Maps and Mammoths

Page 5 of 5


Map of North America from 84° West to the Pacific

Sheet 7 (detail)

To see labels, point to the map.

interactive map describing locations explored by David Thompson

Public Record Office, Kew, England FO 925/4622, 10 sheets.

After David Thompson returned to Montreal in summer 1812, he was 42 years old; although he pursued an active life for three more decades, he never traveled west of Lake of the Woods again. But the Columbia District remained on his mind, and he revisited it constantly as he worked his meticulous survey books into five great maps of western North America.

The first two of these large charts were undertaken for the North West Company, and Thompson completed them in 1814—exactly the year that William Clark finished his own large map of the American West that hangs today in Yale's Beinecke Library. Both men created fascinating documents, seminal to their times. Clark's was highly accurate along the line of exploration traveled by the Corps. To the north of the Columbia and Snake confluence, his great map showed his limited understanding of the upper Columbia as a rough arc that encompassed major tributaries and lakes mentioned to him by tribal informants.

Thompson also made use of tribal information on his maps, but within the North West Company circle of trade, his many return trips and use of multiple informants allowed him to achieve a finer level of detail. Outside of the circle, Thompson was able to incorporate the work of his mentors Philip Turnor and Alexander Mackenzie, as well as his peers John Stuart, Simon Fraser, Peter Fidler, and William Clark himself to flesh out the Athabasca, Saskatchewan, Peace, Fraser, Missouri, and Columbia River drainages in the first accurate chart of this whole vast region.

The North West Company partners hung one of Thompson's first two maps in the dining hall of their Lake Superior headquarters, where westward-leaning furmen and adventurers like Ross Cox could relive their travels or dream of journeys to come.

At the upper end of the hall is a very large map of the Indian country, drawn with great accuracy by Mr. David Thompson, astronomer to the Company, and comprising all their trading posts, from Hudson's Bay to the Pacific Ocean, and from Lake Superior to Athabasca and Great Slave Lake.1

Even after he delivered these charts, Thompson did not stop thinking about the West. Around 1816, while working as chief surveyor for the International Boundary Commission on lines through the Great Lakes region, he sent an atlas prospective to a London publisher visualizing four 4' x 10' sheets that would lay geological, topographical, natural history, and tribal information over the territory covered by his original large maps. Although the proposal was turned down, Thompson doggedly pursued different versions of his idea over the next quarter-century. Convinced that accurate cartographic work should be an essential element in the boundary delineation between Great Britain and the United States west of the Continental Divide, he dispatched versions of his new maps to London in 1823 and again in 1843. Boundary negotiators apparently ignored them, and Thompson's vision of a border that ran from the 49th to the 47th parallel along the Continental Divide, cut west to the juncture of the Columbia River near modern Vantage, Washington, then followed the middle of river's course to the Pacific, was never realized.

The most complete of Thompson's charts, called "Map of North America from 84∫ West to the Pacific Ocean," was far ahead of its time in the way it layered information onto accurate river courses and watersheds. Prominent among its features are traditional tribal names for creeks and rivulets that feed the major rivers; descriptions of landscape and ethnographic features carefully inked into place; dotted lines for tribal routes that connected different drainages; and a bold yellow line that traced the route of his fellow explorers, Lewis and Clark, on their own journey to the Great River of the West.


Even as Thompson's travels intertwined with those of the American captains, the influence of Thompson Jefferson continued to hover over them all, interlacing the disciplines of human and natural history, bold exploration and careful observation, science and storytelling. Jefferson had placed fossil-finding, with a particular eye for mammoth remains, high on his Corps of Discovery instruction list. Meriwether Lewis even stopped on his way down the Ohio River to collect fossils from a famous sinkhole called Big Bone Lick, which he tried to send back to Jefferson. New country and the rigors of their journey might have blunted the captains' enthusiasm, but William Clark did pick at his famous fossil rib along the Yellowstone during the latter stages of their return journey. A few years before the Corps embarked, David Thompson had been told to search for fossils in the Prairies, and he also wondered about a large bone he saw on the Peace River. Neither explorer was able to incorporate such relics into their larger world view in the way that Jefferson did, but a series of incidents in the northern Rockies forced Thompson to confront what they might mean.

During Thompson's first fall and winter at his Kootanae House post at Lake Windermere, British Columbia, he became acquainted with an elder he called "the Old Chief." In Thompson's field journal entry for September 28th, 1807, the surveyor wrote that

The Old Chief & others related that in the Woods of the Mountains there is a very large Animal, of abt the height of 3 fms [fathoms] & great bulk that never lies down, but in sleeping always leans against a large Tree to support his weight; they believe, they say, that he has no joints in the mid of his Legs, but they are not sure as they never killed any of them, &  by this acct they are rarely or never seen.2

Thompson recorded many tribal tales during his time in the fur business, and he didn't put any particular stock in the truth of the Old Chief's tale—"this is no doubt some Animal of their Nurses Fables, as they cannot say they ever saw the least remains of a dead one"—but the size, the bulk, the tree-leaning, and even the odd idea of kneeless legs all contain whiffs of mammoth lore. In fact, an early English Bestiary that Thompson might have seen at the Gray Coat School described African elephants as jointless beasts that leaned against trees to sleep.3

In January, 1811, during his first crossing of Athabasca Pass, Thompson's party came across a long line of outsized tracks in the snow, which he dutifully measured at eight by fourteen inches. His mixed-blood hunters insisted these were mammoth tracks, but Thompson decided they more likely belonged to an old grizzly bear that had worn its claws off.

