David Thompson Mission Mountain Sketches

David Thompson's Sketches — My Personal Journey

Doug Stevens

Between northern Idaho and western Montana, I have lived in these parts for nearly 40 years. During that time I was aware of the historical figure of David Thompson, but never really learned just who he was and what he accomplished in his life. I knew there was a historical marker about him in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, and that the town of Thompson Falls, Montana was named after him — but that was about all. It wasn’t until last spring, when researching him for a story for the quarterly, Distinctly Montana, that I became aware of the magnitude of his accomplishments.

I was particularly interested in Thompson’s time in Montana. During my research, I came across Carl and Linda’s website. There was so much information there, on exactly what I was looking for, including his book, Sometimes Only Horses to Eat, The Saleesh House Period 1809 – 1812. Embedded on that site were some of Thompson’s sketches — something that really caught my eye. I reached out to Carl and Linda and they have graciously helped me along the learning curve, as well as providing this space to present my research on his sketches. For this, I give them my gratitude and thanks.

One final note: Thompson’s journey to Goose Hills and back is covered by Carl in much greater detail elsewhere on this site (1812 Trip to Saleesh Lake). There will be some repetition of text and supporting photos here, but that is to maintain continuity of this article.

Not only did I learn that he was a prolific sketcher, but only ten of his sketches have survived. Of those ten, four are of the Mission Mountains, on what is now the Flathead Indian Reservation. These, along with the accounts in his journal, are the first description of this region by a European. For that reason alone, they are of great historical importance.

The Mission Valley is where I live. Being a photographer, I was especially interested in his sketches and identifying where he was when he sketched them. I then tried to match his sketches to present day photographs. Apparently, this has never been accurately done before.

The known sketches are kept, along with his great map, in a museum in Toronto. Upon request, the museum graciously sent me high resolution scans of all 10 of his sketches. For reference, I will refer to the sketches using the museum's identification sysystem. They are numbered: 2411, 2412, 2413 and 2414. Here are the 4 surviving Montana sketches.

David Thompson drew pencil sketches of many places during his travels and later filled them in with pen and water colors. His sketches have a particular style. I believe he wasn’t so much trying to record what he was seeing, as say, Thomas Moran did for the Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone in 1870. Thompson was more concerned with representing the geology and structure of the mountains he was sketching as a work of science, rather than a work of art. As a result, his sketches have a unique style and must be understood within this context. It is also important to bear in mind that he used numbers on the sketches to represent different features, such as for woods and for snow. He usually included a legend somewhere on a given set of sketches. He also used a numerical scale on both the vertical and horizontal, thus forming a grid which I suspect was used to help him with perspective.

Sketches 2413 and 2414

Of the four listed sketches, I believe the second two are the easiest to pinpoint, both time and place, so I’ll start here. They are clearly labeled: South of the Saleesh Lake No 4 (2413) and Rocky Mountains Finish South — South of the Saleesh Lake No.5 (2414). Clearly No 4 and 5 go together and align perfectly. There are no Nos 1-3 that survived.

The perspective is clearly from the west and well north of the larger peaks to the south. His journal entry for March 1st, 1812 includes:
“we came smartly on trot and hard gallop to 1:25 PM when we alighted on the top a bare knowl, commanding a very extensive view of the lake and country far around.”
Carl has made some convincing arguments that this “knowl” is in fact a hill southwest of Polson, known as “Goose Hill”, or “Pilot’s Knob”. Below is a photo of this hill from the Kerr Dam road to the northwest. It shows just how prominent this “knowl” really is.

Goose Hill

My photo from the top of the bare knowl shows that indeed, it affords a very extensive view of the lake and country far around. This “knowl” provides a commanding view of not only Flathead Lake below, but all the way north to the mountains on the south end of Glacier National Park.

