(Not officially released … still in edit … needs significant trimming to read as a column or essay — a much slimmer version of this a post entry at girardmeister.com) This is the second in a series of essays on the Edwardian and Pre-War Era, centered mostly on events from 1900-1914. Parts of this particular composition read like a Fairy Tale; others like a nightmare. All of the key elements are historically true. I have taken slight literary license to shorten and smooth out parts of this particular Olympic-sized story.
It is a tad longer than most of my pieces. I’ve numbered the segments I through X to help readers pace themselves and allot time.
I — Preview
It is 1904. On a dark night, in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in America’s wide girth of a midsection, an adolescent lad lies anxiously awake. Occasionally flickering lights are visible from his berth in a wood frame passenger car of the Missouri Pacific. As the car rattles along, he is wondering about his future — he cannot possibly know what it is like where he is going. And he can’t help thinking about his difficult, troubled and hardscrabble past; hopefully it is very far behind him.
The trip is mind-bogglingly long for most people of this era and his background — over 1,200 miles — with multiple transfers in large strange cities. Yet, for him, it is much more than a boy’s epic journey, to be told and re-told later in life. It is a for him a true rite of passage: a transcendence not only from boy to man, but also from one culture to another; from obscurity, to brilliance.
A brief eight years later, he would be recognized as the world’s greatest athlete. One hundred years later, he would be recognized as the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
How all this came to be — how he achieved so much, yet came to receive so little acclaim or reward during his life, and how he died a relatively obscure pauper — is a story that needs to be told and re-told.
II — Youngest Years
In May, 1888, twin boys were born to Charlotte Vieux in a tiny wood-plank dirt-floor house in Indian Territory. Charlotte was of mixed French and American Indian (mostly Potawatami) decent. She and her husband, Hiram Thorpe, who was also one-half American Indian (Sauk-Fox) and half Irish, were devout Catholics. They named the boys, their fifth and sixth children, Jacobus and Charles; although they would commonly go by “Jim” and “Charlie.” Charlotte would bear Hiram 11 children in all, before dying from childbirth.
Hiram ran a 1,200 acre spread along the Canadian River, growing wheat and raising cattle. He was a hard man: he ran his household with an iron fist, pushed himself hard, pushed his sons hard, drank hard, fought hard and partied hard. He was a well-known moonshine runner and barefisted fighter. It didn’t help that three of his children had already died. It was the next death that affected Jim Thorpe tremendously.
At age 6, Jim and Charlie were sent off to boarding school, at the Indian Agency. Sharing a womb together produces a special bond: they were best of friends. They played together, fished together, learned to ride horses together. Charlie was the better student; he encouraged and helped his twin Jim, and by age 9, in their third year living away at boarding school, they were closer than ever. One day their dad came and took Jim away for a while — to go hunting or help on the ranch, the story is not quite clear. While Jim was away, a virus went through the school and many children fell ill. Charlie caught pneumonia and never recovered.
Two more siblings would die as young Jim entered pubescence. Even at that young age, it was clear that Jim was very athletic. He was strong, quick and graceful. When his brother died — Jim said — he felt as if he’d absorbed his brother’s spirit and strength into his own body. He soon became a difficult child, rebellious in school and to his father. Often surly, and not a good student, he attempted to quit school and run away (from school, to home) several times.
So at age 11 Hiram sent Jim even farther away, nearly 300 miles, to an Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. This would be too far for Jim to run home — or so he thought. It was there at the Haskell Indian School, that Jim was introduced to football. Still frustrated with studies, he received news that his father was gravely wounded in a hunting accident. Jim left school and hopped a boxcar for home. Poor lad soon found out the train was going the wrong way. He got off and walked home; it took him two weeks.
When he got home he was surprised to find his father had recovered. Jim refused to go back to school; so he was put to work on the farm. Jim never got along well with his father; they had frequent disagreements. After one particularly bad fight, and right after his mother died from giving birth to their 11th child (who also died), Jim struck out on his own. At age 15 he got a job breaking wild horses in the harsh Texas panhandle country.
Returning home, Hiram allowed Jim to finally attend a public non-Indian school called Garden Grove. It was close enough that he could live at home. Hiram had remarried and Jim helped out with the younger siblings. Two more children quickly followed.
During Jim’s one year at the Garden Grove school he got engaged in sports again, including baseball and track. To the teachers, coaches and administrators it was clear: This was no place for Jim Thorpe. He was too special. His potential was made known to other schools, among them the Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was recruited to attend school there, and with the consent and encouragement of his father, he made the cultural and long distance journey.
