David Thompson, what hath you wrought?

You come into the Missoula Valley for one morning 200 years ago, feast your eyes on its February drabness and leave us with such observations as:

“The Sortie of the Defile of our Campt appears to form large Points.”


You say you “went up a high Knowl, from whence I had a fine Prospect of the Country” and drive us nuts – well, some of us – all these years later trying to figure out where that “high Knowl” was.

Depending on your definition of a knoll, there are dozens of them lining the north side of the Missoula Valley from the Wye in the west, where Carl Haywood of your namesake Thompson Falls figures you were, to Mount Jumbo on the east.

Some very serious Thompson researchers of the 20th and late 19th centuries subscribed to the Jumbo theory. They thought you and your Kootenai/Iroquois guide nicknamed Le Gauche (“Lefty”) broke camp somewhere in or near Evaro Canyon at 5:20 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1812. You rode borrowed horses that “sink deep every step & fatigue much” in the “rapidly thawing” country into and up the valley, climbed Jumbo at least partway, sketched and took readings, then were back in camp by noon.

Those folks were probably wrong. Elliott Coues in the late 1800s, T.C. Elliott and Joseph Tyrrell in the early 1900s and Catherine White in the 1940s didn’t have access to the online research and navigational tools we do today, Haywood pointed out. They also had a much broader focus than little ol’ Missoula in their Thompson studies.

Thompson was a British-Canadian explorer, fur trader, mapmaker and stargazer extraordinaire who never rested easy with the idea that we didn’t become Canadians, too. He quit these mountains within a month of his quick visit to Missoula, went home to his burgeoning family in Montreal, and never came west again.

The world has turned 73,050 times since that morning. Why on Earth could it possibly matter?

Haywood thinks it does.

The retired forester has written a book on Thompson and his travels in this area titled “Sometimes Only Horses to Eat.” He’s decoded hundreds of journal entries which, unlike those of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, weren’t written to please and inform a waiting president and nation. Rather, they were references for Thompson’s personal use in mapping the Columbia Basin for his bosses at the North West Company, although imperial matters in this disputed part of the world were no doubt on his mind.

Norman Jacobson thinks it matters.

A high school science teacher in Missoula for years, and a Lewis and Clark aficionado more recently, Jacobson became intrigued a few years ago with the 10 surviving field sketches that Thompson left behind.

The sketch of the Missoula Valley isn’t among them, for unknown reasons. But Jacobson, now 81, naturally applies what he’s learned about Thompson’s methodologies to his own turf. He incorporated his take on Thompson’s visit here in an article he wrote last year for “Archaeology in Montana.”


Scott Sproull thinks David Thompson matters, or he wouldn’t spend so much time on Google Earth.

“Minutiae” is one of Sproull’s favorite words. Sproull, who owns Hide and Sole in downtown Missoula, uses it to explain, for instance, his fascination with all things Lewis and Clark – even after that bicentennial trotted off into the sunrise half a dozen years ago.

Sproull can, for instance, stand atop Council Hill near the confluence of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers west of town and vividly reconstruct how Meriwether Lewis got swept off a crude raft and wet his chronometer down below on July 3, 1806.

He was less familiar with the Thompson saga, which began on this side of the divide the following year, and in Montana itself in the spring of 1808. But as the Lewis and Clark bicentennial approached, Sproull became aware of Thompson’s confounding journals and White’s edit of some of them.

White was an assistant professor of library science and reference librarian at the University of Montana in Missoula. She received her master’s degree in 1940 for a thesis on Thompson that became a book in 1950.

When White wrote that Thompson’s knoll was “probably Mount Jumbo,” she may have been reflecting an earlier hypothesis by Tyrrell, a geologist, cartographer and mining consultant from Canada who stumbled upon the unpublished manuscript of Thompson’s narrative in 1895 and edited it for publication in 1916.

Tyrrell wrote simply that Thompson rode up the Jocko from the Flathead River, and “over a defile to the summit of what is now known as Jumbo Hill in the city of Missoula, Montana, near the banks of Hell Gate river.”

He in turn may have been influenced on the subject by the works of Coues, who in 1897 published the edited manuscript versions of Thompson and Alexander Henry, another fur trader-explorer of the Northwest.

Sproull said he started researching the “high knowl” conundrum with a Boy Scout compass and Google Earth last fall.

