David Thompson: Cartographer

David Thompson was a Canadian explorer, surveyor, and map maker of the early 1800’s.  He is known as the greatest land geographer who ever lived.  The natives of the North American continent knew him as Koo-Koo-Sint, “Star-Gazer.”

This is David Thompson. Image in the public domain.

Born in England in 1770, he was poor and attended a charity school until the age of fourteen.  Having shown an aptitude for mathematics he was apprenticed at this time to the Hudson’s Bay Company as a clerk and apprentice surveyor and left England for Canada, never to return.

While still in his apprenticeship he broke his leg badly and took two years to recuperate, during which he was stuck at the company headquarters.  The company surveyor took this opportunity to teach the bright young man more about surveying skills, mathematics, reading the stars, and map making.  Thompson showed great aptitude and learned his lessons well.  After his training was over he went to work for Hudson’s Bay Company as a surveyor, but not  liking the way the company did business he left a few years later and went to work for rival, North West Company, setting up trading posts, organizing men, and hiring native families to bring in furs.

This map was created in 1814 by David Thompson.  It was used for more than 100 years as the basis for all maps made of this region. In terms of actual exploration, mapping, and impact on future settlement and commerce, David Thompson did more than any other person for the settlement of the Northwest. Public domain.

Thompson took special pains with the Columbia River and its tributaries, mapping the basin from the source to the Pacific and claiming the Oregon territory for Britain.  He explored what is now British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.  Britain and America were engaged in a fierce struggle over territory during this period, and exploration and mapping were a big part of that struggle. Upon the news of the Lewis and Clark expedition, David Thompson was ordered to make explorations and surveys of the north western wilderness of the continent.  Over the course of twenty-four years, from 1790 to 1814, he explored and accurately mapped 3.9 million square kilometers of North America, roughly a fifth of the continent, an absolutely astounding feat, particularly considering that his main job was to bring in the fur for the lucrative trade with England and the continent.

Mapping Exploration

Color the David Thompson’s World Map.


  • Print out the David Thompson’s World Map
  • Trace & color all the rivers, lakes, and oceans in blue
  • Color in the sites of Thompson’s trading posts in red
  • Color the area where Thompson carried on the fur trade in orange
  • Color the area Thompson mapped in yellow
  • Color the key and label the compass rose


Library List

Read Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson by Jack Nisbet or Mapping the Wilderness: The Story of David Thompson by Tom Shardlow. (affiliate links)


 Additional Layers

  • Research and make a timeline of David Thompson’s life or of Canadian exploration.
  • Find out what organizations, buildings and monuments, towns, roads and so so on are named after David Thompson. My kids are members of the David Thompson District of the Boy Scouts of America.
  • Start a book of explorers, including maps, biographies, pictures, quotes, and first hand accounts of explorers all over the world.  Put the explorers in chronological order. This is a long term project, perhaps over several years.

More From Layers of Learning

The legend of the cedar tree, a native American legend.
The legend of the cedar tree, a Native American legend.

How to do a plant survey like a real ecologist.
How to do a plant survey like a real ecologist.

Try your hand at city scape art.
Try your hand at city scape art.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.