The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s recent 130th anniversary, this series takes a look at their stories.
By Mark Collins Jenkins
The story, as he liked to tell it anyway, was that a mere slip of the pen changed his 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. 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?”
“When you enlisted, did you not say you were a painter?”
“No, Sir. I said I was a printer.”
“Well,” said the officer impatiently. “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.
Gilbert Thompson, born in Mendon, Massachusetts, on March 21, 1839, was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of warriors. His father, William Venner Thompson, had helped suppress the forgotten “Dorr Rebellion,” a minor 1842 mob insurrection in Rhode Island, but it was really on his on mother’s side that true martial glory lay. His great-grandmother was Deborah Sampson, who fought in the Revolutionary War as Private Robert Shurtleff, and was said to have performed her duty unswervingly while managing to “[preserve] her chastity inviolate by the most artful concealment of her sex.”
Yet Thompson grew up in one of those Utopian New England villages that practiced a form of communism and preached pacifism. Hopedale had been founded by Adin Ballou, a well-known Unitarian minister, temperance advocate, and abolitionist; and in 1849, when Gilbert was ten years old, his parents joined Ballou’s community. Thompson’s love of books naturally led him to the printer’s trade as an apprentice, beginning with setting type in the Hopedale newsletter’s office.
He was still setting type four years later when the country was rocked by the outbreak of the Civil War. Though the Hopedale community was, of course, officially pacifist, young Gilbert soon found himself unable to continue fishing around in the type box while the great battle for emancipation was underway. So he up and left for Boston, where he stood in line to enlist on that day when a clerk’s hasty handwriting changed his life.
Gilbert was lucky to have been given instruction in drawing while at Hopedale, for it would be his saving grace. An excellent draftsman and topographer, he rose to the rank of corporal in the U. S. Engineer Battalion, the equivalent of today’s combat engineers. For the next three years he helped dig ditches, erect fieldworks, and throw bridges across rivers and streams, often in the face of the enemy.
After the war was over, Thompson settled in Washington, where his knowledge of topography combined with military experience was promptly taken advantage of by the War Department in other ways, 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.
Day on Death Mountain
A man with Thompson’s training made him a valuable man to keep in government service. So in 1872, when Lieutenant George M. Wheeler mounted the “Geological and Geographic Survey West of the 100th Meridian”—the Wheeler Survey, for short, one of the four great Western Surveys of the post-Civil War period—it meant a splendid opportunity for a seasoned topographer in search of new worlds to conquer.
Over the next seven seasons whenever he arrived at the field camps in the West, Thompson would have met many of the explorer-scientists he would get to know better in the years ahead. Grove Karl Gilbert was fast becoming the nation’s star geologist. Rogers Birnie was a young West Pointer attached to the cavalry companies that accompanied the scientific parties, and Henry W. Henshaw, an expert on anything related to natural history.
In 1878, a young British-born magazine writer, William Henry Rideing, was attached to the Wheeler Survey and soon was turning out humorous sketches of field life in the West. He seemed particularly taken by the tale-spinning Thompson. In his book, Boys in the Mountains, Rideing left several indelible portraits of the topographer whom he described 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 the late summer of 1875, for example, one of the survey parties was camped on Cottonwood Island in the Colorado River, where it was 114° in the shade. Whenever he went down to the river for a “cooler,” Thompson could see, rising shimmering from the Nevada desert
several miles to the south, Spirit Mountain, or Death Mountain, as it was sometimes called, a peak sacred to the Mojave, to whom it was a combination of Mt. Ararat, where one human family survived a world flood, and Valhalla, the abode of the warrior dead. “Should the white man step within its sacred limits,” Thompson recounted to Rideing, “a great fire would break forth and destroy him.” And that’s about what happened on the day he decided to ascend its slopes.
With most of the best animals on a supply run, Thompson and one of the naturalists, a Dr. Loew, undertook the journey with just their mules, their instruments, and two canteens of water—“not entirely for ourselves, as we knew that our mules would find a drink from the crown of our hats very acceptable in the heat of the day.”
A steady gait of about three hours across dry creosote bush plains brought them to the foot of the mountain. By that point they were down to one canteen. After picketing the mules, the two men began to ascend, clambering upwards, crossing side canyons, scrambling over serrated ridges, and wriggling up fissures until eventually reaching the enchanted summit.
There, spread all around them, was “a strange and wonderful landscape” of varicolored peaks and needles, gorges and summits, all united by the silver thread of the Colorado River. Though the heat was oppressive, Thompson managed the topographical work, reading the angles and sketching the panorama. When it came time to construct a cairn in which to enclose his records, the stones were so hot that they burned his fingers. He could only pile up a few of them.