III — ⇒ A brief and relatively non-judgmental aside on “Indian Schools”
Indian Schools were a long term attempt to deal with some of the consequences of what had happened to Native Indians in America. Greatly outnumbered by whites, who possessed greater technology and hunger for land, the Indian Nations were forced to live on smaller and smaller lands, most of which were incongruent with their lifestyle heritage. During Jim Thorpe’s youth, the nearly entire Indian Territory (I.T.) would be snatched from the tribal nations who lived there; it eventually became the state of Oklahoma (the flag’s 46th star).
Indian Schools were meant to facilitate assimilation of Native children into American (i.e. White Euro-centric) culture. This was believed to be a better alternative to leaving them on reservations, where they would become dependent on the Indian Agencies (part of Department of Interior); which, it was believed, would result in a perpetual generation-to-generation loss of self-esteem and addiction to government provided sustenance.
Most of these were boarding schools: children were taken away, often forcibly, made to speak only English, wear White-American-European style clothing, given and addressed only in Christian names, and trained in basic skills of reading, writing, mathematics and public speaking. They were taught to play musical instruments, to compose, sing and to dance in classical European styles. Eventually they were taught some trade skills. This is the type of schools Jim Thorpe was sent to.
The Thorpe family appears to have supported the Indian School concept and its assimilation approach. They spoke only English at home, had already given their children Christian names, and, when possible, sent each of their children away to Indian Schools. Except Jim kept running away and coming home.
IV — At Carlisle: No Longer a Boy, Discovered!
So off young Jim Thorpe went, to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to begin the fall semester, 1904. He’d already spent a summer breaking horses, most of his life fighting with his father, and had lost his mother and five of his 10 siblings, including his best friend: his twin, Charlie. He’d only lived in tiny wood plank houses with dirt floors, except for when he was far away at boarding school — or running away. He was one tough kid.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the flagship of all the government’s Indian Schools. The school’s enrollment was then, in 1904, at its peak of about 1,000 students, with students from grade school to college-aged.
The boarding and buildings were quite good. They recruited mostly promising students and athletes, and, consequently, they were able to attract good teachers and coaches to its lovely setting. Nearby Dickenson College, a prestigious liberal arts school also in Carlisle, was in a partnership to help Carlisle through the Indian School’s entire existence of some 40 years. They provides some of the teachers, and the Carlisle College students could take classes at Dickenson.
The Carlisle Indian School was built from an old military base, at the east end of mostly agricultural Carlisle, a borough of some 10,000. It was sleepy and pastoral, in a beautiful setting near the mouth of the Cumberland Valley of the eastern Appalachians. Gentle hills form the valley that channels the twisting, lazy Conodoguinet Creek through town, about 20 miles “as the crow flies” from where it joins the Susquehanna River, in Harrisburg.
Still small, not ready for big time sports, 5’-7”, 125-lb, 16-year old Jim developed a sense he could feel at home here. Certainly not yet full size; he did not get much attention from sports clubs, and he did not do well in his studies. He soon received word that his father had died (really, this time) from complications of another hunting accident. His interest in schoolwork waned further.
Carlisle was known for its “Outing Program”, permitting students to live and even work off campus. One consequence of Jim’s poor school performance is that he got sent out quite a bit. He spent the better part of the next few years being “outed” to low-paying manual labor jobs on farms from central Pennsylvania to New Jersey. This was the way, it was believed, to teach Indians the hard working, industrious habits of white Protestant Europeans.
When Thorpe returned to Carlisle full time, he was full grown and toughened. Walking past the Carlisle track and field team practice field one afternoon, he decided spontaneously to “give it a go.” He whipped them all, including high jumping nearly six feet – in street clothes.
This led to a happy intersection of lives, and a change in Thorpe’s life. Glenn “Pop” Warner — certainly one of the greatest coaches in football history, and whose name still echoes to us through the ages — had returned to Carlisle to coach sports, including its football team.
Thorpe was recruited to Warner’s football team — despite the risk to the track team; he’d instantly acquired status as the school’s track star. Carlisle, already respectable in football, soon become one of the very best teams in the nation.
In 1909-10, he spent two summers staying in shape by barnstorming across the Carolinas playing baseball with a semi-professional team. Most players with professional aspirations chose to protect their amateur status, and their identity, by playing under assumed pseudonyms. Thorpe was too proud and honest to do that. Besides, how could this matter? The pay was a pittance; he could make more by working on campus or at the menial jobs on farms near Carlisle. Thorpe was a simple, honest and straightforward man: This was not professional sports; this was having fun and staying in shape.
