Thompson's free-ranging narrative of the New World must be the only one in which the devil is defeated at checkers
In the winter of 1787, the apprentice- clerk at a trading post on a distant bend in the Kisiskatchewan River, a boy of seventeen, developed an obsession for the game of checkers, which he learned to play with his companions in the trading post: the resident, the assistant, the steward and the crew of a dozen men waiting in idleness for the ice to break up on the river. He became expert at both the twelve-man and the twenty- four-man boards, and when no one would play with him he practised intensely against himself. His name was David Thompson, and he later became the greatest surveyor of the northern plains; his Great Map, which hangs in the Archives of Ontario, describes the vast territory with which he became intimate over a long life, from the shores of Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean, the Athabasca River to the ¬Missouri. In the narrative that he completed when he was eighty years old, he recalls that his brief career as a champion at checkers along the Kisiskatchewan in 1787 ended one day in April of that year, when a strange incident occurred: having no one to play against, he wrote, I was sitting alone at a small table with the checkerboard before me, when the devil sat down opposite to me, and began to play.
The devil, in his features and his colour, Thompson wrote, resembled a Spaniard, he had two short black horns on his forehead, which pointed forward, his head and body down to the waist (for no more of him could be seen) was covered with glossy, black curling hair; his countenance was mild and grave. Thompson says nothing of the inner tension that one might experience while playing checkers with the devil; his narrative is wonderfully empty of subjectivity. The devil, who lost every game but did not lose his temper, is alone the proper subject of these sentences: he kept his temper throughout, but looked more grave as the afternoon wore on; at length he got up or rather disappeared. The whole of this strange incident is still plain before me after sixty-three years, he writes without a note of triumph: after the devil disappeared, all was silence and solitude; it was broad daylight, and my eyes were wide open; I could not decide if it had been a dream, or a reality: I made no vow, but took a resolution never to play a game of chance or skill, or anything that had the appearance of them, and I have kept it.
David Thompson was apprenticed when he was fourteen to the Hudson’s Bay Company by the charity school near Westminster Abbey in London, where he learned reading, writing and mathematics. When he began his narrative in Montreal sixty-one years later, memories of his urban childhood had taken on a pastoral colouring. He recalls lingering among the monumental inscriptions in the venerable abbey and its cloisters; and strolling through the city to London Bridge, Chelsea, Vaux¬hall and St. James’s Park, where, he says, all was beauty to the eye and verdure for the feet. Books were scarce; of those that most pleased him and his schoolmates, he remembered the Arabian Nights, Tales of the Genii, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, and conceived himself thereby at an early age to have knowledge, as he writes, to say something of any place he might come to, but none of his reading had prepared him for the treeless landscapes and rocky shores of Hudson Bay, certainly, in a country that Sindbad the sailor never saw, as he puts it, for Sindbad makes no mention of mosquitoes. The narrative of Thompson’s exile (he never returned to England) begins on his third day at sea, when a Dutch lugger carrying bootleg gin hove to about half a mile away; a boat was lowered directly and the gunner on Thompson’s ship, whom he recalls as tall and handsome, stepped into it with four men; they were soon on board the lugger, a case of gin was produced, a glass tasted and approved; but when the gunner had paid and made his return, the bottles in the case were found to contain sea water; the gunner got into a fighting humour, as Thompson recalls, but already the Dutchman was luffing off in fine style. The Atlantic crossing lasted six weeks, and must have seemed endless to a teenage boy, but it required only a sentence in the memory of the eighty-year-old man writing the narrative of his life: We now held our course over the western ocean, and near the islands of America we saw several icebergs, and Hudson’s Straits were so full of ice as to require the time of near a month to pass through them.
Thompson passed his adolescence among men of the fur trade, none of whom emerged as a mentor, and in the narrative he wrote when he was eighty years old we can feel his disappointment in those who might have filled that role, including the handsome gunner duped by bootleggers, and Samuel Hearne, the adventurer and governor of Fort Churchill who hoarded all the writing paper for his own memoirs, and had already lost his reputation by having surrendered his command to the French without firing a shot. Some of the other traders had lost all their learning in the wilderness, as well as their navigational tools; when Thompson arrived at the trading post on the Kisiskatechwan, there was not a single book to be had, not even a Bible. It was during this period of booklessness that he had been joined in his favourite game of draughts by the devil, an event that he relates sixty-three years later with the same careful attention, limber syntax and narrative aplomb that he applies to all that passes through his memory.
