off. It is not all surmise to suppose that when Thompson was sent to the Pacific there was in view some other purpose than merely to survey an unknown river. But exploration and the fur trade went hand in hand; and whatever the motives may have been, the result was that, after more than four years of arduous toil, Thompson had given to commerce a great waterway. His exploration of the Columbia closes the period of discovery on the Pacific coast.


1. To explain what may appear like a confusion of names, it may be stated that in the history of the fur trade from 1800 to 1850 there were at various stages as many as sixteen differently situated fur posts under the name of Rocky Mountain House.

2. The overland party suffered the greatest hardship and some loss of life, and did not arrive at Astoria till January 1812.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Pioneers of the Pacific Coast, A Chronicle Of Sea Rovers And Fur Hunters, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto. Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915


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