V — Stardom
In those years, the Carlisle Indian football team played the most difficult schedules in the country: 12 or 13 games per season, when most teams played 8 to 10. They used only Indian players, played every single significant match on the road, and at nearly every position used a two-way player (playing every play, offense, defense and special teams). They were frequently subjected to racial ridicule and prejudice. Still, Carlisle racked up an 11-1 record in 1911. Speaking of two-way players: Carlisle only suited 16 players for road games — which was most games.
In one of the most famous games of the era, Carlisle defeated Harvard (then considered nearly unbeatable, (undefeated in 1910 and 1911 until that game) in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 25,000, in Cambridge, MA. With a final score of 18-15, Thorpe scored every point for Carlisle: four drop-kick field goals, a touchdown and extra point (touchdowns were only 5 points until the next year). The racially tinged papers of the day ran headlines like: “Indians scalp Harvard” and “Thorpe on Warpath.”
No worries. As a star on a great track team, Jim was invited to Olympic tryouts, and earned a spot on the US Olympic team. The next June he was on another very long journey, this time to Stockholm for the 1912 Olympics. He was nearly alone in daily training aboard ship during the cross-oceanic trip. In the span of a few days, he competed in both the Pentathlon and the Decathlon. Many astute sports followers thought he was crazy to compete nearly simultaneously in two such demanding events. Thorpe ended up on the award podium for each; and each time with a gold medal hanging from his neck.
It’s not well-known, but he also competed in the high jump and long jump at Stockholm, finishing 4th and 7th, respectively. To give the story even more Fairy Tale flair: Thorpe’s track shoes were stolen just as the competitions began. He quickly scrounged around and found two different sized shoes in a garbage bin. He is shown here wearing extra athletic stockings on one foot to make up for the oversize of one shoe. Notice the shoes are different colors, too.
That fall, Thorpe and Warner again led the Carlisle Indians to a very successful 12-1-1 record. Again playing a difficult schedule, with matches against 8 highly regarded schools: every one of these challenges on the road. Again, nearly every player playing every down, both ways.
In an epic game of the ages, cast as a huge showdown, Carlisle traveled to West Point and trounced favored Army, 27-6. Future president Dwight Eisenhower, halfback on that Army team, was described in the press as someone “who hits the line harder than any other man”. But Ike stood on the sidelines much of the game, the result a shoulder injury suffered while trying to tackle Thorpe. He would recollect, 50-years later, how Thorpe ran 92 yards for a touchdown on one play, only to have the played called back for a penalty. On the very next snap, Thorpe ran 97 yards.
Eisenhower, in 1961: “There are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”
And Ike had certainly seen a lot of football.
Interesting to wonder how the world might have been different. Eisenhower was unable to complete Army’s next game the next week, with Tufts. The shoulder injury from Thorpe ended his career. [Some sources say he injured his knee.].We can’t help wondering if he would have otherwise still have become the SHEAF (Supreme Head European Allied Forces) and how World War II would have turned out in Europe.
VI — Irony
The English taught at Indian Schools was of high quality. Students could communicate clearly and be understood in any English speaking city in the world. For example, “Carlisle” was pronounced like the city in England, with accent on the second syllable. When the players talked about or with players from New England, they would mock their lazy, parochial accents, saying Harvard as “Hah-vad.”
The solid victory over Army held a special irony. It was less than 22 years since the end of “the Indian Wars”, which in many regards was little more than genocidal ethnic cleansing. The final “battle”, at Wounded Knee Creek, on December 29, 1890, was an organized massacre. Lightly armed and lightly clothed members of two Lakota bands were arranged within cross-fire lines of several Hotchkiss guns. The two bands, huddled together in fear and for protection from cold, numbered about 350. Most were women and children. They were defenselessly mowed down, with 300 casualties.
The only good Indian is a dead Indian. — General Philip Sheridan, US Army
In 1918 The Carlisle School was closed and returned to the US Army as part of the Great War effort. Since the war it has became the campus of the US Army War College, a graduate school for officers for advanced study. It is also the site of the US Army Heritage Museum. I’ve not visited there, but wouldn’t it be sweetly ironic and appropriate if the museum had displays and artifacts from the genocidal Indian wars?
VII — Controversy.
Carlisle is regarded by many to have won the NCAA Football Championship for 1912, and even 1911. Especially in 1912, Carlisle gets plenty of high regard. But a look back through the news and writings of the day and you’ll find that the “official mythical championship” goes to Harvard for 1912, at 9-0, who played fewer games, an arguably weaker schedule, and with every key game at home. Harvard played only two away games, and one was against Holy Cross, who only played two games all year. A home game was against Maine, who played only one game that year. Carlisle was barely considered. We can’t have the best team in the country be a bunch of Indians, can we?
