- Winnipeg Free Press, April 14, 2008 -


PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- David Thompson is known as the mapmaker who criss-crossed the Rocky Mountains and set down a route to the Pacific Ocean. He is legendary in that region, with dedications to him like the Thompson River.

But he also explored and charted Manitoba. He crafted similar maps of extraordinary accuracy -- considering the crude instruments of the late 18th century -- of Lake of the Woods, our three largest lakes, and the north including the Grass River, the length of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and southwestern Manitoba.


Yet Manitobans barely know him.

"Perhaps that's just the Canadian way," said Don McMaster, who hopes his exhibit of paintings at the Portage District Art Centre goes a way to changing that.

McMaster depicts nine vignettes on large canvas in the storied life of Thompson in and around Manitoba, culled from Thompson's diaries. They are historic paintings but often depicting scenes of high adventure.

The first painting depicts Thompson's famous determination, leading his brigade single-file through a blinding snowstorm in the Turtle Mountains. All he could see was the compass in his hand.

That painting marks the earliest days of Thompson's trek in 1797 from Fort Assiniboine, near where the village of Wawanesa is today, to visit Mandan Indians in the Dakotas. Thompson stayed with the Mandans long enough to write a crude, 375-word dictionary of their vocabulary.

The final painting in the exhibit is of a 7.5-foot-high cairn of Canadian Shield rocks that Thompson piled on July 31, 1824, in a remote corner of Lake of the Woods. Remarkably, the cairn still stands today.

"Thompson was the first person to map many of the features of present southern Manitoba," says the Historical Atlas of Manitoba, by John Warkentin and Richard Ruggles.

The project began when a friend suggested to McMaster, normally a landscape painter, that he tackle Thompson to commemorate the cartographer's life. Last year was the 150th anniversary of Thompson's death, but commemorative events are planned until 2011. This summer, a large canoe brigade paddles from Rocky Mountain House east to the Great Lakes, including traversing lakes Winnipegosis, Manitoba and Winnipeg.

The friend's idea grew inside McMaster and he began following Thompson's footsteps, travelling from Lake of the Woods across Manitoba and into Saskatchewan, and south into North Dakota and Montana.

"I said, 'I'm going to paint David Thompson in Manitoba.' He's totally ignored out here. School kids don't know anything about him," recalled McMaster, a retired Winnipeg school teacher who now lives and has painted for many years along the Assiniboine River near Treherne.

There is also something in the work Thompson performed -- exploration and surveying, bringing a certain mathematical perspective to the landscape -- that appeals to modern sensibilities, with its back-to-the-land movements and many environmental studies graduates.

Thompson wasn't interested in the primary resources of the land, although work in the fur trade helped support him, but in its dimensions: degrees and minutes of latitude and longitude. He traversed Western Canada and over the Rockies, packing precious surveying tools like a sextant, two watches, a four-foot achromatic telescope, and two brass compasses.

In person, Thompson was quiet, pious, a teetotaller, and not a great mixer. His respect for the environment and aboriginal people also seem out of step with his times. He learned to speak aboriginal languages and culture by living with tribes, and learned basic skills like how to make a birch-bark canoe, skin a buffalo, and handle a horse.

One of McMaster's paintings is of two Indians in a canoe heading off Thompson's surveying team, also in a canoe, to extract a toll. The natives usually demanded tobacco and liquor, but Thompson gave blankets.

He married a Metis woman -- a McMaster painting depicts the wedding between Thompson and Charlotte Small -- and when time came to return to civilization in Montreal, he did not abandon his wife and children, as many Europeans did back then. He took Charlotte with him and they were properly married in a church, something they could not do on the territories. They were married 59 years, one of the longest, if not the longest, mixed marriage of the fur-trade era. They had 13 children together.

"Thompson's a real honourable gentleman," McMaster said.

Thompson, often called the greatest land geographer in North America, travelled over 90,000 kilometres and mapped 3.9 million square kilometres of North America. His mapping work was underappreciated in his lifetime and he died a pauper.

McMaster, 77, has received offers to buy individual paintings, but would prefer to sell the series as a set for perhaps $40,000. A former Canadian living in Australia has offered to buy the set, McMaster says, "but why should I let them go to Australia?"

The exhibit runs until April 26, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.