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Who was David Thompson?…

We sometimes discuss ghost towns in this space, and today is another example. This time, however, the ghost town isn’t even on the map anymore. There used to be a town in McHenry County called Verendrye, named after French Canadian explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye. The tiny village was located northwest of Karlsruhe and northeast of Velva. The population peaked at 100 in 1940, and by 1970, the last inhabitant had left, and the area was turned into farmland.

The town is gone so that’s not as important as David Thompson. So, who is David Thompson and why is he related to Verendrye? The explorer Verendrye came through what is now North Dakota in 1738 because he was a fur trader and was looking to make some money in unchartered territory. Keep in mind, this is 123 years before Dakota Territory was established. In a sense, David Thompson was an explorer, too. But his agenda was completely different than Verendrye’s. Thompson, who was British, has been called the greatest land geographer who ever lived.

Fifty-nine years after Verendrye and the same year Pembina was established, is when Thompson came through what is now North Dakota. That was 1797. George Washington was president, and the USS Constitution was launched from Boston Harbor to fight Barbary Pirates off the coast of Tripoli. It was a long time ago. But Thompson had the latest and greatest equipment for mapping and that’s what he did.

For several years he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and when he left was given surveying equipment. He was later promoted to HBC surveyor. In 1797, he quit HBC and went to work for the Northwest Company. Ironically, it was the Northwest Company that set up a fort at what is now Pembina when the HBC wasn’t interested in it. Thompson’s first assignment was to find out exactly where the 49th Parallel was and to visit the Mandan-Hidatsa village along the Missouri River, tribes that were noted by Verendrye.

Thompson surveyed the area from Lake Superior up to Lake Winnipeg and back to Lake of the Woods along the U.S./Canada border. He then mapped the upper Great Plains, including North Dakota, and moved westward into Montana and Alberta. He and his party entered North Dakota from Manitoba and explored along the Mouse River, the Des Lacs River and the western part of the Turtle Mountains. Then they headed in a southwest direction toward the Missouri River. They had gathered firewood in the Turtle Mountains and had to carry this life-saving fuel with them on their dogsleds as they traveled across the prairie. The winter weather was severe, and the party had to struggle through blizzards and bitterly cold temperatures.

By the time he was done, he had surveyed 1.9 million square miles, and he wasn’t done. Lewis and Clark had already left on their journey so the Northwest Company wanted Thompson to find a route to the Pacific north of the border. He discovered it in British Columbia and down into Washington.

One-hundred and twenty-eight years after Thompson’s incredible journey, the North Pacific Railway in 1925 recognized Thompson’s work in the tiny town of Verendrye. A granite ball, 5 feet in diameter, crossed by perfunctory latitude and longitude lines is a monument to David Thompson, who “passed near here in 1797 and 1798” while making the first map of North Dakota. Thompson’s accomplishment is difficult to appreciate, as North Dakota is essentially a rectangle of arbitrary geography. The monument was placed on a lonely hill in 1925, overlooking Verendyre, a gift from the Great Northern Railroad, whose tracks ran nearby.

Thompson’s monument has never drawn much of a crowd but stands tall on the prairie. Because Verendyre was abandoned decades ago, and there are no paved roads to the site, it doesn’t get many visitors. But those who do visit the site can appreciate the work Thompson did, not only for the Northwest Company but also for this part of the Louisiana Purchase six years before it had that name.

The globe’s inscription after 95 years is so worn that it is barely legible. A few more North Dakota winters and it will be gone, and the meaning behind this big, granite globe will be lost to the rare traveler who stumbles upon it.

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