That was the smaller of the slights. The larger, and more significant: An Olympic protest was placed in early 1913 — well beyond the 30-day protest period — against Thorpe. His two summers as a semi-professional athlete, it seems, violated the strict “no professional” rules of the day. Although the Olympic rules did not preclude professionals, per se, the Amateur Athletic Union did. And the AAU helped the US Olympic committee and set its rules.
Was this racism? It seems quite possible, but supported only by strong circumstantial evidence. Nonetheless, the charge against Thorpe is widely regarded, and always will be regarded, as blatant and ugly racism.
Thorpe wrote a letter to the AAU asking forgiveness: “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.”
To no avail. His performances were excised from the Olympic record; he was forced to return the gold medals.
Before moving onto Thorpe’s professional sports career, we should put a little more frosting on this Fairy Tale amateur career. In 1911 and 1912 he was an obvious choice for Football All-American. But those years Thorpe also competed intercollegiately in baseball, lacrosse and — extraordinarily — Ballroom Dancing. To burnish Thorpe’s credentials as a true all-around athlete: he was the national college champion in Ballroom Dancing in 1912.
VIII — Professional sports and beyond
Thorpe moved on to professional sports. He signed with the New York Giants, going to the 1913 World Series as they won the National League pennant. He played on and off in the Majors for five seasons, and also played stints in the Minor Leagues until 1922.
In 1913 he also began playing professional football, first in a regional league; then in 1915 moving to the Canton Bulldogs in a league that would become the National Football League. They won the league championship in 1916, 1917 and 1919. In the 1919 championship game, Thorpe kicked a 95-yard punt.
Thorpe also played professional basketball, effectively a year-round professional athlete. The toll on his body is unimaginable. He finally retired from football in 1929, at the age of 41.
Outside of sports, Thorpe struggled a bit with life. His first marriage ended early; his second endured a little longer — yet he was frequently on travel to play sports. And 1929 was a difficult time to end his sports career, with the Depression hitting America and the world. His prospects were still further marred by the Olympics controversy.
“>As an American Indian, he was unable to find much steady work. Even in the depression, Americans loved movies — as a form of inexpensive amusement and distraction. He acted in dozens of movies, usually playing token Indian roles, and was cast as chief when one was needed. He used the contacts he made and his notoriety to lobby Hollywood for equal recognition and pay for Indians. He was also able to make some compensated cross-country speaking tours. Most of it did not amount to much, and without a pension from his sports careers, Jim and his his family (he had 8 children in total) frequently found themselves struggling financially.
When prohibition ended in 1933, Thorpe was able to get extra income as a bouncer at bars.
Eager to serve his country in World War II, Thorpe’s offers to enlist in every branch of the military were repeatedly turned down; during the war he worked a job manning a gate at the Ford Motor Plant in Detroit. Thorpe was eventually able to sign on with the Merchant Marines, at age 56, in early 1945. The war ended soon thereafter, and Thorpe married for the third time.
Thorpe’s image and prospects finally turned for the better in 1950, when one poll named him “The Best Football Player of the Half-Century” and a second went even further, naming him “The Best Athlete of the Half Century.”
This is pretty damn impressive. Recognize that his “competition” for this award included Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Jesse Owens, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, to name only a few. In 1950 he was also voted into the National Football League’s Hall of Fame.
Popular interest and dissent in his maltreatment by the AAU and Olympic Committee began to surge. His life story was made into a movie, with handsome, popular Burt Lancaster cast as Thorpe. Thorpe was a consultant for the script and shooting, but made no money from this popular movie; he had sold the rights to his life story years before.
Part of Thorpe’s financial problems in his last years was due to his generous nature. He had always remained faithful to the Catholic faith of his parents, and the lessons of kindness and generosity he had learned. He often gave away the money from speaking engagements to friends in need. As he toured the country, he spoke out for Indian rights — making ever more friends as he did so. Often, the new friends were friends in need.
At about the time of the movie release, Thorpe started having some serious health problems. Some were caused by, or complicated by, an alcoholic addiction he had developed. After a couple of heart attacks, he came down with lip cancer. With his limited funds now exhausted due to treatments, his wife went public, pleading for help and money.
Friends set up a trust fund, the public responded, and a substantial sum was raised for the Thorpes to pay for his medical treatment, and for the necessities of simple human dignity … he was, afterall, a national treasure.