In the fall of the year that he renounced games of skill and chance, Thompson was sent with a trading party to live among the Piegan Blackfoot people in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. He was equipped with a cotton shirt, a blue cloth jacket and leather trousers, to which his employer added another shirt, a leather coat, and blanket and bison robe, forty rounds of ammunition, two long knives, six flints, a few awls, needles, etc., with a few pounds of tobacco, and a horse to carry himself and his luggage—all of which obliged him, he recalls, to walk the greatest part of the journey, which lasted six weeks and took him more than five hundred miles across the plains, and which he accomplishes in his narrative in a sentence or two just sufficient to pause before a lone white pine lingering in a state of decay among a grove of aspens near the Bow River. This was One Pine, as the tree had been named by the Piegans, for it was the only pine tree for seventy miles or more; its top had been chopped off and it appeared to be dying. The old man with whom Thomp¬son found lodging told him that when the smallpox epidemic entered the tents of people camping near the tree, one of the men applied his prayers to One Pine to save his family from the disease. He continued his supplications for three days, during which time he burned sweetgrass and gave over all three of his horses, which he left hobbled beneath it, and his bow and quiver of arrows, and on the third day, having nothing more to give, as Thompson writes, he offered a bowl of water. When all of his family were dead, and he alone had recovered, the unfortunate man returned to One Pine to remonstrate and to exact revenge for its ingratitude. He took back his horses and the other offerings, climbed the tree to about two-thirds of its height and cut away the crown with his hatchet. He never remarried, but lived instead in the tent of one of his brothers; he went several times to war, and never took a shield with him, and always placed himself in the front of the battle as if he wished to die, yet no enemy arrow ever struck him.
The old man who told this story to David Thompson was a Cree who had been adopted by the Piegans; his name was Saukamappee, which translates as Young Man. Saukamappee was at least eighty years old when he invited Thompson into his tent. He was about six feet two or three inches, Thompson writes; broad shoulders, strong limbed, hair grey and plentiful, forehead high and nose prominent, his face slightly marked with the smallpox, and altogether his countenance mild, and even playful; although his step was firm and he rode with ease, he no longer hunted, this he left to his sons. Saukamappee was a revered storyteller; he quickly became Thompson’s mentor. Every evening for four months, Thompson writes, he sat and listened without tiring to the narrative old man, as he called him, whose stories, as Thompson heard them, blend the habits and customs, manners, politics and religion, anecdotes of the Chiefs and stories of war and peace. The book that Thompson wrote when he reached Saukamappee’s age is informed by the pleasures of telling stories of the observed world and taking down the stories of others. The stories of the plains wars taken down from Saukamappee (and given in some six thousand words in Thompson’s narrative) form an essential component of a memory that would no longer be possible within a few years of Thompson’s death in 1857.
The countries that Thompson traversed during subsequent decades were the domain of Cree, Inuit, Piegan, Blood and Siksika, Ojibway, the Mandan and Hidatsa. He assisted the migration of the Iroquois, Algonquin and Nipissing onto the Plains, and after crossing the Rockies, he encountered the Kootenay and Flathead, the Sahaptin and Chinookean peoples.
He married Charlotte Small, whose mother was Cree and father European. Their marriage lasted fifty-eight years until their deaths in 1857. His free-ranging narrative is filled with luminous accounts of wars and migrations, the evolution of nations; the result is a sketch of a ramshackle nation patched together from the oddments of three empires and dozens of Aboriginal clans, tribes and alliances. He was nourished in his travels, he recalls, by bear meat mixed with the rendered grease of the bison made into pemmican and placed in bags of well-dried parchment skin, each bag weighing ninety pounds. Of this strong and wholesome food an Englishman requires little more than a pound each day, but a Canadian eats nearly two pounds a day.
Thompson’s Great Map became obsolete with the development of the railway. Land that had been commonly held was transformed into private property (much of it in the hands of the cpr), and the population of the plains emptied out into the reserves, allowing the cpr to advertise the empty prairie as a paradise awaiting the immigrants of Europe.
On one of his northern journeys, his party encountered a loons’ nest, from which they removed three eggs but, as he writes, they found them not to be eatable. Two lads lay down near the nest, in the night the pair of loons came, and missing their eggs, fell upon the lads, screeching and screaming, and beating them with their wings; the lads thought themselves attacked by enemies, and roared out for help; two of us threw off our blankets, and seized our guns, the loons seeing this returned to the lake, we were at a loss what to think or do, the lads were frightened out of their wits, in a few minutes we heard the wild call of the loons; the Indian said it was the loons in revenge for the loss of their eggs; and giving them his hearty curse of “death be to you,” told us there was no danger, and the loons left us quiet for the rest of the night.
Thompson’s narrative of the New World may not be the only one that includes a personal encounter with the devil, but certainly it is the only one in which the devil is defeated at checkers. Observation of the natural world is the foundation of Thompson’s project. In the northern forest near Hudson Bay he witnessed a stampede of migrating caribou that lasted two full days; he calculated its number at 3,564,000.
The Whiskey Jack, he wrote, will alight at the very door, and when brought into the room seems directly quite at home; when spirits is offered, it directly drinks, is soon drunk and fastens itself anywhere until sober. The Grouse has a pleasing, cheerful call. Thompson spells it out: Ka bow, Ka bow, Kow á é.