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.
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
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
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 combat engineer.
“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
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
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 his death.
“Gilbert Thompson was a true and honorable American gentleman, and of a type which we may all do well to emulate.”
Milford Sunday News, June 11, 2016
Mr. Know-It-All, aka Bob Tremblay, can be reached at 508-626-4409 or firstname.lastname@example.org.