David Thompson was the greatest land geographer who ever lived; and, therefore, one of the greatest scientists. He came to Fort Churchill a 14-year-old boy from a London charity school in 1784. While his greatest work was being done during twenty-eight years, he was never within a thousand miles of any civilized community of five hundred souls. He died in obscure poverty sixty-five years ago and lies in a nameless grave at Montreal. The opening of the memorial museum and hall at Lake Windermere, B.C., is the first public recognition of the debt that civilization owes him, for, though the Thompson River is called after him, a few years ago not one geographical student in a thousand knew anything about him.
With extraordinary accuracy he placed on the map the main routes of natural travel in one million two hundred thousand square miles of Canada and five hundred thousand square miles of the United States; he surveyed the head waters of the Mississippi; he discovered a new route to Lake Athabasca; he opened the first trade between what is now Canada and the territory beyond the Great Divide; he fixed the locations of outstanding geographical points over this vast area with the sureness of an expert astronomer, though he had to learn how to figure with the stars when he was a boy wintering at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River.
His skill won for him the appointment of Astronomer to the Commission which, from 1816 to 1826, delimited the frontier between British North America and the United States. Some of his surveys are included in the official maps now being issued. His "Narrative," published in 1916, is a wonderful story of life in the wilderness and contains very much information of the prehistoric existence of the Indians never given elsewhere. So far as is known, he is the only man who has ever surveyed the Columbia from source to mouth, 1150 miles. His locations are as accurate as others which have been made with the most modern instruments and the most recent almanacs that Government Departments can buy. The record of his work is contained in forty notebooks, which have long been in the possession of the Ontario Government. Their story, for unremitting labor, conscientious devotion to science, and for the unconscious evidence they give of a noble character, so far as a somewhat extensive research enables one to judge, is not equalled by anything that has been left by all the explorers whose names are honored wherever our language is read.
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