- Also check our best rated Biography reviews
Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West Hardcover – 1 Oct 2003
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
The book moves steadily through Thompson's early days at the Hudson's Bay Company's trading posts where he learned his surveying skills, then changed to employment with the rival North West Company. From this time until he left the fur trade, Thompson made numerous overland journeys exploring the great wilderness areas of the North West territories. His epic journey to the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, and the return trip with news of Jacob Astor's trading post there, would make an almost unbelievable novel.
I can recommend 'Epic Wanderer' to any who want to know how life was lived in early 18th century Canada amongst the incredibly hardy people who made their living from the fur trade.
My only regret is the poor quality of the reproductions of Thompson's writings and especially of his maps. These are mostly in shades of dark grey on slightly lighter grey, and are almost impossible to read without magnification. With the easy availability of programs for copying manuscripts, it should have been easy to make these legible. Even if that had been impossible, good reproductions would have been much more preferable than the dingy originals shown in the book. This is the only criticism I have of an otherwise splendid book and the reason I give it only 4 stars.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
For nearly 30 years he worked for the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-west Company, the two great fur-trading companies of the era in the northern part of North America. At the age of 14, he was transplanted from London to the bleak, treeless, windswept shores of Hudson's Bay, there to serve out his seven years apprenticeship at a fur-trading post. He somehow survived the wrenching transition, avoided hungry polar bears, learned French and at least a couple of Indian languages, and mastered the business of fur-trading as well as the art of surveying.
The maps he created in the early 19th century were so accurate that they were still in use at the end of the century, despite the immensely greater resources available to the government surveyors who followed him. He also, after he retired as a fur-trader, worked as the chief surveyor for the British as part of the US-British boundary commission that defined much of the border of Canada and the US after the War of 1812. He was one of the greatest map-makers of his time.
He was also a man of interesting character, working in a very rough wilderness well beyond the bounds of urban civilization or any kind of government. He was very religious. He married an Indian woman when he was 29 and she was 13, had 10 children with her, and stayed with her until he died at the age of 80, despite the prejudices of pioneer society. He opposed the alcohol trade that was destroying so many Indian tribes and refused to deal in it. He worked extraordinarily hard, away from his family for a year or more at a time. Even in his old age he continued working, writing a several hundred pages-long Narrative of his travels and explorations, which was only published decades after his death.
The author of this biography, D'Arcy Jenish, does an excellent job of weaving all this material together in a way that is always interesting and often compelling. Ironically, if I have one complaint, it is this: a book about a map-maker should have a lot more maps in it! The only way to follow Thompson's progress is to sit with the book in hand and an atlas open in your lap. This is a pretty major failing for the book, but if you an atlas with a decently detailed map of the Canadian west and of the US north-west, you will do fine.
Parts of David Thompson's long life are enigmatic and seemingly contradictory. "Epic Wanderer" is a journalistic account of the known facts. It is not as insightful as "Sources of the River," the book that has emerged as the definitive account of Thompson's northwest explorations. However, "Epic Wanderer" does provide a more complete account of David Thompson's life after he left the active fur trade and settled in the vicinity of Montreal. Since Thompson died in 1857, this eastern experience represents more than half his life. During that time, Thompson experienced considerable success in several endeavors, but a financial collapse left him and his wife to die in poverty.
David Thompson was a skilled surveyor. His maps were more accurate than those of his contemporaries. Overlooked by those who focus on his contributions to western expansion is the fact that before and after his time in the Northwest, he made important surveys on the eastern border between British Canada and the United States. The first period was as an employee of the North West Fur Company. The second was an official survey conducted jointly by the two countries.
Because David Thompson was a contemporary of Lewis and Clark, today's writers often compare them. This is only partially valid. The latter was a military expedition of exploration that spent only a few months west of the Continental Divide. David Thompson was a fur trader working for a commercial company and spent five years criss-crossing the area. He had the desire and talent to explore, but trading had to come first. As he advanced his trading territory, his journals recorded an expanding knowledge of the territory and its inhabitants, plants, and animals. Thompson's maps are much more accurate than those developed by Lewis and Clark, partially because he had more time to refine them.
As intriguing as Thompson himself, is the fur trade itself and the native peoples involved. Thompson was very dependent on the local natives who guided him, aided him in establishing trading posts, and helped him expand his trade. Charlotte Small, Thompson's wife for 57 years, was half Cree. Together they bridged a period of European-Indigenous relationship that is the subject of intensive research today.