Explorer’s first trading post discovered in Manitoba

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Two little piles of stones surrounded by scrub pine in northern Manitoba may have given archeologists and historians a physical link to one of North America’s greatest explorers and map-makers. 

David Thompson and his wife Charlotte Small are depicted in a sculpture in Invermere, British Columbia [Credit: The Canadian Press]

Archeologist Perry Blomquist believes the rocks at Sipiwesk Lake on the Nelson River are remnants of chimneys from the post and storehouse that was David Thompson’s first venture as an independent fur trader. 

Around them, Blomquist found more than 1,000 artifacts that he says prove it is the trading post that has been “lost” since it was first discovered by Joseph Tyrrell more than 100 years ago. 

Tyrrell is the Canadian map-maker and geologist famous for his dinosaur discoveries in Alberta. But he was also a student of Thompson’s life and searched for traces of the renowned explorer. 

“We have J.B. Tyrrell’s co-ordinates,” said Blomquist, who says they also provide solid evidence this is Thompson’s post. “He was all about fur-trade history.” 

Tyrrell used Thompson’s map co-ordinates, taken from his journals, to locate the post. He then recorded his own directions to pinpoint his find. 

Locating a site today with such outdated information isn’t like plugging numbers into a modern global positioning system unit, he suggested. 

It was lucky that Blomquist was already in the area on a regular archeological survey last year and was tipped to the location by a Manitoba Hydro crew, which had noticed the unusual rock piles. 

“We know how they made the chimneys and when they collapse, they collapse in a certain fashion,” he said. 

The fact the site is roughly where both Thompson and Tyrrell said it would be, plus the period-specific artifacts a brief survey unearthed, are enough proof for the government archeologist that Thompson’s first post has been rediscovered. 

A team will be returning this summer for a more thorough investigation.”We have to make sure it gets excavated properly.” 

Thompson is known for trailblazing and mapping through what was then a part of North America largely unexplored except for the aboriginal people who lived there and helped guide him on his journeys. 

A child of Welsh emigrants to England (his real name was Daffyd Thomas), he signed up with the Hudson’s Bay Co. in 1784 for a seven-year apprenticeship and set sail when he was just 14. 

It was a harsh existence. The winters were brutally cold, spent in drafty buildings heated only by wood fires. As one clerk at York Factory wrote in 1743 of his life at the posts: “In four or five hours after the fire is out … the inside of the wall of our houses are six or eight inches thick of ice.” 

Spring and summer replaced the cold with biting flies. But the furs sent back were worth a fortune in a Europe still in the grip of the Little Ice Age and provided a reason to send people such as Thompson ever further into the continent’s interior. 

He spent much of his apprenticeship clerking in Churchill and York Factory, principal outposts for the HBC on Hudson Bay, and when his seven years were up he asked for surveying tools as his parting gift. A suit of “fine clothes” was more traditional and apparently the company threw those in as bonus. 

No image of Thompson survives. But he was described as “short and compact,” blind in one eye — probably from looking too long at the sun to do quadrant calculations — and with a limp from a badly broken leg that never healed properly. 

He spent a little less than a year at Sipiwesk Lake and at 22 was just learning the skills he would need, said Blomquist. Commercially, his year at Sipiwesk would probably not be rated a huge success. 

Blomquist says the aboriginals in the area thought Thompson could turn people into the evil cannabalistic entity known as a wendigo and avoided him. 

“It’s bad news if people you’re wanting to trade with don’t want to come and see you out of fear.” 

He and his men almost starved and had to make regular trips to another HBC post to get supplies. But that launched what would be a spectacular career. 

“He’s coming out of an apprenticeship. He’s trying to make a name for himself … What happened at Sipiwesk House was fairly important.” 

The post itself had a fairly short life. Within a year or two of Thompson’s departure, it was abandoned and its trading goods moved to another location. The buildings were burned. 

“That was sort of common practice so the opposition couldn’t make use of it.” 

Thompson’s tenure with the HBC didn’t last much longer. 

In 1797, he joined the rival North West Company without giving the customary year’s notice to HBC — quite a shock to the old company of adventurers. But his new linkage gave him more freedom to continue surveying and mapping the interior of what would become Canada. 

For Blomquist, who is Cree, the discovery in northern Manitoba is about more than just textbook history. 

“I love going up there to work and working with First Nations communities,” he says. 

“While I’m learning about these sites, digging them up, I’m learning about my own ancestors at the same time.” 

Source: The Canadian Press [March 27, 2011]

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