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David Thompson: Western Explorer

Via Editors
Jack Nisbet, author and Western explorer expert, image
Photo caption
Jack Nisbet has written two books on Thompson.

Jack Nisbet doesn't just live in the Pacific Northwest. He is a leading expert on the region's first European explorers, and particularly on David Thompson, a British Canadian fur trader and geographer who in the early 1800s claimed for the crown parts of what are now Idaho, Montana, and Washington. This year marks the bicentennial of Thompson's first look at the headwaters of the Columbia River and the reissue of Nisbet's landmark 1994 book Sources of the River. For more details, go to

Q We all know about Lewis and Clark, but who was David Thompson?
A He was the first European to follow the Columbia River from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. He mapped large areas of Canada and the Pacific Northwest, then called the Oregon Territory.

Q The Oregon Territory?
A That was the area of disputed land north of California and west of the Continental Divide. Both the United States and Great Britain, even Spain and Russia, were trying to claim certain parts of it. Thompson's proposal for the boundary was ultimately rejected; more land went to the United States than to Canada.

Q What was he like?
A He traveled for nearly 30 years throughout what was then wilderness, trading with Native peoples, and nobody got hurt. He spoke several Indian languages and left detailed records of the lives and beliefs of various tribes.

Q His most enduring legacy?
A His precise maps of western Canada and the northwestern United States. And he brought many different peoples together. Some surnames on his payroll can still be found around the Northwest.

Q What's up for his bicentennial?
A The Mapmaker's Eye exhibit will visit several museums over the next few years. For events through 2011, see

Photography by Dean Davis

This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.