Goose Hill

To the south, one can see the entire Mission Valley and past the end of the Mission Range to Lolo Peak south of Missoula. It includes showing how the mountains turn to the east where the Jocko River originates, along which a trail was followed to the Buffalo Country. Again, from his journal:
“Sketched of the lake, etc. .....the scenery on the east side the lake is not striking, a sameness of hills appears to the scenery I drew off 2 years ago – to the southward of which last a bold wide gap formed one common road to the buffaloe ...... the line of hills etc. is sketched off as per map – marked NE view of the NE defile etc. At 3 PM we set off....”
These journal entries (pages 214 and 215, Catherine White—David Thompson's Journals Relating to Montana and Ajacent Regions 1808-1812) clearly state he spent about an hour and a half on the “bare knowl” and made made two sets of sketches — one set of the lake and one of the “line of hills”. He also took compass bearings and made other observations. Sketches 2413 and 2414 certainly met this description of the “line of hills” and fit the panorama I took from the top of Goose Hill.


It should be noted, however, that neither sketch bears the title “NE view of the NE defile”. By the way, there are several references to the “NE defile” (defile being a canyon or steep valley). The most prominent defile along the range is that which now contains McDonald Lake and from which flows Mission Creek, which is NE from the Saleesh Camp near Dixon.

There is little other information on these sketches, except for his coding of their features. On No. 4 (2413), above the title of the sketch can be seen: “6 rocks, 7 snow, 8 woods”. This is important and I will refer back to these later.

Finally, the representation of the peak in the center of sketch No.5 (2414) is a simple wavy line. This would be in the vicinity of McDonald Peak, (the tallest peak in the Mission Range) and does not really look like McDonald Peak. However, as a resident of this area, I can attest to the fact that even on “fine” sunny days, these higher peaks can often maintain some high, obscuring clouds, as you can see on my photo. He may not have been able to see the full peak on that day.

Sitting up there on that hill, knowing I was on the exact spot that Thompson and La Guache had been, was pretty cool!

Sketches 2411 and 2412

I am convinced that sketches 2413 and 2414 were sketched on March 1, 1812, from Goose Hill. The spot from where sketches 2411 and 2412 were done is more uncertain. Many clues on these sketches point to them being drawn at a different time than 2413 and 2414. I will work through these below.

First, the title is different and visually, they look different. There is a lot more information on this set. The coding is different, for example, the code for snow on 2411 was “8”, whereas it was “7” on 2413, and the observation point is definitely farther south. There are bearings for some of the peaks and notes are included within the drawings (more on these later), whereas no such information was included on 2413 and 2414.

2411 bears the inscription “Saleesh Mountains South of the Lake No.1”. Unfortunately, it appears that the bottom of 2412 has been cut off, but it is still clear that it also reads “Saleesh Mountains South of the Lake”. One can make out the top of his capital “N” for “No.”, but it cannot be determined just what number it is. However, it is clear that the main peak in 2413 is Mt Cawalahcan (Harding), and the highest peak on 2412 is McDonald. It also says at the top of of 2412, “Continuation from the high peaks”. Therefore, it is not possible that there is another, missing sketch in between. Additionally, even though 2412 shows a large point coming out of the mountains, the other lines on the north of this sketch do match up well with the lines on the south end of 2411. So, 2412 must be “No. 2”. The range continues to south a little further, so one could speculate that there was probably another sketch, “No. 3”, but seems that it has sadly since been lost.


Sketches 2411 and 2412 list bearings of certain peaks along the ridge line. Theoretically, that should be enough to triangulate Thompson’s position while making these sketches. According to Carl, Thompson made his observations at different levels of precision i.e. ± 2 degree; ± 5 degrees and ± 10 degrees, so these probably best define an “area”, rather than a specific “spot”. The three bearings written on these sketches, from north to south are: N50E; N65E and N89E. Plotting the back bearings on Google Earth from the identified peaks gives the map below.

Google Comparison

As one can see, they do not converge at a common point. They do, however, all point to somewhere in the National Bison Range, which essentially is an isolated raised area that makes for a good vantage point to view the southern end of the Mission Mountains Range. Somewhere on these slopes is a logical place to sit down and draw some sketches.

