Is it Snowshoe Thompson or Snowshoe Thomson? The story of the larger-than-life, snowshoeing pioneer left much to the imagination, including the spelling of his own name. There has been some disagreement over the decades, even in the Snowshoe Thompson Chapter (SST) of E Clampus Vitus (ECV), as to how his name was actually spelled. The answer has eluded some, including the very person that inscribed his headstone in Genoa, which reads “John A. Thomson.” But what is the correct spelling exactly?
John Albert Thompson’s (also known as Snowshoe Thompson) birth name was actually Jon Torsteinson Rue. Torsteinson, according to the Tinn Museum in Norway, was his biological father’s name, and Rue was placed in the name to delineate the farm he was from. It wasn’t until after he had immigrated to America that he Americanized his name to John Albert Thompson, which some historians have claimed was after his stepfather’s surname.
Although he adopted the name of Thompson, some historians have doubts surrounding the consistency of Thompson’s signatures.
“On his gravestone, there is no p,” said Gail Allen, collections manager for the Douglas Historical Society. “But I think they’ve seen it both ways (his signature). They’ve seen him sign it (his signature) with and without the p.”
Although that may be the case, documents that Thompson actually signed are scarce and hard to come by. Two of such documents are letters he wrote to his wife during a visit he paid to Washington D.C. for hearings concerning his compensation. A copy of these letters is in the University of California Berkeley Bancroft Library’s archives. While reproduction of the letters is prohibited by the library, pieces of the transcribed letters are as follows:
Washington D. C.
Feb 6 1872
I arived [sic] here last Friday the 2nd I wrote you a few lines from Ogden and allso [sic] from Larince [sic] and Telleygraphed [sic] you from Chianne [? sic] I got to Pittsburg last mon day and staid there two days with Delorma
My Love to all From your Affectionatge Husband J. A. Thompson
Washington D. C.
March 7, 1872
I am still in this City and in good health But +my bussaness gos slow I got the first hearing to day before the Committee I apeard before them myself and I had all so a man by the nam of Bee from Blacervill as witness . . .
Arthur you must be a good Boy and Mind what Mother and Grand Mother tels you then I wil be So Pleased when I com home and have them tell me all about how good you have bin. From your Kind Husband
J. A. Thompson
Both these documents are in very clear handwriting, and the signature can be seen as “J. A. Thompson.”
This doesn’t necessarily discount the idea that Thompson may have signed his name as Thomson at times, but it does show some consistency with the spelling as “Thompson.”
His name can also be seen spelled out on his Certificate of Citizenship, which can be viewed in the Alpine County Museum. The clerk’s handwriting can be seen
spelling the name as Thompson, so regardless of how he may have spelled it, according to his citizenship papers, his legal, Americanized name was spelled as Thompson.
So why the misspelling on the grave in Genoa? One story goes that his wife, Agnes, was illiterate and, as the executor of his estate, was most likely the one to commission the headstone and spelled his name wrong. This story is unconfirmed, and some historians doubt the validity of these claims, as Thompson would most likely have not made an illiterate person the executor of his estate.
There is also the possibility that the mistake was made by the person that made the stone, but again, the fact remains unconfirmed. All that we can know for certain is that whiskey may have been involved.
For a period of time, SST adopted the spelling of the chapter’s name as it was spelled on Snowshoe Thompson’s gravestone, and several historical plaques from that era can be read with “Snowshoe Thomson 1827” inscribed on the bottom. These changes from back and forth have been to recognize the absurdity of the debate and don’t necessarily reflect any serious disagreement as to how the name was actually spelled.
“Although the SST Chapter likes the absurdity of the debate of ‘Thomson’ or ‘Thompson,’” said Brandon Wilding, SST historian. “And we feel that this topic forces people to do their own research and delve deeper into the history of Snowshoe, we truly see that the spelling of his name is not what made this man so great. Maybe we should have named our Chapter the Jon Torsteinson Rue Chapter #1827, so that his loyalty, selflessness, courage and loving character would have been the focus. But with that said, let me matter of factly add that his name was obviously spelled with a P.”
On a similar note, regardless of the spelling of his name, Snowshoe Thompson lives on in folk legend and history alike as a larger-than-life character of grit and fortitude, and as Dan De Quille wrote after interviewing Thompson, “his equal in his peculiar line will probably never be seen again.”