Thompson Maps "North Dakota"

John Macdonell’s House, Assiniboine River
February 3, 1798

David Thompson has returned from visiting the villages of the native peoples at Knife and Missouri Rivers last November 26. He plans to set out for the Red River and on to the Mississippi. “How far I shall succeed,” says Thompson, “Heaven knows.”

The 27-year-old Englishman, a former employee of Hudson’s Bay Company who went to work for the North West Company last May, has made maps of the area he visited in the dead of winter.

Four times in his journal of the journey south to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, Thompson said “the worst day I ever saw in my Life.”  The temperature often dropped to forty below, and on the return trip there was one day when the party had no more to eat than “the Marrow Bone of a Buffalo which had been pretty well knawed by a Wolf.”

Thompson’s party included nine French-Canadians, among them Rene Jusseaume. On the return, they were joined by two more white traders and four Indians. The purpose of the trip was to establish the exact geographical location of the villages and to encourage the village people to trade with the North West Company.

While at the Mandan village, Thompson spent several evenings with Big White [Sheheke], the leading chief. He particularly enjoyed watching the Mandan dance.
Thompson did not have an interpreter who knew the languages of the village peoples, so much of the information he learned may not be accurate. However, he did count the houses and tents in all the villages he visited. He estimated that ten Hidatsa and eight Mandan lived in each house he counted: a total of about 2,000 Hidatsa and 1,500 Mandan.
While among the village people, Thompson and his party bought at least 300 pounds of corn and other food, paying for his purchases with tobacco, soap, ammunition, and dogs among other goods.
Thompson was surprised to learn that there were so few horses. Even Chief Big White had but three. He also noticed that there were a few iron hoes in the lodges, but most gardening tools were made of the scapular (shoulder) bones of the buffalo.

Thompson’s visit comes some 60 years after the Mandan welcomed La Verendrye. The most important event that has taken place since 1738 was the devastating plague of smallpox in 1781, which reduced the village peoples from over 11,500 to the 3,500 Mandan and Hidatsa who welcomed Thompson and his party. The village people have moved north from their homes on the Heart River to their present location on or near the Knife and Missouri Rivers.

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.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change