Who Was Jim Thorpe?
On November 11, 1911, the eleven members of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team ran out onto a field in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They would be playing the team from Harvard University. So far that season, Harvard had been very successful, winning five games and losing only one. They had given up only fourteen points in those six games. Harvard’s was the most famous team in college football.
Carlisle was not nearly as well-known. Many fans had not even heard of the small Pennsylvania school where the students were all from Native American tribal nations. At the age of twenty-four, Jim Thorpe was Carlisle’s star player and a member of the Sac and Fox Nation. He was joined by teammates who were from other tribal nations and bands, including Chippewa, Pomo, Blackfeet, and Colville. Most had grown up on reservations—areas of land created by the government to relocate Native Americans—after their ancestors had been forced to leave their homes many years earlier. Members of Harvard’s team, on the other hand, were all white men who most likely came from wealthy families.
The twenty-five thousand Harvard fans in the stadium, along with football experts, figured Harvard would win easily.
Although Harvard’s team was very good, it didn’t have Jim Thorpe. Tall and broad-shouldered, Thorpe had powerful legs and a strong will to win. Time and again, Jim carried the ball on long runs while Harvard tried to tackle him. He used his great strength to steamroll his opponents. When he had room, he had speed to outrun them. Jim was also his team’s kicker, and he made two field goals in the first half. Meanwhile, Carlisle used plays Harvard had never seen, with the quick Carlisle players running rings around Harvard’s heavier athletes. Alex Arcasa scored a touchdown for Carlisle after a long run by Jim brought the ball close to the end zone.
After three quarters, Carlisle led 15 to 9. Harvard’s team was bigger and hit harder, and Carlisle’s players, most of whom were smaller than Jim, were getting tired. Time was running out, and Carlisle needed another score to secure the victory.
With just a few minutes left, Jim had a chance for an important field goal—but he had a problem. He had hurt the ankle of his kicking foot a week earlier. He wore extra padding on the ankle and taped it tightly, but it was swelling up. He wasn’t sure he could make the kick—but his team needed him! “As long as I live,” Jim said later, “I will never forget that moment.” As the Harvard crowd screamed to distract Jim, he booted the ball forty-eight yards over the crossbar for three points. The crowd got very quiet very quickly, while Jim’s teammates surrounded him, cheering.
Harvard scored once more, but it was not enough. Jim’s kicks proved to be the winning points. Jim Thorpe and Carlisle had pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college sports history: Carlisle 18, Harvard 15.
“Jim . . . showed to everyone in Harvard Stadium that he had the heart of a lion,” said Carlisle’s coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner.
That famous game was the start of one of the greatest careers in American sports. Jim Thorpe became a two-time Olympic champion, a pro-football star, and a Major League Baseball player. He also became an inspiration and a leader for Indigenous people fighting for equality in American life. Since his glory days more than one hundred years ago, there has been no one quite like Jim Thorpe. Chapter 1: Bright Path
Jim Thorpe’s family tree had a lot of branches. His father, Hiram, was half Sac and Fox and half white American. In the 1800s, Hiram’s Sac and Fox ancestors had been driven from their homes in the northern Midwest to small reservations in Oklahoma. Jim’s mother, Charlotte, was part Potawatomi, part Kickapoo, and part French. Her ancestors, too, had been removed from their homes by the United States government to what was then called Indian Territory in Oklahoma. When Hiram and Charlotte met there in 1880, Hiram was already married and had three children. He left his other family and moved with Charlotte to a log cabin in what is now the town of Prague, east of Oklahoma City.
On May 28, 1888, Charlotte gave birth to twin boys, James (nicknamed Jim) and Charles. (Some records list their birth year as 1887. Jim himself used both dates during his life; his tomb shows 1888.) Charlotte followed Hiram’s family tradition and gave the boys names in the Sac language. Charlie’s Sac name is lost to history, but Jim was called Wa-tho-Huck
, which means “path lit by a great flash of lightning.” Throughout his life, Jim told people it meant “bright path.” Charlotte and Hiram later had five more children, but only three of them lived to be adults.
Hiram showed his boys how to explore the wilderness that surrounded their home. He taught them to fish with a line or a spear. The boys learned to shoot rifles so they could hunt animals for the family to eat. Though Jim would become famous for his athletic ability on the sports field, he would always say that he loved fishing and hunting best.
In the years before they started school, Jim and Charlie swam in the river, sometimes building rope swings. They played lacrosse, a stick-and-ball game that had started with the Haudenosaunee (hoh-de-noh-SHOH-nee) and spread to other tribal nations. Jim also led Charlie and his friends on long games of follow-the-leader. He was already showing that he was the fastest and strongest person around.
“Our lives were lived in the open, winter and summer,” Jim said. “We were never in the house when we could be out of it.”
Hiram also taught them about farming and raising cattle. The Thorpes had about four hundred cows, along with pigs and horses, on their land.
In 1887, a new US law had changed life for the Thorpes and the other Sac and Fox members. The US government passed the Dawes Act, which allowed land controlled by Indigenous people to be purchased or rented by white settlers. In Oklahoma, the Sac and Fox members would be paid for their land but not nearly as much as the land was worth. In 1891, each family in the tribal nation got only 160 acres. Everything that was left over—which was most of the tribal lands—was opened to white settlers from the East. Those settlers swarmed into Sac and Fox territory, creating new towns and cities almost overnight. The Thorpes rented out some of their 160 acres of land and moved to a new home on Charlotte’s family’s land.
For the most part, Hiram inspired Jim as the young boy grew up. Hiram excelled at anything physical, whether it was working on the farm or competing in sports and games with neighbors. However, Hiram also made life hard for Jim. He was a strong and forceful man, who often drank too much and got into fights. He sometimes used physical punishments on his boys. This led to a lot of arguments, especially between Hiram and Jim, who was much stronger than his brother. Hiram left Charlotte when Jim and Charlie were about five, though he would remain in the lives of his children even after marrying another woman.
In 1893, Jim and Charlie were sent to school. The Sac and Fox Indian Agency School was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a government agency that was set up to provide services to Native Americans who were removed from their land.
Like many people and organizations of this time, the BIA believed it was the duty of white Americans to “assimilate” Native Americans. That meant to take away their identities and make them look, act, and talk like white Americans. So the students at the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School had their long hair cut and wore uniforms. They were not allowed to speak their native languages—only English. It was also a boarding school, so students lived in dorms away from their families and traditions.
Jim did not want to be at the school. His teachers wrote that he was “uninterested in anything except the outdoor life.” Soon after Hiram dropped the boys off at the school, Jim ran home. According to a family story, he used a shortcut and ran about twenty-three miles, arriving back before Hiram returned in the family’s horse-drawn wagon. But Hiram made Jim return to school.
In March 1897, while at the school, Charlie became very sick. Hiram and Charlotte rushed to see him. Charlie died of pneumonia, a lung disease, at the age of eight. After losing his brother, Jim was very upset. He and Charlie had been close. Jim ran home from school yet again. He didn’t want to be there without his twin. Hiram was angry. He told Jim, “I’m going to send you away so far you’ll never find your way back.”
Copyright © 2023 by James Buckley Jr.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.