The Man Who Beat Lewis & Clark to the Pacific by 2 Centuries

Roundup: Talking About History

James MacPherson, Associate Press writer, in Newsday (Aug. 29, 2004):

Two centuries ago, before Lewis and Clark went in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean, David Thompson paddled the Columbia River, worked to establish a trading alliance with Mandan Indians and made maps of North America that ultimately became the guide for explorers who followed him.

A British-born fur trader, Thompson traveled more than 50,000 miles across North America. He learned native languages, made celestial observations, counted aboriginal populations and documented his discoveries in journals flourished with his own sketches.

A monument near this now-abandoned town commemorates the man historians believe to be one of the greatest explorers of North America. His name is inscribed on the pedestal of a 6-foot-high granite globe on the hilly banks of the Souris River.

But while the route of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark is full of visitors, the path leading to the Thompson memorial is nearly untrodden. The memorial, one of 56 state historic sites in North Dakota, goes unnoticed, except by bees that buzz the site from a nearby apiary.

It is "one of the oddest and most forlorn historical monuments in this part of the country," said Tom Isern, a professor of history at North Dakota State University. "(Thompson) is not in the popular consciousness of the people of North Dakota whatsoever, or most anyone else for that matter."

The rare visitor to the memorial learns that the geographer and astronomer passed through in 1797 and 1798 and is credited with mapping more than 1.2 million square miles of North America. His map of the Canadian west measures 10 feet by 7 feet.

"Thompson traveled farther and knew more than anyone else of that time," said Toronto-based writer D'Arcy Jenish. "He had a mind like a search engine."

Jenish said Thompson mapped most of the country west of Hudson Bay and Lake Superior to the Columbia River's source, and the length of the river to the Pacific Ocean.

"He was the first white person to paddle the entire Columbia River, and he was probably the first person, period," said Jenish, whose biography of Thompson, called "Epic Wanderer," was first published in Canada last year.

Thompson could become less obscure this summer, with the U.S. publication of the book. ...

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