David Thompson: Canada’s Epic Mapmaker

Speaker: Richard van Loon

November 25, 2022 @ 7:30 on Zoom


Between 1797 and 1812, David Thompson travelled over all of western North America from Lake Superior to the headwaters of the Mississippi, to the Athabasca, to James Bay, to the mouth of the Columbia River. In the process, he surveyed, made maps, traded, and kept detailed scientific, but also highly literate journals. The first European into much of the southern Rockies and the mountains and rivers beyond, his relationships with First Nations were unparalleled. With them, he travelled paths of stunning difficulty, and beauty. And for parts of this odyssey he was accompanied by his Cree-Metis wife, Charlotte Small and several young children. 

When his travels began, the Northwest was largely unmapped. When he retired to the east and completed his maps they were the standard until the turn of the 20th century.

Yet he died in obscurity, was initially buried in a pauper’s grave and was forgotten for nearly half a century.

That has all changed. He is now the subject of at least 16 biographies. He is revered particularly in Alberta and the American Northwest. His Great Map of the West covers a whole wall in the reading room of the Ontario Archives. He is widely acknowledged as North America’s greatest geographer.

How this all happened is our tale.

Richard van Loon

Richard Van Loon is past president of Carleton University and past chair of the Council of Ontario Universities. He holds a BSc in chemistry and an MA in political science from Carleton and a PhD in political studies from Queen’s University.

He joined Carleton in 1970 as assistant professor of political science and has held faculty positions in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton where he is now professor emeritus and in the Faculty of Administration at the University of Ottawa. He was associate deputy minister of Health Canada and of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and held several assistant deputy minister positions in the Canadian federal government. He was the first Carleton alumnus to become president of the university.

Dr. Van Loon’s current research interests include federal-provincial relations, particularly related to post-secondary education, quality assurance and institutional structure in post-secondary education as well as the history of the Ottawa River and of First Nation/fur trader relations.

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