In May 2005, I found the following entry in the guest book of this website:
Your pioneer Gilbert Thompson did something very famous (to us) in our little town 3000
miles away in Northern California. I'm so excited to make the connection. Do you know
A short time later, I received the following email:
I was so excited when the computer isolated Gilbert Thompson's name on your website. I
have been studying parts of his history for many years. To get directly to the point: In 1883 he
and a mule skinner named Tom Watson managed to coax two mules to the 14,162 ft. summit
of Mt. Shasta, California.
As a local historian and member of the Board of Directors of our local Sisson Museum I've
been trying to develop the story of Dynamite and Croppy (the mules) and of the men who did
this. Specifically, I've been searching for a photograph of Thompson for twenty years
Is there still any family link in your community? Is there someone to whom you could refer
me who might feed me a lead? Thompson is a tough name to search in genealogy.
You probably know that Thompson, even though he made a notable career as a
topographer, is best known as the first American to use fingerprints for personal identification.
I'm anxious to hear if someone in your community has studied your famous pioneer and
perhaps has information to warm an old historian's heart! Thanks in advance for any
The Sisson History Project
I had no idea who Gilbert Thompson was, and had to do a search to find out where he was
on my website. I found him in this paragraph from Ellen Patrick's story in Hopedale
We were given instruction in drawing. Gilbert Thompson, whose affection of the old place
and friends was strong to the last, and who had hoped to share in these memories, was able
to take up the work of a topographical engineer, without further preparation, and to become,
finally, a leading topographer; and Lizzie Humphrey, our real artist, received here her first
preparation for the career in which she won distinction. Dear Lizzie, loveliest of girls, and
always our Queen of the May.
Thompson died in 1909. Hopedale Reminiscences was published in 1910. Evidently he had
planned to write his memories for it. More information on Thompson turned up in Ballou's
History of Milford and in Who Was Who. First, the Ballou article:
Thompson, Gilbert, son of William V. and Harriet (Gilbert)Thompson, b. in So. Mendon, now
Blackstone, March 21, 1840; came to Hopedale, along with his mr. (who joined our
Community), in 1849; served apprenticeship, etc., in our printing-office 4 yrs.; enlisted at
Boston in the U.S. regular army, in a corps of topographical engineers, Nov. 23, 1861; served
in that department 3 yrs., and, after an honorable discharge, was engaged by government to
continue in the same business, in which he has remained till the present time. He m. Mary
McNeal, pedigree, etc., not given; cer. Washington City, Oct., 1869. Issue: -- Amy Grier, b.
Washington, D.C., Aug. 14, 1872. Mr. T. has had a successful career in life. He is not only a
man of sterling intellectual capabilities, but of generous sentiments, noble moral principles,
and of unswerving integrity. As a civil and military engineer, he has won distinction and
An interesting and valuable article appeared in "The American Journal of Science," vol. xix,
May 1880, by G.K. Gilbert, on "The Outlet of Lake Bonnville." This name, "Bonnville," is the
name given to a vast body of water, presumed by geologists to have once covered the desert
basins of Utah to the height of a thousand feet above the present level of Great Salt Lake. In
that article the author thus speaks of our Mr. Thompson: "After the publication of my former
article, I learned that the outlet had been independently discovered by my friend, Mr. Gilbert
Thompson; and I am glad to give him credit. Mr. Thompson is not a professional geologist,
but he is an expert topographer; and his close study of the natural forms, which it is his work
to delineate, has more than once led to observations valuable to the geologist with whom he
has been associated. I quote the following from his letter dated April 10, 1878: 'Thanks for
your brochure, The Ancient Outlet of Great Salt Lake. The past season I was along the
northern limits of the ancient lake, between 111 deg. And 112 deg, 22, 30, and was
absolutely ignorant of your examination of its limits, and also of its outlet. Toward the last of
the season, as I surveyed from the north the road through Red Rock Pass, after noting the
remarkable topographical features of Marsh Creek, and keeping a close run of the profile as
given by the aneroid, I was delighted at Red Rock to see unmistakable evidences of the
ancient outlet of Great Salt Lake. Thus you may have the gratification of knowing of an
independent and entirely unbiased verification of your determination on this point; and it is
nowhere else within the limits I have mentioned.'" Mr. T. has been on topographical service in
Utah for several yrs., and is still there. Adin Ballou, History of Milford, 1882, pp. 1064 - 1065.
Thompson, Gilbert, topographer U.S. Geological Survey; b. Blackstone, Mass, March 21
1839; [1840, according to Ballou] s. William Venner and Harriet (Gilbert) T.; ed. common sch.;
m. Mary Frances Reed McNeil, (McNeal, according to Ballou) Sept 28, 1869. Printer by trade;
soldier, U. S. engr. Battalion, Nov. 22, 1861 to Nov. 21, 1864; asst. engr. Headquarters Army
of Potomic, 1864 - 1865 on Western explorations and surveys, etc., 1866 - ; comd. Engr.
Battalion, D.C. militia, 1890 - 98; historian Veteran U.S. Engrs. Assn. Address: Washington,
D.C. Died 1909. Who Was Who.
From the Aladdin Passport website: In 1882, Gilbert Thompson of the U.S. Geological Survey
in New Mexico, used his own fingerprints on a document to prevent forgery. This is the first
known use of fingerprints in the United States.
From The Forensic Scientist website: 1882 Gilbert Thompson, an American engineer
building railroads in Mexico adopted "the practice of pressing his thumb print on wage chits
for his workers" to combat forgeries.
A Hopedale map from the 1890s shows Gilbert Thompson's name on a lot on Freedom
Street, just above the home of the Charles Roper family. It seems rather doubtful that he lived
there after leaving Hopedale to enter the army, but perhaps his mother remained there for the
rest of her life and may have still been living at the time the map was made.
Thompson was a Mayflower descendant and also the great-grandson of Deborah Sampson
of Revolutionary War fame. Click here to read a biography of him on the Internet Archive.
The picture below is of a receipt made out by Thompson to "Lying Bob" for $75. It shows
Thompson's thumb print over the amount. I suppose it's best to take precautions when
dealing with someone by that name. Thanks to Mike Cyr for sending it.
Here's a thought on the receipt from Perry Sims: Hey Dan: Nice to hear from you. I am
familiar with the image, and have for some time had some question of its authenticity. The
name of the payee seems exceedingly convenient for the first such example of the fingerprint
useage. G Thompson was a well read, curious fellow. It seems likely that he may have at
some point have drawn-up the document as an illustration of the technique. I don't believe
Thompson to have been above self-promotion. The example dates the proof that he was the
first in America to use a technique he could have easily read about. This is not to suggest that
he didn't write a great number of documents, authenticated by his finger print, which didn't
survive until the "first" was recognized, and the example written.
Then again I could be full of Hoooie!!
Thanks for thinking of me.
Peace and blessings,
I think Perry is right. Lying Bob seems a bit too convenient to be true. Possibly years after
Thompson first used his thumb print on a receipt, someone asked about it and he made up
the Lying Bob one as an example of what they looked like. Anyway, there you have it -another
one of history's mysteries.
Milford News article on Thompson National Geographic article on Thompson
Hopedale Community Menu HOME
Sketch of Adin Ballou drawn by Gilbert Thompson in 1860.
Thompson's name at Memorial Hall, Milford.