David Thompson’s Journey
In 1797, fur-trader David Thompson left his long-time employer, the Hudson Bay Company, and signed on with its rival, the North West Company. One of Thompson’s first assignments was to locate the Mandan villages on the Missouri River. They were a commercial focal point for the nomadic, plains and mountain tribes, and the North West Company was eager to establish contact and begin trade.
In late November Thompson prepared to embark on his journey. He secured a guide fluent in the Mandan language, an Irishman familiar with Mandan customs, and seven French Canadians, described by Thompson as a “good humoured set of Men, fond of full feeding; willing to hunt for it, but more willing to enjoy it…” Rounding out the company were three horses and thirty dogs that were so noisy Thompson preferred to travel several miles ahead of the party.
On this date in 1797, Thompson set out on his search for the Mandan villages. After one day of traveling, severe winter weather nearly derailed the expedition. Temperatures dipped as low as 37 degrees below zero, forcing the men to remain in a sheltered camp for several days. By the second week, the weather was even worse. On December 10th, the men faced what Thompson declared a “perfect storm.” Caught in the open plains in a blinding blizzard, one of the French Canadian traders became separated from the party. Thompson recounted the harrowing tale in his journal. The trader “told us he became weak, fell several times, and at length he could not get up.” Thompson continued, He “resigned himself to perish in the storm, when by chance lifting up his head he saw [our] fire, this gave him courage; stand he could not but shuffled away on his hands and knees through the snow, bawling with all his might until we fortunately heard him.” Thompson concluded the journal entry by noting that it was the “most distressing day I had yet seen.” But the journey wasn’t over yet. Over the next two weeks, the men trudged through snow six inches deep, had a close brush with hostile Native Americans and survived on buffalo meat so tough they tired of eating before their bellies were full.
The expedition finally arrived at the Mandan village on December 30. What should have been a ten day journey had taken over a month. Yet despite the obstacles, no man was lost on the expedition.
Thompson stayed with the Mandan until January 10, 1798, but was unable to wrestle their allegiance from the French-speaking traders who came upriver from St. Louis. However, the journey was far from a waste of time. David Thompson made extensive notes on the Mandan homes, customs and language, explored over two hundred miles of upland prairie and from his notes produced the first map of present-day North Dakota.
Nisbet, Jack. Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson across Western North America. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books, 1994.
Thompson, David. "David Thompson's Narrative: 1784-1812." In Reflections from a Distant Mirror: Minot State University and Its Regions, ed. Dr. Eric Clausen Teresa M. Fox, 15-21. Minot, ND: Midcontinent Institute, 1994.