When Thompson recrossed the pass that fall, he recalled the tracks and listened to his men.

October 6 The Mountain close to the Campmt [encampment] where I observed is said to have a large Lake on its top where there are several of those large unknown Animals. They are said to live on Roots, Moss, &c &c. but nothing as yet appears of their being carnivorous.4

Although these journal entries have been cited in cryptozoology articles as early evidence of a sasquatch, David Thompson and his men were thinking only of elephants. When Thompson wrote his autobiographical Travels thirty years later, he fleshed out both the winter and fall incidents with his own conjectures. Familiar with recent Siberian findings of whole mammoth remains, he wondered if so grand an animal might really live in the Rockies. He emphasized that the men who had told him about the beast were trusted veterans of mountain crossings who believed what they were saying. He described large bones that had been found in the eastern United States, and connected the veneration of such bones with the Osage Indians, as if he was familiar with Lewis and Clark's attempt to collect such artifacts from Kentucky.

Although Thompson still insisted he thought the large tracks on Athabasca Pass belonged to an outsized grizzly bear, he proceeded to retell a Delaware Indian story about large, mammoth-like beasts in eastern North America. These mammoths wreaked havoc until a great spirit named Kee che Kee hurled Thunder at them, killing all but one large male who escaped to the far west. The tribe and the story line appear to be lifted directly from the pages of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1783 and widely popular among natural history enthusiasts.5 Thompson ended his version of the Delaware story with musings that sound a little like the mentor that he never met, a true traveler speaking to his armchair companion.

The circumstantial evidence of the existence of this animal is sufficient, but notwithstanding the many months the Hunters have traversed this extent of country in all directions, and this Animal having never been seen, there is no direct evidence of it's existence, yet when I think of all I have seen and heard, if put on my oath, I could neither assert, nor deny, it's existence; for many hundreds of miles of the Rocky Mountains are yet unknown, and through the defiles by which we pass, distant one hundred and twenty miles from each other, we hasten our march as much as possible.6

The Pine Creek Mammoth Skull

found near Rosalia, Washington, 1876

sketch of a mammoth skull with broken tusks

Museum of Natural History, New York #8681

Thompson went on to remark on the absolute lack of large fossil bones in the Columbia country, and wondered why the East could be so rich and the West so barren in this respect. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps, would simply have responded that he wasn't looking hard enough.

As soon as homesteaders arrived to break ground in the Inland Northwest,  big bones began to rise from the earth. In 1876, two brothers near Rosalia, Washington—on a farm not far off the tribal trail David Thompson used to make his way from the Snake River to the Kettle Falls in summer 1811—wrested an 800-pound fossilized skull from a spring behind their house. The relic ended up in the American Museum of Natural History, where taxonomists used it to define the species Mamuthus columbi, Columbia mammoth. It took some time, but the new name has finally overtaken the former common designation of Jefferson's mammoth.7


Primary Sources

Journals. David Thompson Collection. Archives of Ontario F443, Toronto. (cited as "AO journals").

Notebooks, David Thompson Collection, Archives of Ontario, Toronto.

Travels. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Other Sources

Bedini, Silvio A. Thomas Jefferson, Statesman of Science. New York, McMillan, 1990.

Belyea, Barbara (ed.) Columbia Journals/David Thompson. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1994.

Fidler, Peter. "Journal." Hudson's Bay Company Archives. Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Jackson, Donald (ed.) Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents 1783-1854, 2. vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Jenish, Darcy. Epic Wanderer: David Thompson & the Mapping of the Canadian West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1784.

Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.

LaRocque, François-Antoine. "The Missouri Journal, 1804-05." In L.R. Masson (ed.) Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Oest, 2 vols. (1889). New York:  Antiquarian Press, 1960 [reprint].

McGillivray, Duncan. Medical Repository VI, 1803.

Mackenzie, Alexander. The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Ed. by W. Kaye Lamb. Toronto: Macmillan, 1970.

Moureau, William. The Writings of David Thompson. 3 vols. Toronto: McGill-Queens University Press and Seattle: University of Washington Press (in press).

Nisbet, Jack. Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson across Western North America. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994

________. Visible Bones. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2003.

________. The Mapmaker's Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005.

Vancouver, George. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, 1791-95, 4 vols. Ed. by W. Kaye Lamb. London: Hakluyt Society, 1984.

1. Ross Cox, The Columbia River, ed. Edgar I. and Ann R. Stewart (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957), 332. For an impression of the imposing size of Thompson's map (c. 96 x 84 inches), see above, The Mapmaker's Eye

2. Barbara Belyea, ed., Columbia Journals: David Thompson (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), 70.

3. Oliver Rackham, Cambridge University, personal correspondence with the author.

4. AO Journal 27, October 6, 1811.

5. Jack Nisbet, Visible Bones, 70-91.

6. David Thompson, Travels, iii.307.

7. Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998), 43-44.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program