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.