“But I’ve known about the problem for 10 or 12 years, when I got hold of Catherine White’s stuff,” he said. “I go up on Jumbo occasionally with my wife, and I realized you couldn’t see the Sapphires or even the Bitterroots from there, like Thompson said he could. So I started asking people if they knew that Thompson and the Gauche couldn’t possibly have been up there.”


Thompson’s entry of Feb. 26 was longer than usual, in part because he described things he couldn’t see, like the route Lewis and Clark took in 1805 and 1806 over the Bitterroots and back.

But he seems to have made it clear that he could see up the Bitterroot Valley some 45 miles. “A farther view is prevented by the entrance of the Defile to the Salmon,” which most interpret as being the mountains above lower Lolo Creek.

Sproull said he started seeking an alternative vantage point by driving west on Interstate 90 and Highway 10 until he could see up the Bitterroot and other landmarks that Thompson described. He ended up west of Grant Creek, in the area of Missoula International Airport.

The other modern-day naysayers agree on that general location. To Haywood, it was likely near what’s now a parking lot at the southeast junction of Interstate 90/Highway 10 West and Highway 93. He reasons that Thompson and Le Gauche would have been following a well-established Indian trail out of Evaro Canyon, which he said ran across the valley to join the main trail along the river.

“You could draw a line and you could run it anywhere you wanted in terms of (north and south) on that trail,” Haywood said.

On such a miserable day, and on what amounted to a quick side trip from the business of fur trading on the Flathead River near Dixon, Thompson may have had no great desire to go further east into the valley, he reasoned.

Jacobson’s preferred knoll is 1.75 miles to the east.

“I think that Thompson probably came up in the vicinity of the Wye,” he said. “He then looped up to the hill above DeSmet School (east of Butler Creek).”

Jacobson bases that location on compass bearings that Thompson recorded, on the assumption that the mapmaker used readings of true north rather than magnetic north. There’s a 17-degree difference.

“I don’t think you’ll get a real answer unless you know for sure which one he used,” he said.

His search for the answer uncovered a paper prepared by David Smyth, a Parks Canada historian in Ottawa. It leaves the question unanswered, but notes that Thompson received a compass in 1792 that allowed him to take magnetic bearings but also to calculate the variation between true and magnetic north.

Sproull has his own opinion. He tried reconciling all of Thompson’s readings to true north – there are 16 of them, taken from various places along his route on Feb. 26. He only got frustrated.

Sproull called on Bob Bergantino, a research hydrogeologist at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology in Butte who spent years mapping the route of Lewis and Clark through Montana from a geologic perspective. It was Bergantino who some 15 years ago pinpointed the only scientifically documented campsite on the Lewis and Clark route at Travelers’ Rest near Lolo.

Turned out Bergantino had given considerable thought to Thompson’s morning in Missoula, too.

Sproull said his sense was that the chosen knoll was still farther east than Jacobson’s, and Bergantino agreed. They settled on a still-bare knob a mile from Jacobson’s knob and 2.75 miles from Haywood’s. It’s surrounded by Keil Loop, just west of the Airway Boulevard Bank and north of the airport and Interstate 90.

Sproull said by using magnetic readings and his newfound toy, Google Earth, he’s amazed how the pertinent readings line up. But Jacobson has reservations about the Keil Loop location, which is set slightly back into surrounding hills.

“I just can’t see it,” he said. “It’s too restricted.”


Thompson wrote that after making his observations from the knoll, he descended “abt 2/3 M” to “have a view of the Defile of Courter.” That was his name for either the mouth of Hellgate Canyon, the generally accepted landmark, or for the Blackfoot Canyon above Bonner.

Courter was Thompson’s name for the river that spilled out of the narrow canyon east of Missoula. It was probably named after the American trapper/trader Charles Courtin, who was killed by Blackfeet Indians at an unknown location in the Hell Gate Canyon in early 1810.

Sproull thinks the Defile of Courter might be the Blackfoot, since from a point at the proper distance on the valley floor near Expressway Drive, Bonner Mountain can be seen over the saddle of Mount Jumbo. Le Gauche, he says, would have been able to point it out as the route Meriwether Lewis followed in 1806.

Meanwhile, back at the Wye, Haywood says he’s not certain whether Thompson meant he dropped down from the knoll two-thirds of a mile or two to three miles. He thinks Le Gauche and Thompson may have angled to a point south of the airport a couple of miles before retreating to their Evaro camp.

“But in the end, I think we’re all in the same general place,” Haywood said.

And in the end, all agree, that’s probably enough.

As Sproull said, “I just don’t mind debunking the Jumbo myth.”

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