The Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon: An Indian Tradition

Held every Patriot’s Day, the Boston Marathon commemorates the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which began the American Revolution. The original route retraced the Ride of Paul Revere. Since the terrorist bombing at the finish line in 2013, it has become even more of a national symbol of defiance and resilience. To residents of the Boston metropolitan area as well as to runners from all over the world, the route, in the words of Boston Marathon historian Paul Clerici, is “sacred and cherished pavement.”

It also has historic meaning for Northeastern Indian runners, some of whom came to national prominence in the Boston Marathon and left an indelible mark on its route. For Indian Country, the race is a continuation of the great indigenous tradition of long distance running.

Early Indigenous Stars

Five Natives from New England and Eastern Canada have medaled since the beginning of the 20th century, starting with Bill Davis (Mohawk). From the Grand River Territory of the Six Nations at Ohsweken, Ont., “Mohawk Bill” finished second in 1901, to J.J. Caffrey of Hamilton, Ont., a world-class runner who had also won the event the year before. Davis is better known as the mentor and trainer of Tom Longboat (Onondaga), also from the Grand River Territory. Longboat, popularly known as the “Bronze Mercury,” won the 1908 Boston Marathon, overcoming an early spring snow squall and a freight train that crossed the path of the runners. Even so, he smashed the meet record by 20 minutes! For the next six years before he enlisted in World War I, Longboat was among the premier long-distance runners in the world.

With Longboat, the Boston Marathon became the springboard for Northeast Natives aiming at the supreme challenge, the Olympic marathon, revived in the first modern Olympics in 1896, a year before the Boston Athletic Association inaugurated the first Boston Marathon. His win in Boston made him the favorite for the 1908 Olympics in London. But only half the entrants were able to finish the race, run in August through the steamy streets of London, and Longboat himself collapsed from heat exhaustion. He turned professional shortly after, missing a chance at the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden.

The U.S. favorite for the 1912 Olympics was now Andrew Sockalexis, Penobscot from the Indian Island reservation in Maine. In 1911, Sockalexis decided to make Boston his first official marathon. He finish 37th. In 1912, he placed second, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team. His teammates included Jim Thorpe and Louis Tewanima, two of the greatest track-and-field athletes of all time. At the Stockholm Olympics that July, Sockalexis finished fourth in the marathon, run in 90-degree heat. He later stated that he had over-trained.

Sockalexis was initially trained by his father, Francis, who held the honorary distinction in Penobscot society as a “pure man,” a fleet-of-foot young man who demonstrated great endurance in tracking down moose, deer and other game. His cousin Louis was one of the earliest American Indians to play Major League baseball (his team the Cleveland Spiders later became the Cleveland Indians). To build stamina, Andrew would run several times each day around the 7.5- square-mile island reservation. Sockalexis trained all year round, including running outdoors in the harsh Maine winters. He would even run with spikes on the nearby frozen Penobscot River. After showing great promise, he was instructed in running techniques and race strategies by Tim Daley of Bangor and by Arthur Smith, the track coach at the University of Maine.

In 1913, Sockalexis once again participated in the Boston Marathon. This race attracted 200,000 spectators, the largest up to that time, who lined the course’s route. Sockalexis moved into second place just one mile from the finish line, but couldn’t catch the eventual winner, Fritz Carlson of Minneapolis.

Sockalexis continued to race for the next four years. His last victory in long-distance running was against his friend Clarence DeMar, seven-time winner of the Boston Marathon, in a 15-mile race in 1916 that took place from Old Town, Maine to Bangor’s Bass Park. Sockalexis collapsed after winning the race and began coughing up blood. He had contracted tuberculosis, then a scourge in Indian Country. On Aug. 16, 1919, the great marathon runner died at the age of 27. He was buried on Indian Island.

Laurence Hauptman, a frequent contributor to American Indian magazine, is SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History. Heriberto Dixon is SUNY Lecturer Emeritus of Business and History.