My friend Paul Wheeler, whose tales I occasionally post here, sent me a copy of “Sources of the River” by Jack Nisbet quite a while ago, but I’d been neglecting it until my cousin Katharine in Portland mentioned that she’d met Nisbet and admired him. It’s a 1994 book with the sub-title “Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America.” Several books are like this: a modern trip along an historic route described in a journal. (Dan Flores has written about more southerly expeditions. Ted Binnema takes on the pre-literate north/south trails of the tribes.) Lewis and Clark (1804) are the most famous but only the earliest by a few years. Thompson was earlier if you count his trip as beginning in Churchill, Manitoba, in 1784 when a ship on Hudson’s Bay landed him at his first post for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Churchill is the town where the polar bears gather in the fall to wait for arctic ice to form. One of the most intriguing sentences in the chapter about the place is p. 14: “Along the way they often passed clusters of polar bears lying on their bellies, heads together and bodies radiating out like the spokes of a wheel.” Bits of Thompson’s journals throughout alternate with discussion and descriptions of Nisbet’s modern visits to the places, which were by the time he got there far more comfortable than when Thompson was there.
In Thompson’s time guns and horses are just arriving at the northern prairies and the usual push/pull among the people is becoming intense with the Blackfeet emerging as the most ferocious defenders of their patch. Thompson rises through the ranks at “factories” (trading posts run by Brit “factors”) established by Hudson’s Bay and teaches himself to become a surveyor and then cartographer. Having just watched the BBC movie “Longitude” about the struggle to develop the accurate clock necessary to figure out longitude, I was prepared for the descriptions of Thompson working diligently and thoroughly around the clock on his observations and formulas. At first he sent these by ship back to England where professional cartographers converted them into invaluable maps of the unknown new country.
David Thompson was the John Adams of Western Canada, in fact, his near-contemporary. And he had a wife, Catharine rather than Abigail, half-Cree and inherited from a previous clerk’s family as was conventional for the time and place. She was barely fourteen to Thompson’s twenty-nine. Like the Adams, they were faithful in what was evidently a worthy collaboration that lasted into a quiet old age in eastern Canada. Fourteen children resulted. However, Catharine did not leave a cache of letters. There was no formal post anyway. Communication was hand-carried by passers-by. Sometimes there was no paper or ink, so that notes were left written on the walls of the various forts or on a section of wood. His 77 journals are archived in Toronto. His maps were grabbed up and reproduced willy-nilly with and without permission on both sides of the Atlantic. The redrawings of the territory by Jack McMaster are fascinating adjuncts to this text.
There is no Sacajawea in this story, but an equally colorful woman emerges, a person who didn’t travel with Thompson. In fact, he sent “Qánqon” away for “loose” behavior when he first met her as the “wife” of a furman. An exceptionally tall, strong and vital woman, her personal history was recorded by Claude Schaeffer, curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning in the Sixties. (We often consulted him. His papers are in Calgary.) I can think of half a dozen Blackfeet women like this one but Qánqon was from near Kootenay Lake and no Indian man was willing to take her on. “Loose” behavior sounds like a mix of sex, violence, and attitude. She decided to be a man, and took a series of wives. Schaeffer says there’s no evidence of her being physically transsexual, but the rumor was that she devised a leather phallus. She was rough on her wives, beating them as was often the custom. She traveled far on the West side of the Rockies, carefully maintaining the fiction that she was male. When bathing in a relatively shallow river, she was bare below the waist and seen by a man though she quickly crouched down to hide her gender which he testified was female. He dubbed her “the Squatter” or some similar term in his language.
Later she capitalized on her passing familiarity with the white men and, still pretending she was a man, played a cross between John the Baptist and a cargo cult by traveling in the wake of Thompson’s party, telling all the tribes that she was the representative of an important company that would generously reward all the people with whom she was friendly. In this way she built up a herd of horses and a well-equipped lodge, and went into conjuring. Her story is not nearly so well-known or popular as that of Sacajawea in spite of her potency as a feminist role-model. Nor did anyone name a waterfall for her. Her death was violent with her adversaries finally eating part of her heart to make sure she stayed dead.
David Thompson, now working for the independent North West Company, had many miserable and dangerous times getting over the Rockies so as to establish trading posts through the Bitterroot and into Pacific Northwest Territory. He discovered that the trade-off for the severe and sudden weather of the treeless east side of the Rockies was that on the west side, milder and much wetter, thick forests supported little game. Often they ate their horses, the dogs, or near-carrion. Their stomachs were often in revolt from eating moss or roots unfamiliar to them, and once they got into the major fish-packed rivers that ran to the sea, their appetites failed to meet the diet of salmon, salmon and more salmon. Supplies came to them from Hudson’s Bay, a long way to pack stomach soothers, ink powder, and soap -- small but vital necessities.
Eventually they managed to come sailing into Astoria under their Canadian flag, startling the Americans in their toehold there. Parallel scouting had been done by sea, searching for the mouth of the Columbia River. Thompson traded one of his men for one of theirs, a Hawaiian man of high vitality who would go back with them to northern Alberta and then across the Atlantic to England. The stories of the Hawaiians who came to the northern plains as well as the life-paths of the Iroquois trappers that Hudson’s Bay brought in when locals questioned the rewards for trapping beavers have never been told.
Nisbet, a handsome man, is an academic anchored in Spokane (jacknisbet.com/) who is actively teaching, exploring, writing, and speaking around the “Inland Empire.” His many books are listed on his website.