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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Appendix E. David Thompson and the First Crossing of Howse Pass

There is no known portrait of David Thompson, Explorer of the North-West Company, existing, but Bigsby, the naturalist of the International Boundary Commission, who first met him in 1817, tells us, “He was plainly dressed, quiet and observant. His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn long all round, and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears, just above the eyebrows. His complexion was of the gardner’s ruddy brown, while the expression of deeply furrowed features was friendly and intelligent, but his cut-short nose gave him an odd look. ... I might have spared this description of Mr. David Thompson by saying he greatly resembled Curran, the Irish orator. . . . Never mind his Bunyan-like face and cropped hair; he has a very powerful mind, and a singular faculty of picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it with warring savages, or climb the Rocky Mountains with you in a snow storm, so clearly and palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the crack of the rifle, or feel the snowflakes on your cheeks as he talks.”

The pass by which Thompson crossed the Continental Divide in 1807 came to be and still is mapped as the Howse Pass. Engineers who selected the route for the Canadian Pacific Railroad explored this pass at a later date and some preferred it to the Kicking Horse which was actually used. The stream down which Thompson travelled is the Blaeberry; he refers to it merely as the portage river.

In outlining Thompson’s itinerary during 1807, Tyrell says,2 “On May 10, accompanied by his wife and family, Thompson started from Rocky Mountain House to cross the mountains. Finan McDonald took a canoe with provisions up the Saskatchewan river, while Thompson himself travelled on horseback on the north side of the river. On June 3 they reached the Kootenay Plain, a wide, open flat on the north side of the river within the mountains, in latitude 56° 2' 6" N.; and on June 6 they reached the Forks. They then turned up the south branch of the stream; but after ascending it for three miles were obliged to stop, as they could take the canoes no further. They remained here till June 25, when they started across the mountains, packing all their supplies with them on horses. At one p. m. on June 25 they reached the height of land in latitude 51° 48' 27" N. Thence they descended along the banks of a mountain torrent (Blaeberry river) to ‘Kootanie’ (Columbia) river, which they reached on June 30, in latitude 51° 25' 14" N., longitude 116° 52' 45" W., a mile or two north-west of Moberly station on the Canadian Pacific Railway.”

The earliest reference to a crossing of Howse Pass appears to be in a manuscript now in the possession of the Archives Department of the Canadian Government.3 It was written by David Thompson, and is entitled, “Narrative of the Expedition to the Kootanae and Flat Bow Indian Countries, on the Sources of the Columbia River, Pacific Ocean, by D. Thompson on behalf of the N. w. Company, 1807.”

Thompson writes as follows: “On June 6th (1807) at Noon we left the main Stream coming from the N. N. Wd. and followed a Rivulet for abt. 4 Miles, where it becoming to shoal, we put the Goods on shore, and I staid in care of them; the Men and Canoe immediately went off for the remainder, and by June 10 all was landed at my Residence the People returned to live at Kootanae Plain, ’till I should send for them. Here among the stupendous and solitary Wilds covered with eternal Snow, and Mountain connected to Mountain by immense Glaciers, the collection of Ages and on which the Beams of the Sun make hardly any Impression when aided by the most favorable weather. I staid 14 Days more, impatiently waiting the melting of the Snows on the Height of Land. During this Time we arranged all the Goods and whatever could receive Harm by Shocks against the Trees, Rocks, etc., in Boxes of thin Boards sewed together. The Weather was often very severe, cloathing all the Trees with Snow as in the Depth of Winter, and the Wind seldom less than a Storm we had no Thunder, very little Lightning, and that very mild; but in return the rushing of the Snows down the sides of the Mountains equalling the Thunder in Sound, overturning everything less than solid Rock in its Course, sweeping the Mountain Forests, whole acres at a Time from their very Roots, leaving not a vestige behind; scarcely an Hour passed, without hearing one or more of these threatening noises assailing our Ears. The Mountains themselves for half way down, were almost ever covered with clouds; in the chance Intervals of fair Weather I geometrically measured the Height of 3 of those that were most eligible, and found their perpendicular Height above their Bases, or the level of the Rivulet to be 4707 ft. 5200 ft. and 5089 ft. The Peaks of a few Mountains rose abt. 500 to 700 ft. above these; and considering their elevated situation on the Globe, they fall little short of the most celebrated in Height above the Level of the Ocean. Wearied with waiting and anxious to proceed, contrary to the Opinion of every one, I set off with Bercier, my Guide to explore if the Portage was passable. We started very early on 2 good Horses and by 10 A. M. we were at the head of the Defile or Ravine where the Springs send their Rills to the Pacific Ocean; the Sight overjoyed me. We held our Route along the Brook, which was continually increasing its Stream, our Road was very bad: by 1 P. M. from the view of the Country I considered that part of the Defile as passed in which the Snow was most likely to remain; my Guide affirmed not but as all Snow that lay direct in our Route noways incommoded us, being only Patches, altho’ every Thing was dreary Winter about us, I determined to return immediately and send for the Men and Horses from the Kootanae Plain. June 24 in the Evening all the Men and Horses arrived.”

The foregoing is of no little historical interest as describing one of the earliest overland crossings, within Canadian territory, to the Pacific. But fourteen years had elapsed since the memorable journey of Alexander Mackenzie, and the great northwestern wilderness was as yet scarcely known to white men.

Thompson’s camp appears to have been situated along the middle course of the present Howse River, not far from the entrance of the stream from Glacier Lake. His measurements are among the very first made of Rocky Mountain peaks in the main chain and are accurate within reason—the valley of Howse River being 4500 feet and the present Mt. Outram 10,600 feet. None of his measurements corresponds with the height of Mt. Forbes (11,902 feet) and it is unlikely that he measured this mountain.

Thompson’s statement that the mountains “fall little short of the most celebrated in Height above the Level of the Ocean,” can, therefore, only be interpreted as indicating that he overestimated his valley level. This may be an original source of the error which perpetuated itself as a Tradition of Height, and which crops out again and again, notably in the Athabaska Pass area, in the journals of Thompson and of later voyageurs. It is upon this error, copied from one narrative into the next, that the overestimated elevations of Mount Brown and Mount Hooker have their most plausible foundation.

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