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 Gilbert?
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
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 assistance,
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 Reminiscences.
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 golden commendations.
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
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
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.
Editor’s note: Mr. Know-It-All is an occasional feature in which we answer reader questions about local history.
Got a good question for Mr. Know-It-All? See the email address at the bottom of this story.
While scanning through local histories, Mr. K never ceases to be amazed by the accomplishments of citizens in
our area. For example, who knew that a Mendon resident co-founded the National Geographic Society?
Well, Mr. K assumes a few people knew, such as relatives of the resident, historians, society members and your
basic brainiacs. So now everyone will know, or at least everyone who reads this column. His name was Gilbert
Thompson, and for further information on this fine gentleman Mr. K turns to a tribute penned by Marcus
Benjamin, who, like Thompson, was a member of the Society of Colonial Wars in the District of Columbia, an
article written by Mark Collins Jenkins for the National Geographic Society and Wikipedia.
Thompson was born to William V. and Harriet (Gilbert) Thompson in Mendon on March 21, 1839. Sources on
the Hopedale-Mendon Historical Society website point out that the section of Mendon where Thompson was
born is now Blackstone. He comes from impressive lineage as his great-grandmother was Deborah Sampson,
who fought in the Revolutionary War as Private Robert Shurtleff.
When Thompson was 10, his parents moved to the Utopian community in Hopedale founded by Adin Ballou.
While there, Thompson developed a love of books and trained to become a printer. His first job was as a printer’
s assistant. In 1861 he left for Boston, where he enlisted in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War despite
growing up in a pacifist milieu. We should add that Ballou was also an abolitionist. Now it’s time for one of those
twists of fate that often change lives. Here, a mere slip of the enlistment clerk’s pen altered Thompson’s life.
“It had been his turn that November day in 1861 to step up to the recruiting officer and declare his desire to go
to war,” writes Jenkins. “Asked his trade, he had replied, ‘I am a printer.’ Only after he had reached the
mobilization camp several days later was he sent to where only officers were lounging. Puzzled, he asked one of
them why he was there. A young officer checked his paperwork and replied, ‘You are an artist, I believe.’ ‘No,
sir,’ replied Thompson. ‘When you enlisted, did you not say you were a painter?’ asked the officer. ‘No, sir. I said
I was a printer,’ answered Thompson. ‘Well,’ said the officer, ‘for heaven’s sake, don’t say anything, but you’ve
been assigned to the engineers.’
“The new recruit was then taken behind the tent, and the worried officer taught Mr. Gilbert Thompson the use of
compass and plane table. And that was how a typographer became a topographer—and, as most of his later
associates at the U.S. Geological Survey would say, one of the best topographers they ever knew.”
Basically because of that pen slip, Thompson, instead of becoming an infantryman in this deadly war, became a
“After the war was over, Thompson settled in Washington, D.C, where his knowledge of topography combined
with military experience was promptly taken advantage of by the War Department in other ways,” writes Jenkins,
“and he soon found himself back in Virginia and Maryland in order to survey the recent battlefields. Many a
beautifully executed map in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion has the name ‘G. Thompson’ listed
among its creators.”
While in Washington, Thompson became associated with the U.S. Geological Survey and in 1872 joined the
Wheeler Survey, considered one of the four great western surveys of the post-Civil War period. He would stay
on the Wheeler Survey for the next seven years. In 1875 he led an expedition to Spirit Mountain in Nevada, of
which he provided the first topographical sketch.
After joining the Wheeler Survey in 1878, a British-born magazine writer, William Henry Rideing, described
Thompson as being “one of the most daring of mountaineers and cheeriest of companions; a kindly soul, whose
spirit goes up as difficulties and discomforts increase.”′
In 1879, when the four competing surveys were consolidated into a single U.S. Geographical Survey, Thompson
won the position as a topographer.
