An Exclusive Interview with David Thompson
“A Place Made by God for the Red Men”
David Thompson, the famous surveyor, was born in London in 1770 and went to work in northern Canada at the age of fourteen. After his trip to the village people in what became North Dakota, Thompson surveyed the Mississippi headwaters, crossed the Canadian Rockies by horse, and became the first White person to travel the Columbia River’s entire length (1811). His maps of western Canada made in 1813-14 became the basis of all those which followed. From 1816 to 1826 he surveyed the Canada-U.S. border between the St. Lawrence River and the Lake of the Woods. He lived to be almost 87.
What do you think of the Mandan villages?
My curiosity was excited by the sight of these villages containing a native agricultural population. They were the first I had seen, and I hoped to obtain much curious information of the past times of these people and to get a ready knowledge of their manners and customs.
What are your comments on the Mandan as farmers?
They at present, as perhaps they have always done, subsist mostly on the produce of their agriculture; and hunt the bison and deer, when these animals are near them. They have no other flesh meat, and the skins of these animals serve for clothing. The grounds they cultivate are the alluvials of the river, called bottoms. The portion to each family is allotted by a council of old men, and is always more than they can cultivate, for which they have but few implements. The hoe and the pointed stick hardened in the fire are the principal tools.
They raise mostly maize (Indian corn) of the small red kind, with other varieties all of which come to a perfection, with pumpkins and a variety of small beans, melons have been raised to their full size and flavor. Every article seen in their villages were in clean good order, but want of iron implements limits their industry; yet they raise, not only enough for themselves, but also for trade with their neighbors.
What are your impressions of the country that you crossed in your trip to the Red River?
The whole of this country may be pastoral, but except in a few places, cannot become agricultural. Even the fine Turtle Hill, gently rising, for several miles, with its springs and brooks of fine water has very little wood fit for the farmer. The principal tree is aspen, which soon decays. There are also small oaks and ash. The grass of these plains is so often on fire, by accident or design, and the bark of the trees so often scorched, that their growth is contracted, or they become dry. The whole of the great Plains are subject to these fires during the summer and autumn before the snow lies on the ground. These great plains appear to be given by Providence to the Red Men for ever, as the wilds and sands of Africa are given to the Arabians.
You met the Chippewa at the Red River. How do they live?
As they have no horses, and only dogs for winter use and not many of these to haul their things in winter, they have very few tents of leather. As soon as mild weather comes on, they live in lodges, which are long, in proportion to the number of families. In summer they all use canoes and in winter the flat sled. In this season the women haul, or carry heavy loads and the men also take their share.
Tell us about the Chippewa who trade with the French-Canadians at the post at Pembina.
The Chippewa who trade at the Pembina house are 60 men, who support a total of about 420 people. Although their hunting grounds are large, they have very little provisions to spare. This alone is sufficient to show the ground does not abound in wild animals. The beaver has become a very scarce animal. During the summer these Natives subsist on fish, and in autumn, part of them on wild rice.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.