The heat was now intense. “I felt so faint and dizzy that I scarcely expected to get out of it,” he related. Upon reaching the mules “there was but one thought, to push directly for the river.” They were out of water.
“No one knows how much suffering and death there have been along the banks of this river from thirst. There are graves of men, one half-mile from its waters, who died crazed by thirst, while treading in a little circle, and tearing the clothes from their bodies, with one only thought—water!— water!”
Somehow they got there, and men and beasts both plunged into the Colorado and began gulping its muddy waters down. “I shall not soon forget how grateful it was to drink without stint. The doctor went out and sat down to his very lips in the river with all his clothes on, and yet, on arrival in camp an hour and a half later, his clothes were perfectly dry.”
In 1879 when the four competing surveys were finally consolidated into a single U.S. Geological Survey, Thompson won a position as a topographer, and it was his good fortune to be assigned to the Great Basin Division, led by Grove Karl Gilbert. During their winter months in Washington, Thompson joined his boss and others as a member of the “Great Basin Mess,” a kind of club that eventually became part of the institutional culture at the Survey. Growing out of an informal lunch gathering held in imitation of camp life in the Basin, the “Mess” evolved into an unofficial clique presided over by the Survey’s director, Major John Wesley Powell.
The Ballad of Croppy the Mule
One habit that would win Thompson a kind of undying fame outside the annals of mapmaking has often been dated to these years. 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 U.S. But it all stems from a single example that Thompson, many years later, sent to Sir Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who among many other interests was pioneering the use of fingerprints in forensics. And this example was apparently an actual requisition stating, “August 8, 1882 – Mr. Jones, Sutler, will pay to Lying Bob seventy five dollars.” It was signed by Thompson and the amount due to Lying Bob was written over his fingerprint.
Yet it is almost certainly a fake—or if not a fake, an example that Thompson later concocted to show Sir Francis how he went about the business. The convenient Lying Bob aside, Thompson was not in New Mexico, as he claimed in this requisition, on August 8, 1882. For he had already been in Northern California for six weeks, where he was then in charge of the Pacific District, having set up a headquarters and barometric base station at Red Bluff on the Sacramento River.
Despite frequent storms, forest fires, and other impediments not so frequently encountered in the more arid West, Thompson succeeded in outfitting several field parties with pack trains, teamsters, cooks, wagons, and mules, and in little more than two months in that 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.
In the midst of these efforts, Thompson and a muleskinner named Tom Watson coaxed two mules, Dynamite and Croppy, up some 14,000 feet and across ice and scree fields to the top of Shasta. Croppy in particular became a part of local legend as one of the long-suffering if surefooted mules without which the West would never have been mapped. Not long afterwards, with the work having shifted into Oregon, the cantankerous mule, as an account bearing all the hallmarks of Thompson’s own voice puts it, “became frisky and pitched headlong over a rocky precipice five hundred feet high. As his limbs mixed with those of the trees below, the thoughts of the spectators above were ‘There goes all that is mortal of Croppy, who climbed to the top of Mt. Shasta, but died in a lonely canyon, by his own hand in a fit of temporary insanity. Let him R.I.P.’”
In 1884 Thompson was put in charge of the Appalachian Division, comprising all the country south of the Mason- Dixon Line and Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. The ancient folded landscape was cloaked with forest, and Thompson’s men often constructed towers to get above the canopy, only to find haze or smoke obscuring the view for days at a time.
After spending his summers in the mountains, Thompson would return to Washington for the winter. 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, he made his last field trip to the West, mapping the 143 square miles of the Helena, Montana, quadrangle, where every evening he watched the sun set behind the Rockies. After that, he was mostly in the Washington office. Topography was a young man’s game.
Nevertheless, Thompson was not one to let spare time go to seed. Congenial to the end, he joined everything: the Society of Colonial Wars in the District of Columbia, the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Society of the War of 1812. And of course he remained active in the Grand Army of the Republic, those graying veterans who had won the Civil War, and the Society of the Army of the Potomac.
Above all, he grew increasingly absorbed in history. 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.
By 1909 he was 70 years old, with his face showing the effects of a lifetime spent in the sun and wind. Nevertheless, every morning he stepped out of his front door–remarkably close to the new headquarters of the National Geographic Society he had helped incorporate—and went down to the nearby Geological Survey offices. One morning, however, he didn’t show up, and his younger colleagues heard that on June 8, Major Gilbert Thompson, the oldest member of the Topographic Branch, had suddenly died. He was buried in Arlington, “a true and honorable American gentleman,” as one friend wrote, “and of a type which we may all do well to emulate.”