Visitors to the National Bison Range are restricted to staying on the established roads, and for the most part, must stay in their vehicles. That makes it difficult to explore off road areas to try and pin down the exact spot where Thompson was when he did these sketches. For most of the year, only the lower Prairie Drive is open. I have driven up and down this road several times looking for the spot where the vista best matches his sketches. Despite the back bearing from the peaks he measured being slightly south, I found the best fit to be just about the confluence of Mission and Post Creeks (marked as “Obs Point” on the above map). It should be noted here, that certain key peaks, such as the small triangular ones that lie in front or behind other peaks, change quite noticeably in their relation to the others by moving as little as 1 mile north or south, and this can be used to find a particular spot that best matches these drawings. I have not yet checked higher up on the higher Red Sleep Mountain Drive loop. The back bearings indicate a potential spot could be about half way between the top and bottom of this road. This will be done once that road opens up — usually by mid-May. This site may be updated after that is completed.

Southern Pano Comparison

He was certainly no stranger to the Mission Creek drainage. This spot from where these photos were taken is only about 5 miles upstream of the Salish Camp at the confluence of Mission Creek and the Flathead River. If he came out of the stream bed at this point and wanted an unobstructed view of the valley, there are a couple of “knowls” just above the confluence of Mission and Post Creeks. As mentioned earlier, it is not possible to leave the road to go to that point to check, so this is just speculation — but one that makes sense.


There are other clues on these sketches as well. At the base of Mt Calowahcan on 2411 is the following notation: “NE 15 M Kootenae Country” As Carl has noted from DT’s journals, there was a Kootenai camp in the vicinity of the base of Mt Calowahcan. Additionally, from my observation point in the National Bison Range, it is 13 miles to the peak of Mt Calowahcan, according to Google Maps.


2411 also shows a confluence of 2 streams right below his position, which matches up well with the noted Mission and Post Creeks confluence. Finally, on 2412, Thompson has chosen to accentuate a point below McDonald Peak and he has the following annotation: “Forms a bold point of the mountains”. As can be seen from my photo, it is a dominant feature of the panorama.

There are a couple of “odd” things on these sketches that are still a little puzzling. The most obvious one is the long, blank ridge line on the north (left) side of 2412. As can be seen from my photo, there is a small side peak to north (left) side of McDonald and then the ridge line disappears behind the point mentioned above. At first, I thought that maybe this meant he was higher up than I was. I have photos from an earlier visit to the Bison Range from the top, and even from this height, that ridge line is not visible. Was he just “guessing”? We cannot know.

Other interesting information:

These sketches contain other interesting information, such as the location of the Kootenai camp mentioned earlier. Additionally, above the ridge line on the right hand side of 2411 he has written: “From here off side of a Brook @ (?) This Range rises (?) to the East Kootenae”. I put “?” by the symbol that looks like the modern day “@”. Nowadays, this is generally accepted to mean “at”, however, Thompson may have had a different shorthand meaning. I also included a “?” for the word that I translated as “rises”. It is difficult to know for certainty what this word is, but it does start with an “r” and it looks like the second letter is an “i”. “Rises”, makes the most sense here. To me this is a reference to the Swan Valley and Swan Range to the east of the Mission Mountains, and his source was the Kootenais. Above the blank ridge on 2412 described above is the following annotation: “Rivulet from behind the Mountain Kootenae”. This is another reference to the Swan Valley and Swan Range to the east of the Mission Mountains, and again his source was the Kootenais.

