Read an Excerpt
World's Greatest Athlete
By Robert W. Wheeler
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1979 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
A Vigorous Youth
Our lives were lived in the open, winter and summer. We were never in the house when we could be out of it. And we played hard. I emphasize this because the boys who would grow up strong men must lay the foundation in a vigorous youth.
Before the turn of the last century, a star rose into prominence and radiated with so much splendor that nothing was able to eclipse it. In the late spring of 1888, this star was born not in heaven but in a one-room cabin made of cottonwood and hickory, south of the town of Bellemont in the Plains country of Oklahoma Territory. The time was six-thirty on the morning of May 28.
The nine-and-a-half-pound infant, a member of the Sac and Fox tribe, was called Wa-tho-huck, which meant "Bright Path." To the world, however, he became known as Jim Thorpe.
"With most Indian tribes, it is the custom for the mother to name her newborn child after a notable experience either during her pregnancy or immediately following its birth." Since she gave birth to Jim shortly after sunrise, the mother's first sight upon looking out through her bedroom window was the pathway, resplendent with reflected sunlight, leading up to the house. Hence the name Bright Path.
Though he was not a full-blooded scion of his aboriginal forebears, his Indian ancestry began in 1838 on the Sac and Fox Reservation, near Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Situated far from even the periphery of anything remotely resembling settled and populated areas, the reservation served as the rendezvous for a booming enterprise, the fur trade.
The hardy trappers evinced courage, skill, and mastery of the conditions of their chosen life. They would not have been there if they had not responded to the attractiveness of the redolent country and found something precious beyond safety, gain, comfort, and family life. At rendezvous, the men would have rations of coffee, sugar, hardtack, and bacon. If they had meat, it was primarily buffalo: fresh, dried, or made into pemmican. Scurvy was nonexistent; in fact, the diaries of that time seldom mentioned a sick trapper.
Commonly, these men married Indians from the reservation because the advantages of such a relationship became well publicized. A dependable Indian woman made an ideal helpmate and frequently meant the difference between survival or horrible death.
One of these trappers, Hiram G. Thorpe, a large-mustached Irish immigrant, took as his bride No-ten-o-quah, a member of the Thunder Clan of Chief Black Hawk. On the same reservation this great warrior, who in his younger days had fought valiantly to keep the white pioneers from taking the lands that belonged to his people, spent the last of his seventy-one years. By this time, however, the intense fire of righteousness had burned out in his proud heart.
He realized the impossibility of trying to stop the westward migration of European settlers. He therefore accepted the union between Hiram and No-ten-o-quah. In fact, to express his recognition of the white man, Black Hawk asked to be buried dressed in a military uniform given to him by Andrew Jackson and decorated with medals from President John Quincy Adams. Between his knees was to be a cane, a gift from Henry Clay.
A son, Hiram P., blessed the marriage eight years later. Although only one-half Indian, Hiram possessed no discernible Irish features. Jet-black hair topped the rich bronze skin of his face. Many elders of the tribe commented on the close resemblance of Hiram's features to Black Hawk's.
As Hiram reached manhood, the similarity transcended physical features. He became the greatest athlete on the reservation. Like Black Hawk, Hiram defeated all comers, Indian or white, in contests of strength, speed, coordination, and endurance.
In the summer of 1878, one last parallel between the two manifested itself—their consummate love of freedom. Hiram viewed life on the reservation as intolerable. From November to March the Indians needed to hunt buffalo on the plains to sustain them during these severe winter months. With assiduous attention, the infiltrating white settlers watched the Indians and severely restricted their movements. As a result, the Indians did not have the breadth of land essential for an effective hunt.
The federal government under the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, feeling its first real pangs of guilt, began making a sincere effort to alleviate the plight of the Indians. By allotting funds, the government began to help the Indian adjust to his changing environment. However, when "middlemen" or Indian agents, under whose jurisdiction this particular reservation was included, withheld vital medical supplies and used the money to increase their own salaries, it was more than Hiram could stand. Having lost his wife through diphtheria, he appealed for improvements, but to no avail. Finally coming to the realization that the situation was hopeless, he, along with his son, four-year-old Frank, daughters Fannie and Minnie, and fourteen of the Indian friends who shared his point of view, set out for Indian Territory, later to become part of Oklahoma.
