David Thompson

Pencil profile sketch of David Thompson. Man in buckskins with long hair, beard and fur hat.
David Thompson

David Thompson passed through the region, now part of Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, almost 190 years ago. Originally from London, England, he came across the Atlantic at the young age of 14 to work for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1784.

The Hudson's Bay Company was a major fur trading organization that was started in 1670. Although at first a monopoly, other Trade organizations started to rise up, such as the French and Scottish Northwest Company. Since the Northwest Company could not get around the fact that the Hudson's Bay people had been granted complete access to all of the water routes into the Hudson's Bay, they cut off the supply of furs before they reached the water. The Hudson's Bay Company eventually started to feel the effects of the Northwest Company (Nor’westers) presence, as they began to spread west.


David Thompson started at the Churchill factory, but was transferred around quite a bit. As the new man and least experienced, he did not get a lot of opportunities to develop his navigational skills. That was until he broke his leg while on his way back from a fur trading expedition at the age of 18. Stuck in bed for months, Thompson practiced his navigational and astronomical calculations and became very good. He also spent time learning the languages of the Native Americans he was trading with.

When his contract with the Hudson's Bay Company ended he decided it was time for a change, and joined their old rivals, the Nor’westers. His theory was that he might have more of a chance to explore and advance in this company. They sent Thompson to Grand Portage, the Northwest Company’s field headquarters on Lake Superior.

He eventually married a young lady named Charlotte Small. She was half Cree Indian, and spoke both the Cree language and English.

In 1804 the United States granted Lewis and Clark full authority to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory and all of the land west of the Mississippi River. This increased Thompson’s desire to explore the other side of the continental divide.

After a couple of false starts, Thompson was finally able to make it across the Rocky Mountains. Thompson began his journey down the Columbia River at the mouth of the Pend Oreille River. By mid June 1811, he had reached mouth of the Colville River as it connects with the Columbia very near the Kettle Falls.

Kettle Falls before Coulee Dam constructed

He saw a lot of activity because it was salmon fishing season. He wrote about how he watched members of the Colville and Spokane Tribes of Indians, with their "big woven baskets at the bottom of the falls…capture fish." He watched for quite a while since the summer fishing season had just begun. He learned, although he never fully understood, about these fish that were supporting hundreds of Native Americans. The Tribes made him realize the importance of these fish to their people. The care they took, and the respect they gave in order to preserve this great resource was remarkable. Some things were new for the Spokane and Colville people too. Although they had heard of other white men who appeared down stream, the well-known explorers Lewis and Clark, David Thompson and his voyagers was the first one they had seen.

Thompson and his small group voyagers started down the Columbia River in order to find a trade path to the Pacific Ocean which would open the area to the fur trade. The landscape that he saw as he traveled was very similar to what we can see today. He saw the forested rocky slopes of the northern region. As he traveled south past the mouth of the Spokane River, he noted the basalt cliffs and the sagebrush country.

With the fast paced current of the Columbia River, it was not easy to stop at every fishing camp along the way, but David Thompson did. He realized that on the way back up river it would be much more difficult to pass unnoticed. One of the experiences he wrote about in his journals was about an occasion when the water was flowing so fast that it took him a half-mile to stop his brigade to meet with a small band of Indians encamped at the bottom of some rapids. This apparently made the chief of that village very angry. According to Thompson, the Chief and an older man, who he described as being able to run almost as fast as the horse, followed him and his crew downstream. The Chief wanted to know who they were and why they were traveling down the river. You can only imagine what this would have been like for Thompson and his men on the way back up stream had they not stopped to introduce themselves on the way down.

Thompson would count the number of people he met at each stop, and multiply that number by seven. This was his method of estimating the actual size of that tribe. Along his journey down the Columbia, Thompson encountered members of the San Poil, Nespelem, Methow, and Wenatchee tribes. They treated his stay with kindness and in a ceremonious fashion. He noted differences, as well as some of the similarities that he saw. This included everything from their style of housing to their dress. For example, Thompson noted that the Nespelem people, "Both men and women wore decorations of brilliant white shells- armbands, bracelets, headbands- and a few had copper baubles hanging from their clothing." Ornaments brought from far away through an active trade relay. They also saw wild mountain sheep and other creatures along their route near the base of the Cascade Mountains.

On July 15, 1811, Thompson had finally reached the Pacific Ocean. This was nearly a thousand miles from where he had originally started. He started heading back upstream as soon as possible. Thompson recorded a Chinook salmon that he saw which was four feet- four inches long, and over two feet around.

Thompson made it back to the Kettle Falls area a few months after his first visit. He was surprised to find that it was deserted. This was now October, and the fishing season had ended. Thompson finally made it back to Montreal, settled down briefly, and went on a few more expeditions, including locating the 49 parallel- the exact border between British Canada and the United States. He did this with remarkable speed and accuracy. Many said that what Thompson was able to do in ten months, should have taken two years. He died on February 10, 1857, at the age of 86.

He kept detailed daily journals of what he did and what he discovered. Most of these journals are in Canada today, and they are not small by any means. Over the years, Thompson filled seventy-seven notebooks, all ten inches wide and fourteen inches tall. He was able to accurately fill in large sections of the maps that had previously been left blank by both the United States and British Canada.

To Learn More about this amazing story go to our Bookstore.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
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Coulee Dam, WA 99116



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