Category: Explorer or adventurer
David Thompson is one of the most remarkable figures in Canadian history. His origins were humble, his career varied. He was a fur trader, an explorer, a surveyor, a mapmaker and an entrepreneur. He experienced triumph and failure, affluence and poverty, comfort and hardship. He died penniless and obscure in 1857 and remained unknown to the Canadian public until the publication, in 1916, of David Thompson's Narrative, his account of the twenty-eight years (1784-1812) he spent roaming the Canadian West.
At one stage Thompson, then a relatively junior member of the group led by George Hudson and his company, found himself in Cumberland, an extremely remote outpost.
Thompson remained at Cumberland in the summer of 1787 with three other servants while William Tomison led the annual brigade of canoes down to York Factory with a cargo of furs. He helped the men set the nets and take them. He became adept at making and repairing nets and learned to extract oil from the sturgeon, which was used to light the lamps at night. He was an enthusiastic apprentice who quickly mastered these tasks and other skills necessary to become a successful trader.
In his leisure hours, he yearned to read, but there were no books at Cumberland, not even a Bible, and for this he blamed the master, George Hudson, like himself a former student at Grey Coat School. Hudson had entered the service in 1775 at age thirteen, and had been in charge at Cumberland since 1781. The years of isolation at the wilderness post had, in Thompson's opinion, sorely affected his character. He smoked tobacco mixed with weed, and he never exercised. He kept the post journal and accounts, but writing was a struggle. He rarely conversed with the men, and provided almost nothing that might keep them entertained in their spare time.
The only diversion was a checkerboard, and Thompson played often. If he could not coax one of the others to sit for a game, he would play both sides himself, and this led to a strange experience, one that he would never forget.
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