Facing hunger, illness, and cold as a result of inadequate preparation by the federal agents, Hiram found his first Oklahoma winter filled with hardship. The adversities were lessened, however, when just two months after his arrival he married Charlotte View, of Potawatomi and Kickapoo extraction.
Settling in the Sac and Fox village on the banks of the North Canadian River, locally called the North Fork River, at last the Thorpes were able to live in peace. Their existence was meager, but they achieved some degree of freedom. It was not until 1887, when the General Allotment Act came into effect, that the Indian reservations were broken up and individual ownership became law. The former reservation areas were laid out into 160-acre homesteads. It took twelve years of work before Hiram moved his family into a new, larger home built of land-sanded boards.
Said Art Wakolee, a boyhood friend of Jim's:
Hiram Thorpe was not too poor. Like the other Sac and Fox, he planted a wide variety of crops and raised a modest number of horses, cattle, hogs, and chickens. He always raised enough to live on during the winter: dried corn, pumpkins, beans, fruits, and meat, both wild and tame. Actually Charlotte, following Indian custom, planted and worked the field. After the men had cleared the fields by burning, the women would take over and break up the earth with digging sticks or hoes made from shells or bones. The women had to keep the crows from the corn and also harvested it. Besides their field work, the women cared for the children, made clothing, wove, and cooked. After clearing the land for farming, the men made tools and weapons, hunted, and organized the religious and political functions.
The Indians knew all about farming long before the other races came. In fact, they showed the pioneers how to plant and farm. They even furnished seed for them. When the white man arrived in Oklahoma, they were given a real welcome and a handshake of friendship. It was Indian teaching that all people were their brothers and sisters. Everyone came from the same God who created all things.
It was here, tilling an Oklahoma riverbank and hunting buffalo on her plains, that Hiram and Charlotte were destined to spend their lives. Their first child, a son, was born in 1881. His name was George. Seven summers passed before Charlotte gave birth to Jim.
When Hiram saw Jim for the first time, he immediately recognized the resemblance, the same resemblance that he shared, between the child and his ancestor, Black Hawk.
Many years later, when writers were searching for something new to write about Jim, he told them, "I was born with a twin brother by the name of Charlie." Surprisingly enough, Jim and Charlie were not alike in appearance. Although Charlie's complexion was slightly darker, his hair was brown while Jim's was black. And as Jim grew he developed a prominent jaw, the result of that portion of his ancestry that was Irish. Only in size did the twins look alike.
Jim's earliest years were filled with the exuberance of youth in a world free from care.
In addition to playing the games of childhood, I spent a great deal of my time in hunting and fishing. I was always of a restless disposition and never was content unless I was trying my skill in some game against my fellow playmates or testing my endurance and wits against some member of the animal kingdom, of which there were many in that part of Oklahoma where I spent my youthful days.
I became well versed in forest lore. I particularly loved to hunt and fish. I learned how to wait beside a runway and stalk a deer. I learned how to trap for bear and rabbits, coon and possum. I used snares and steel traps, and I would catch quail in a figure-4 trap I made from cornstalks.
These were the years during which Jim and Charlie were inseparable. What they lacked in similar physical features was more than made up for by their common interests. Although Jim always was the better of his twin in their games, Charlie compensated for his lack of ability with his Indian endowment, a proud heart.
During early May, 1896, just two weeks before the twins' eighth birthday, Hiram finally gave in to their incessant pleas to take them hunting. Since both were able to handle a rifle, Hiram believed the trip would be a good experience for them. But on the scheduled morning of departure, Charlie, taken sick with a fever, was unable to make the journey.
On the third and final day of the hunt, Jim was allowed to take aim at his first deer. It was a magnificent buck, and the boy brought it down with his first shot. Hiram, well pleased, promised to call the village to feast on the boy's first kill, according to the old Sac and Fox tradition. But upon their return home it became apparent that there would not be any celebrating.
Charlotte met Hiram and Jim at the door with the news that Charlie lay dying at the infirmary in Chilocco, twenty miles away. Wasting no time, Hiram and Jim dropped off the game and hitched a fresh team to the buckboard. In a matter of minutes, the three of them were in the wagon. At last they reached the town, but it was too late. Charlie was dead.