Date of Sketches

Unlike sketches 2413 and 2414, dating of sketches 2411 and 2412 is more difficult. Several possibilities present themselves. The coding system is different as I mentioned and, they just “look” so different. Could they be No 1 and 2 that combine with Nos 4 and 5 (2413 and 2414) — possibly drawn earlier in the day? I do not think so. To support that notion, a reference back to his journal is warranted:
At 9:10 AM set off and in about 1/8 mile crossed the Weir Brook of about 15 yards across now only 18 inches deep. We held on for about 3/4 mile up along the brook, which comes from NE defile then turned off behind the range of meadow knowls and held on about N8E / 18 miles. Our straight course from the brook of Saleesh Camp is N15E 2 miles. We came smartly on trot and hard gallop to 1:25 PM when we alighted on top of a bare knowl...
He did travel up Mission Creek (the creek that comes from the NE defile i.e. present day McDonald Lake). However, he did not go far enough up Mission Creek to reach the confluence of Mission and Post Creeks before turning north, and did not mention stopping to sketch, as he did on top of the “bare knowl”. I can imagine that it would take about four hours nonstop by horse to get from the vicinity of the Bison Range to the bare knowl. On the return trip he states:
at 3 PM we set off and held on very smartly, stopped about a quarter of an hour to eat a mouthful at the wooded brook. We took 1 hour and 54 minutes to this place, mostly on gallop – stopped about half an hour at the first camp then set off and at 9 PM arrived, thank Heaven at our tent – all well
Again, no mention of stopping to sketch. The return journey took six hours with short breaks. Certainly, Thompson was a man in a hurry!

Thompson and La Guache set off for the Missoula area on February 25, returning February 27. Could he have sketched 2411 and 2412 then? He journals state: “at 10:10 AM set off and went up the brook..”. White interprets this to be the Jocko, not Mission Creek. However, there are no bearings given, so maybe that is open to interpretation. He noted it was a showery day, so he probably would not have had a clear view of the mountains. Again, no mention of sketches, while he did note that he sketched the Bitterroot valley the next day. Upon return on the 27th, the weather had turned very wet, so no sketching on the 27th. February 28th: “A very bad night of snow – a day the same, much melts after falling – cannot do anything – wrote much”.

Granted, these are all small, circumstantial pieces of evidence. However, taken in toto, give an impression 2411 and 2412 were not sketched in 1812. If not 1812, then when? One cannot be certain, as there are not journal entries that specifically say “sketched the southern end of the mountains”, however, there are clues. Going back to his March 1st, 1812, journal entry from on top of the “bare knowl”: “...the scenery on the east side of the lake is not striking, a sameness of hills appears to the scenery I drew off 2 years ago – to the southern of which last a bold wide gap...” Could they have been sketched 1810 instead?

Going through his journal for 1810, the only time period that seems to offer Thompson the opportunity to sketch the valley is the end of February, 1810. February 26, he found the Salish camp on the Flathead River. February 28, he set off for the Kootenai camp to find Beaulieu: “A fine cloudy day – at 9:20 AM set off for Kootenae Camp [as marked on 2411] to do Chief, having learned Beaulieu is there – at 2:20 PM arrived having kept a smart trot..”

No bearings or route was given. March 1st, “a fine cloudy day”. He spends the time looking for Beaulieu (finds him to the north) and birch bark. March 2nd, “A moderate day but cloudy” – again, he was looking for birch. March 3rd – “A fine day”. He receives word that Courter had died and to hurry back to the Saleesh Camp. He left at about 11 AM and arrived back at about 3:30. He states he spent the rest of the day dealing with “the state of the deceased affairs”. No mention of sketching, but these were the only days I could find that had both agreeable weather and an opportunity for his route to take him close to the Bison Range. However, based on these small clues, I would speculate that Thompson probably drew these during this time from the small knowl above the confluence of Mission and Post Creeks, within today’s National Bison Range, even though there is no such entry in his journals.

As I said at the beginning of this, I feel a personal connection to these four sketches. These are not sketches of some abstract place I have never been to, like his Kootenai House in Canada and the mountains around there. This is where I live and I see these landmarks every day and I cannot help but feel his presence here, even today.

Doug Stevens
Doug Stevens is a retired scientist and college educator. He is also a freelance writer and photographer and lives near Polson, Montana. Part of his experience of Montana's grandeur is not only the backpacking and photographing of its epic scenery, but tracing the footsteps of those who have gone before – learning their stories and their impacts on today's landscapes.

Copyright @2020, Doug Stevens All Rights Reserved

Last updated: 4/6/2021

"Ordinary history conveys information; extraordinary history conveys understanding!"
Stewart Edward White-1931