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Hydro crew hits historical bonanza

Rock piles mark Thompson post

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Map-maker David Thompson, age 22 and on the first mission of his illustrious career, built his first fur-trade post in an area north of Cross Lake that had so little wild game his party nearly starved.

Making matters worse, Cree people there gave him the moniker, Ogakimatow, meaning "one who sneaks around," and believed contact with Thompson -- even looking at him -- could turn a person into a windigo, a cannibalistic spirit.

Thompson procured almost no furs or food from the Cree and almost died of starvation.

That fur-trade post, begun in October 1792, where Thompson struggled mightily but from which he embarked on a map-making career that made him one of the greatest Canadians, had never been found -- until now, say Manitoba government archeologists.

Last summer, in two piles of rocks exposed by a small forest fire and pointed out by a Manitoba Hydro crew who considered them curious, Manitoba government archeologists believe they have discovered David Thompson's missing trading post.

The rock piles are the remains of two chimneys, presumably from two log cabins Thompson and his party of five men built. One would have been the men's sleeping quarters and one a warehouse for furs and other goods. The site is Sipiwesk Lake on the Nelson River.

"It was lost and people have been trying to find it for over a hundred years," said provincial archeologist, Perry Blomquist. "We know where other (Thompson trading posts) are, but this was his very first one."

Blomquist, 32, led a team that included colleague Gordon Hill, local Cross Lake First Nation students, a guide and an elder. Within a day and a half of discovering the site, the crew uncovered a staggering 1,400 artifacts, and that's without digging, which will commence this June.

The artifacts include brass wire, pipe fragments, a knife blade, an axehead, beads, broken glass from kerosene-lamp flutes and even a tinderbox that would have once included a flint, striker and shavings for starting a fire.

What makes the find especially sweet for Blomquist is he is full-status Cree and one of the few aboriginal archeologists in the country. "It's really cool. It's working to protect the aboriginal culture of my own heritage," he said.

Thompson would go on to craft maps of extraordinary accuracy from the Lake of the Woods to the Pacific Ocean. The Thompson River in British Columbia is named for him. "This is the point from which all his great work started," Blomquist said.

Some local historians are skeptical, however. One argument is the fur-trade post seems too large for the short time Thompson spent there. There were other posts built in the area, too.

Blomquist said there is no doubt it's Thompson's. Found at the site is a Thomas Dormer pipe. The pipes were only manufactured between 1748-78 and puts the trading post in Thompson's era, he said. Also, those pipes were imported for trade with aboriginal people only by the HBC, for whom Thompson worked at the time. Thompson's was the first HBC trading post on Sipiwesk Lake, Blomquist said.

Also found was an axehead forged with insignia indicating it was from York Factory, the HBC distribution post on Hudson Bay. The location also fits with Thompson's description that the post was built between two points of rock that provided a harbour.

The department will not publish on its discovery until excavation is completed, which will take several years.

Manitoba Museum archeology curator Kevin Brownlee called the discovery "pretty awesome." It's significant because it is Thompson and his first post, and because Thompson's journals provide text to the discovery, which isn't usually available.

"It's a pretty remarkable story. Thompson was really young to be opening and starting a trading post in unknown territory. I look at today's 22-year-olds and I think, 'Man, this guy was just a child.' "

Thompson already had a permanent limp from a broken leg that didn't heal properly, and was blind in one eye from looking at the sun too eagerly during navigational training. Blomquist speculates that's why the local Cree feared he possessed evil powers.

The trading post at Sipiwesk Lake didn't amount to much. Thompson and his men departed eight months later, on May 28, 1793, but not before burning their buildings down, a common practice among company men so a rival like the North West Co. couldn't use them.

The province has been doing work on Sipiwesk Lake the past three years to record archeological sites, some dating back 8,000 years, and have found Knife River flint, which could only have come from Knife River, North Dakota, and obsidian rock from even farther afield, suggesting a vast trading network before Europeans arrived.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2011 A2

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