Tom Thomson was born August 5, 1877 near Claremont, Ontario and grew up in Leith, near Owen Sound. In 1899, he entered a machine shop apprenticeship at a foundry owned by William Kennedy, a close friend of his father. He was fired from his apprenticeship by a foreman who complained of Thomson's habitual tardiness. In 1899 he volunteered to fight in the Second Boer War. In 1901, he enrolled in a business college in Chatham and dropped out eight months later to follow his older brother, George Thomson, who was operating a business school in Seattle, Washington. There he met and had a brief summer romance with Alice Elinor Lambert. In 1904, he returned to Canada, and may have studied with William Cruikshank. In 1907 Thomson joined Grip Ltd., an artistic design firm in Toronto, where many of the future members of the Group of Seven also worked.
Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park.
Thomson first visited Algonquin Park in Ontario in 1912; thereafter he often travelled with his colleagues around Canada, especially to the wilderness of Ontario, which was to be a major source of inspiration for Thomson. In 1912 Thomson began working, along with other members of the Group of Seven, at Rous and Mann Press, but left the following year to work as an artist full-time. He first exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists in 1913, and became a member in 1914, when the National Gallery of Canada purchased one of his paintings. He would continue to exhibit with the Ontario Society until his death. For several years he shared studio and living quarters with fellow artists, before taking up residence in a shack on Canoe Lake. Beginning in 1914 he worked intermittently as a fire fighter, ranger, and guide in Algonquin Park, but found that such work did not allow enough time for painting. During the next three years he produced many of his most famous works, including The Jack Pine, The West Wind and The Northern River.
Thomson disappeared during a canoeing trip on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park on July 8, 1917, and his body was discovered in the lake eight days later. The official cause of death was accidental drowning, but there are still questions about how he actually died. It was reported that there was fishing line wrapped around his leg seventeen times and he had a head injury (which may have been post mortem). It has also been speculated that he was murdered by a German-American neighbor, Martin Blecher, Jr., or that he fell on a fire grate during a drunken brawl with J. Shannon Fraser, owner of Canoe Lake's Mowat Lodge, over an old loan to Fraser for the purchase of canoes. Thomson allegedly needed the money for a new suit to marry Winnifred Trainor, whose parents had a cottage at Canoe Lake. Rumours circulated following his drowning that she was pregnant with Thomson's child. Winnifred Trainor made a trip to Philadelphia with her mother the following winter and returned around Easter. She never spoke about her relationship with Thomson. A nephew, Terrance Trainor MacGregor, an upper New York resident who inherited her estate, which included at least 13 small Thomson paintings and letters, said the letters confirm their engagement. MacGregor has refused to produce the letters for scholarly investigation. Others believe that Thomson, who produced at least 63 landscape paintings that last spring, many of which he gave away or discarded, suffered severe depression and drowned himself. He was buried at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park on July 17, 1917 without family members having seen the body. Under the direction of his older brother, George Thomson, the body was exhumed two days later and re-interred in the family plot beside the Leith Presbyterian Church on July 21. None of these theories are conclusive, and the wide range of speculation serves mostly to perpetuate Thomson's romantic legend.