Which is ironic because the English-born explorer/fur trader spent the first half of his life making it.
History, that is.
Thompson’s exploration of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, and of the territories that would later constitute the states of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, helped shape the first maps of the area. His abilities to chart his position, armed with just a sextant, watch and compass, were admirable in that pre-GPS era.
But when he finally quit the field, and went to live his later years near Montreal, Thompson slowly faded from view.
“Like a lot of explorers and heroes, you go through ebbs and flows,” says Spokane historian/author Jack Nisbet. “He lived this very long life, and sort of just ebbed away.”
Nisbet knows a little bit about Thompson. The author of five books, mostly natural histories, Nisbet has spent the last couple of decades studying Thompson and his various feats of exploration – from wintering with members of the Blackfeet tribe to running, and plotting, the entire course of the Columbia River.
Both of those feats are included in Nisbet’s book “Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America,” which is the December reading selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
“Thompson is a window into our landscape that we’re really lucky to have,” Nisbet says.
Born in 1770 in London, Thompson came to North America at age 14. A student of math and basic navigation skills, Thompson was first an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company – the historic organization that virtually, and in some specific areas literally, controlled the lucrative North American fur trade – then its chief rival, the North West Company.
Working his way up the company ladders, Thompson explored the Northwest, meeting and making deals with various tribal leaders. The exchange: goods for furs, especially the beaver pelts that were so popular back in Europe.
But if Thompson were only a businessman, he likely wouldn’t have left such a rich literary legacy. His trail journals, which filled several dozen notebooks, are the kinds of original sources that historians such as Nisbet live to find.
Nisbet, 59, a New York native who grew up in North Carolina, first got interested in Thompson in 1970 when he was writing a column for the Chewelah Independent newspaper. Every time he would look at some document involving Inland Northwest natural history, Thompson’s name would crop up.
“I found out that he had these 101 journals back in eastern Canada that had not been transcribed,” Nisbet says. “That began this endless process of trying to figure him out.”
Those very notebooks almost never saw the light of day. Following Thompson’s death in 1857, one of his 13 children – “a no-good guy,” Nisbet says – sold all of the explorer’s papers to a lawyer. But instead of doing the Thompson biography that he’d planned, the lawyer just sat on the material.
“And they sat in the lawyer’s desk for year and years,” Nisbet says.
A guy named J.B. Tyrell purchased the papers, which Nisbet calls a “miracle.” But even he took the next quarter century to edit the notebooks into something legible (which he finally published in 1916 under the title “David Thompson’s Narrative”).
“The first edition of his autobiography, which is real different from his journals, wasn’t published until World War I,” Nisbet says. “So in the last hundred years he’s gone through a whole other series of ebbs and flows.”
Nisbet’s own attempts at telling Thompson’s story have included their own struggles. For one thing, he says, Thompson “plays his cards very close to the vest. What I knew was the canoe runs and the mountain passes and the landscape of the Inland Northwest, so I limited myself to here.”
Trouble was, Nisbet says, “then he often didn’t say very much about here.”
So Nisbet did his own traveling, visiting many of the same spots that Thompson wrote about, meeting a variety of tribal members, game department employees and others to help him fill in the blank spots. “Sources of the River” introduces us to several of these people, each of whom has something interesting to add.
“You can’t do it without tribal people and without a lot of other kinds of local knowledge because that’s what he was doing as he was traveling around,” Nisbet says. “He was asking for local knowledge.”
That knowledge might have been as lost as Thompson almost was had it not been for the historians, such as Tyrell and Nisbet, who spent years seeking it.
Nisbet considers it all part of telling our common story.
“We live in this place that really hasn’t been explored as much anywhere near as much as it could have,” Nisbet says. “We’re just lucky that this guy came who could express himself and was at Spokane.”