Dakota Datebook

David Thompson

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

It was on this date in 1797 that David Thompson arrived at the Knife River villages of the Hidatsa Indians near present-day Stanton. Thompson had tremendous endurance, covering more than 55,000 miles during his life-long explorations. He was also outgoing, somewhat homely, godly and intelligent, with black hair and ruddy cheeks.

Thompson was born in England in 1770. His father died when he was only 3, leaving the family poverty-stricken. Educated in a charity school for boys, he was apprenticed to the Hudson’s Bay Company when he was 14. In Canada, he learned to survey and map wilderness areas using a sextant, compass and astronomical instruments.

The Piegan Indians called him Koo-Koo-Sint, the Looker at Stars, because of calculations he made after dark. Thompson forged solid friendships with the First Nations and despised the trading of liquor to them. When he was once forced to deliver a keg of whiskey to a tribe, he strapped it to his most spirited horse so that it would arrive in splinters.

In 1979, Thompson went to work for the Northwest Fur Company to find the 49th parallel and the source of the Mississippi River, and to make contact with the Mandan Indians. Thompson began his mission on November 28th with a crew of ten men and goods loaded on sleds drawn by dogs he bought from the Assiniboines.

The party was hit with vicious winter conditions, with blizzards and temperatures as cold as 37 below. Thompson one night wrote, “Having no provisions, part of the men went hunting and managed to kill an old buffalo bull who preferred fighting to running away. After boiling a piece of it for three hours, it was still too tough to be eaten but by those who have sharp teeth.”

They traveled through the Turtle Mountains and along rivers that would provide shelter and fuel, but on Christmas Eve, they were forced to camp in snowdrifts at Dog Den Butte to evade a hostile band of Sioux. With the temperature at 17 below that night, Thompson’s fingers froze.

They arrived at the Knife River villages five days later. The trip had taken a month.

Thompson stayed in the comfort of the Mandan earth lodges for 10 days before facing the brutal return trip. He used the time to survey and make important observations and notes.

After the trip, Thompson made the first map of North Dakota, which was invaluable to future explorers like Lewis and Clark. Using his own notes, and those of other explorers, he also created the first reliable map of Canada and northern United States. Although he is now considered the greatest geographer of the New World, he didn’t receive due credit during his own lifetime.

After retiring, Thompson’s generosity toward his community and his 13 children drained him of his life’s savings. He died, destitute and blind, near Montreal in 1857. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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