The Early Years
by Cliff Huntington
Not much is known of Maurice's early years and the available information
is at times confusing and contradictory, but most biographers agree that
Maurice was born in Fairfield, Indiana on September 9, 1844. Elder Grigg
Thompson and his wife Diantha Jagger Thompson named their fifth child,
James Madison Thompson. As a young man he would change his given name to
James Maurice Thompson and eventually drop James altogether. Maurice (pronounced
Morris) acquired the nickname "Mat" as a youngster and it never
really left him, as close friends and family would continue to call him
"Mat" throughout his life.
There's been more discussion and speculation concerning the place and date
of birth of Maurice's younger brother Will Henry Thompson. It appears that
Will was born in Missouri on 10 March 1846. Evidence supports the family
residing in Missouri at this time and a penciled note in the margin of
Otis B. Wheeler's 1951 Master's Thesis, Maurice Thompson: A Biographical
and Critical Study simply says, "Family sources confirm date of
Will's birth as 10 March 1846." Some researchers have placed their
age differences at four years, but throughout his writings, Maurice infers
that he and Will were similar and matched in abilities as youngsters, an
indication they were much closer in age.
Early in 1855 Maurice's family moved from Kentucky to near Calhoun, a small
town nestled in the Cherokee valley of North Georgia where Grigg Thompson
purchased 160 acres in a pine forest nestled along the beautiful and scenic
Coosawattee River. Later additions would swell their "farmstead"
as Maurice called it, to several hundred acres. The forests were full of
game, the Coosawattee River and tributaries full of fish and adventure
awaited just over the rugged peaks guarding the peaceful valley. Maurice
fell in love with this brooding and beautiful country where Tennessee,
Alabama and Georgia join and continued to make trips back long after moving
to Crawfordsville, Indiana. Here Maurice's and Will's education would be
taken over by Diantha Thompson and the occasional live in tutor from Savannah
and here the longbow would strike a spark, igniting a flame that would
only be extinguished in death. The old church where Grigg Thompson once
pastored is now gone, another stands in its place on the same plot of ground;
the home of Maurice's youth has long turned to ashes that now nurture sod
in the yards of expensive homes, but his spirit may still be felt by those
Maurice's first experience with archery began here, probably an interest
developed from reading and studying the classics. Archery's colorful history
is well represented in the Greek and Latin literature used by Diantha in
her teachings. Maurice and Will were certain to have had contact with local
Native Americans as the Cherokee were common inhabitants of this rough
and rugged country, but nothing indicates their archery beginnings were
influenced by them. After rudimentary and rough beginnings, the brothers
were taken under the wing of a reclusive and eccentric individual who resided
at the edge of their father's farm by the name of Thomas Williams. Williams,
schooled in the proper technique of the English, was the instrument responsible
for their fundamental skill and knowledge which would prove so valuable
in later years.
From all accounts Maurice and Will enjoyed a carefree existence, and to
some the brothers were "both wild as the devil, doing nothing but
hunting, fishing and galloping around the country." Maurice's later
articles and books would wear the influence of his boyhood home in this
valley of the Coosawattee River, a tribute to the rich experiences he enjoyed
during his youth. He always spoke fondly of this period and later remarked
that he had lived "a sweet, wild life; hard enough in many respects,
almost savage in some--a sweet wild life as I remember it; however, devoted
to books, manual labor, wildwood roaming, shooting and fishing."
Otis B. Wheeler, in The Literary Career of Maurice Thompson, paints
a glowing picture of the brothers and their early years. "It was an
irregular and picturesque regimen that the boys lived under. The idyllic
nature of the life in North Georgia that was possible before the war Thompson
nostalgically expressed in his essay A Fortnight in a Palace of Reeds.
It is April, and through rifts in the forest of pine, hickory, oak, and
tulip, grassy glades shine, miniature prairies peculiar to that region.
`The young hickory trees spread out marvelous leaves, more than a span
in width, and the yellow tulip exaggerates both foliage and flowers. The
dogwood and sour gum, the red-oak, the maple and the chestnut, the cherry,
the sassafras, and the lovely sweet gum all flourish in the fullest luxury
of life and color.' Wild flowers cover the valley slopes and fill the ravines.
The odors of sassafras and wild plum blossoms, mingle and fill the air.
In this Arcadia the boys set up their camp in a moss-carpeted area between
two wild plum trees, over which a thick-leaved vine has made a connecting
canopy and around which, except for a small opening, tall gold-green reeds
make a wall. `The earth is warm, the sky is pure and cloudless. Deep in
the brake a hermit- thrush is calling. A vireo beyond the river quavers
Life was good, but soon the threat of war loomed, threatening the peace
and harmony of their childhood existence. The year 1862 ushered in the
conflict that pitted brother against brother and Maurice, age 17, became
the first to answer the call in defense of the Confederate. His father
soon followed and two years later Will would be the third and final Thompson
to wear the colors.