David Thompson was 14 years old when he arrived in our country fresh from the Grey Coat School in England. When he eventually married 14-year-old Charlotte Small, daughter of a Northwest Company Fur trader and a Cree mother, they soon began their grand adventure that today is considered one of Canada’s great love stories.
Thompson has a large pillar naming him as the World’s Greatest Geographer with a reference to Charlotte as the “Woman of the Paddle Song.” Yet the death of our greatest geographer went virtually unnoticed in 1857. Charlotte Small would die three short months later. There were no tombstones. The man who singlehandedly explored and mapped most of Canada, now lay silent. His wife who was beside him for 57 years of their remarkable journey lay buried alongside.
Their footprints, their canoe paths, and their enduring love are all over this area. In 1812, Thompson and Charlotte with five small children left the west forever and arrived in Quebec. Thompson first had his family baptized and on October 30, 1812 Thompson and Charlotte stood before witnesses and their five children to exchange vows to legally become husband and wife – a rarity when many of the ‘country wives’ had been abandoned as was the case with Charlotte’s mother.
Sadly, two of their little children, John and Emma, would die suddenly and poverty, financial calamity and some discrimination would soon follow them. Through the prodigious map-making, and through the terrible hardships, including near starvation, Charlotte was Thompson’s constant support, and in their declining years the two would often go for long walks at night watching the stars and no doubt remembering the days of traversing the North Saskatchewan or living at the Mountain House. As poverty and old age overtook them their children stepped in to provide a home. Eliza, their youngest who, as a teenager, had walked the streets of Montreal looking for suitable rooms for her mom and dad, after they had been evicted, now cared for the old couple until the end.
Thompson died first, early in 1857. On May 4 Charlotte, all that was left of this resilient couple, after all the miles, all the children, all the years, slipped away too. She was 71 years old. Thompson’s magnificent ‘Great Map’ would soon give the vision to the great nation of our Canada to come. His meticulous journals and narratives of his life are classics and treasures today.
Yet their first child’s birth (Fanny) at Rocky Mountain House on June 10, 1801, was a signature event as the precursor of the mighty Métis nation to come. If you go down to the River on a quiet summer afternoon it is not hard to imagine Thompson’s Voyageurs approaching the Mountain House upstream to the beat of “en roulant ma boule” and if you wait a while it is not hard to imagine Thompson and Small approaching with their young children in a canoe, something that they did often. They are as close as we will ever come to the great Canadian Love Story.