Thorpe survived the cancer. He made one last plea to get his medals back. As the New York Time reported:
Impoverished Jim Thorpe, with nothing left but memories at 63, finally swallowed his pride today and asked the Amateur Athletic Union to return the Olympic Trophies it took from him 39 years ago. “I would like to have them back before I die” muttered the erect, massive full-blooded (incorrect, both parents were half caucasian…editorial) Indian, referring to the laurels he was forced to relinquish because the A.A.U, charged he was a professional at the time he won them.”
The US Olympic Committee, led Avery Brundage (who, perhaps not coincidentally, competed in both the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon, finishing 5th and 7th) refused.
Thorpe’s health failed further. Another heart attack took his life in 1953; rather young for such a healthy man, such an accomplished athlete, at age 64.
For 40 years he had not seen his medals. He died destitute and wondering what his life had meant. At least his family received a consolation telegram from the president: the same man whose football career was ended by trying to tackle Thrope in 1912 — Dwight Eisenhower.
IX — Restoration
Thanks to the recognition from those 1950 polls as the Greatest Athlete of the Half Century, thanks to the 1951 movie of his life, thanks to Hall of Fame recognition, and thanks to the shame felt by millions when they learned of the disgraceful financial and health conditions Thorpe faced through his last decade … Thorpe’s public image stock continued to rise. His family persistently made his case to the Olympic Committee, as did millions of advocates from the general public, state legislators in Oklahoma, congressmen in Washington, and a growing army of sports writers and commentators.
In 1975 Brundage had just died, relinquishing his post, and the US Olympic Committee and the AAU effectively changed their position. They began lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to retroactively reinstate Thorpe’s amateur status.
Finally, in October, 1982 — seventy years after the Stockholm Olympics and the illegitimate protest, and nearly 30 years after Thorpe’s death — the IOC agreed. The Gold Medals were returned to his family, accepted by his surviving children, in a ceremony in Los Angeles in January, 1983 . The record books were re-written, again; now Thorpe is listed as the co-winner of these events … despite scoring so high in the decathlon that his world records stood for two decades.
X — Epilogue and Closing
In polls of sportswriters conducted in 2000, Jim Thorpe was named the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century.
Indian Schools did not reach their high water enrollment mark until 1970. The US government has never formally acknowledged their error, nor the pain imposed by strongarming the assimilation of Indian children. But things changed soon thereafter, and schools began closing, rapidly. Native children are now almost always educated in their own communities, while living in their families’ homes; they are encouraged to learn and retain the culture and language of their heritage. Jim Thorpe had made a difference … this is what he had spoken for.
The football program at Carlisle, it turned out, was little more than a traveling road show, complete with promotions meant to drum up interest and raise money. It’s doubtful that many of the athletes were full time students at all. 1904 was about the peak attendance year, as the progressive era led to more local schools for Indian children. At Carlisle, gootball and sports were seen as a way to continue to promote the school, as nationwide interest in it otherwise was falling.
A 1914 congressional investigation into Carlisle found some abuse of the children and financial impropriety, including overpayment of salary to some sports coaches. This was a government institution, after all.  Pop Warner, in addition to being one of the most creative coaches in history, also gave us the Football Factory College. Pretty much what we loathe now about the likes of Alabama, Nebraska, LSU … Warner and other coaches were dismissed, and the school was eventually closed in 1918; transferred back to the Army in a ceremony on September 1.
It is too simplistic to judge, and do so harshly. Let us be grateful for those the Indian Schools like Carlisle were able to benefit; and let us grieve for those to whom they did great harm. And let us accept that America has come a long way from its more racist days of yore.
It is important – no it is necessary – It is necessary to confront the failings of our past. It is necessary to do so not to stand in judgement, but rather in order to continue moving toward our shining goal of seeing all human beings as just that: human beings, complete and worthy of respect … with the same rights that you and I have to be here on earth; with the same rights to life, liberty, dignity, and to be judged by the quality of our character and actions, rather than the color of our skin or our cultural heritage.
And the right to be recognized for our accomplishments. From Ballroom Dancing, to Football, to Track and Field: I judge Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe, part Irish, part French, part American Indian, including Fox, Sauk and Potowatami Nation – also known as Jim Thorpe – I judge him to be simply The Greatest Athlete of All Time. Period.
May there be a special place in our hearts for those who don’t fit in, who aren’t good students, and who struggle, especially if their struggles aren’t obvious …
Until next time, I wish you peace
Joe Girard © 2014
Resources and citations:
2] Redskin from Carlisle Will Strive for Place on American Team
 Some football records:
 Thorpe’s 97 yard run against Army. There are many references to this; however, oddly, an Army Knight news article on the game makes no reference to it.