He would also win “a kind of undying fame outside the annals of mapmaking,” Jenkins writes. “Since the western
surveys began, scientists and explorers had to make use of local teamsters and packers, men hired and
discharged as need be, many being of ‘dubious moral character,’ as the general tenor of description ran. By
1882, the story goes, Thompson had fallen into the habit of issuing his pay orders with his own thumbprint inked
on them, verifying that he indeed was the team leader who had submitted the requisition for someone to be paid
the amount written over the print. This is generally conceded to be the first such use of fingerprinting for
identification purposes in the United States.”
As a topographer, Thompson didn’t let such minor inconveniences as storms and forest fires prevent him for
doing his job. He still succeeded in outfitting several field parties with pack trains, teamsters, cooks, wagons and
mules, and in little more than two months in the fall of 1882 managed to map 2,000 square miles and establish
125 barometric points. “As a result, within two years he had completed a detailed map of the Mount Shasta
region; a good start, for standing alone in bold relief out of a sea of forest, Shasta, one of the southernmost
volcanoes of the Cascade Range, dominated an area of about 24,000 square miles,” Jenkins writes.
continues. “And it was on one winter’s evening in January 1888 that Thompson turned up at the Cosmos Club in
response to an invitation to discuss the wisdom of establishing a society dedicated to the ‘increase and diffusion
of geographical knowledge.’ He and 32 others agreed on this idea; and a week later, their numbers augmented
to about 70, they decided to associate themselves as the National Geographic Society.
“Neither he nor anyone else involved in those events could have foreseen what would grow out of those early
meetings. But surely he would have been pleased to know that the National Geographic magazine’s very first
map supplement, issued in 1889, was the U.S. Geological Survey’s ‘North Carolina—Tennessee—Asheville
Sheet,’ a quadrangle produced by his division.
In 1898, Thompson made his last field trip to the West, mapping the 143 square miles of the Helena, Montana,
quadrangle. After that, he was mostly in the Washington office.
In addition to joining the the Society of Colonial Wars in the District of Columbia, Thompson joined the Society of
the Sons of the American Revolution and the Society of the War of 1812 and remained active in the Grand Army
of the Republic and the Society of the Army of the Potomac.
“Above all, he grew increasingly absorbed in history,” Jenkins writes. “The old mapmaker triangulated his way
with happy abandon across the rolling landscapes of the past. He traced his genealogy with the same attention
to detail with which he once sketched the buttes and spires of the West, finding connections through his mother’
s family both to Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh and a famous explorer in his own
right, and to Captain Myles Standish, the Mayflower’s leading soldier and hero of Longfellow’s famous poem. At
heart he was an antiquarian, a man whose fascinations ran toward disregarded objects and artifacts and quirky,
little-investigated corners of the past.”
On June 8, 1909, Major Gilbert Thompson, the oldest member of the Topographic Branch, died at the age of 70.
“It is not easy to write either in detail or at length of Major Thompson’s personal character,” writes Benjamin in
his tribute, “but a sympathy and freshness of enthusiasm and a remarkable interest in everything that pertained
to his work were striking characteristics. He found recreation in music and was a sympathetic performer on the
violin, but with that remarkable persistence of his, he studied that wonderful instrument in many ways. The
construction of the violin itself, the relation of the f-holes to the volume of sound, the effect of different varnishes
upon the quality of tone, were all subjects to which he gave much time and thought. Nor was it alone this phase
of art which interested him; for his skill with his pen... led to facility in handling the brush, as many watercolors
now preserved by his family, testify. Also he was particularly clever in that branch of art called pyrography. With
a hot instrument he burnt into wood strong and picturesque sketches which were much sought after by those
who appreciated that kind of work.
“Religion was his consolation, and he was a regular attendant at the services of the Protestant Episcopal
Church, being for many years a communicant of St. Andrew’s, but more recently of St. Michael and All Angels,
where his religious activities found recognition by an election to the vestry, a place which he held at the time of
“Gilbert Thompson was a true and honorable American gentleman, and of a type which we may all do well to
Milford Sunday News, June 11, 2016
Mr. Know-It-All, aka Bob Tremblay, can be reached at 508-626-4409 or [email protected]
Milford News article on Thompson National Geographic article on Thompson
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