Up to the time that little Charlie died at the age of eight of pneumonia, we roamed the prairies and swam and played together always. After Charlie's death, I used to go out by myself with an old dog and hunt coon when I was only nine years old. Often I would make camp and stay out all night. Later, my older brother, George, became my playmate and to equal him in our games I had to be strong and active. As I grew older I had other playmates in the young Indians from the neighboring reservations. As I look back at them, they were a husky crowd. Our lives were lived in the open, winter and summer. We were never in the house when we could be out of it. And we played hard. I emphasize this because the boys who would grow up strong men must lay the foundations in a vigorous youth.
Our favorite game was "Follow the Leader." Depending on the "leader," that can be made an exciting game. Many a time in following I had to swim rivers, climb trees, and run under horses. But our favorite was climbing hickory or tall cedar trees, getting on the top, swinging there and leaping to the ground, ready for the next "follow."
I swam a great deal. Indeed, I lived in the water. It is great exercise. For the development of muscle and wind I cannot recommend it too highly.
Of course, during those boyhood days, none of us were after records. Our sports were not ordered or directed. They were just the spontaneous expression of boys. And it isn't necessary that these activities should, at that age, be specially directed. They lay the physical foundation for future big performances.
During this period my habits were regular. I was in bed every night at nine—not because I had to go, but because after the day's activities I was usually tired and wanted to go. And I slept until I was called and told to dress for school. I was a sound sleeper and then, as at present, at any hour of the day I could in a very few moments fall asleep by sitting or lying down and closing my eyes. As to my meals, they always consisted of plain food—the plain meals of the average family, though I rarely ate sweets of any kind.
As he grew older, these games proved to be merely pastimes for young Jim because, in 1891, Hiram was allotted an additional 160-acre tract of land. By the time Jim was nine, only a year after Charlie's death, he was expected to do a large share of the chores. With Frank off at boarding school, Jim had to feed all of the livestock and learn how to rope and break wild horses on the open plain.
Of all my activities as a boy I liked best catching wild horses on the range. My father was a ranchman and there were plenty of horses, but none of them wanted to be caught. But at ten I could handle the lasso, and at fifteen I had never met a wild one that I could not catch, saddle, and ride. That is one achievement of my boyhood days that I do not hesitate to feel proud about. It was great sport, and I know it made me strong and active and alert and helped me to quick judgment and decision. As a boy I rode horseback a great deal. I need not say it is an excellent form of exercise.
The summer of 1898 marked the first time in the boy's life that Hiram allowed Jim to accompany him on a major hunting trip. At the age of ten, the small but sturdy boy was barely able to keep up the Herculean pace set by his father, usually averaging thirty miles a day.
I have never known a man with so much energy as my father. He could walk, ride, or run for days without ever showing the least sign of fatigue. Once, when we didn't have enough horses to carry all our kill, my father slung a buck deer over each shoulder and carried them twenty miles to our home.
According to Wakolee,
Hiram spent countless hours teaching Jim the art of hunting. In no time Jim was an excellent marksman. He learned to shoot his prey in a vulnerable area so that it would not run away and suffer a great deal. Even though the game was plentiful he was taught to kill only what was needed for food.
With Charlie gone, Jim and his father grew closer to one another. Every evening before the main meal, Hiram led the members of his family in prayer. He instilled in them the knowledge that all things made by God were beautiful.
They thanked him in their daily prayers for their eyes to see the beauty that He had made. They saw His power in all things. Before their meal, they first drank water because it was life. They gave thanks for food which gave them the strength to live and to learn about all things.
In another sense, Jim beamed with pride as he recalled the athletic accomplishments of his father. "My father was the undisputed champion in sprinting, wrestling, swimming, high jumping, broad jumping, and horseback riding." Almost every week, usually on a Saturday afternoon, the entire village gathered on a lush green pasture bordering the Thorpe homestead. All of the families brought some food for the feast later in the evening. But while there was still plenty of daylight, the menfolk engaged in the various events.
Excerpted from Jim Thorpe by Robert W. Wheeler. Copyright © 1979 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.