The Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon: An Indian Tradition

The Narragansett King of the Boston Streets

Ellison Myers Brown, the great Narragansett runner of the 1930s, has become a legend, on and off the track, and his exploits gave the Boston Marathon its most distinctive landmark. Reporters too often filled their stories with stereotypes and misinformation about Brown, his running exploits and American Indians. Yet to this day, he is considered a hero by his community and other New England Indians.

Brown was born on Sept. 22, 1914, at Porter Hill, R.I., a member of a leading family on the Narragansett Nation’s Rhode Island reservation. He was the son of Narragansett tribal members Bryan Otis and Grace Babcock Brown. Although sportswriters gave him the nickname “Tarzan” after the Edgar Rice Burroughs hero, in his own Narragansett community Brown was known as “Deerfoot,” the same moniker held by Louis Bennett, champion Seneca long-distance runner of the 1860s.

Outside of running, Brown’s life was filled with hardship and disappointment. He grew up in extreme poverty with six siblings, three brothers and three sisters. His brothers died long before they reached old age – Franklin by drowning, Edwin by gunshot and Clifford by stabbing. Although a fisherman and a mason by trade, Brown was unemployed for long periods. His formal schooling ended at the seventh grade. Indeed, his hope was that his skills as an unpaid amateur athlete would open doors and provide employment during the hard times of the Great Depression. That did not occur.

In 1926 at the age of 12, the precocious Narragansett runner came to the attention of Tippy Salimeno, a Westerly, R.I., trainer of long-distance runners. One of Salimeno’s runners was Chief Horatio “Dunk” Stanton, Jr. To the trainer’s surprise, the 12-year-old Brown nearly kept pace with the experienced Stanton in a 14-mile run from Westerly to a ballfield in Shannock, R.I. Salimeno encouraged Brown, but advised the lad that the Amateur Athletic Union only allowed participants into sanctioned events when they reached the age of 16. In the next years, although without tutelage and proper running shoes, Brown took up formal running, improved his stamina and learned long-distance race strategies. Salimeno later became his trainer.

Track-and-field events had a resurgence in Indian Country in the early 1930s. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Wilson David “Buster” Charles, an Oneida from De Pere, Wis., finished fourth in the decathlon, the premier track-and-field event along with the marathon.

It was not a coincidence that Brown decided to enter the Boston Marathon the following year. Now 21, standing 5'7" and weighing 138 pounds of muscle, he finished 14th. The next year, he finished 32nd. But in the 1935 Marathon he received major press attention and became part of the race’s lore, even though he didn’t medal. His mother had just died, and to honor her memory, Brown wore a jersey made of one of her best dresses. During the last third of the race, he decided to abandon his running shoes, beat-up high-cut sneakers, either because of discomfort or because they had fallen apart. For the next five to seven miles, he ran barefoot. Even without footgear, Brown finished in 13th place! One of his fellow competitors was the Haudenosaunee Russell George, a highly touted 17-year-old runner from the Onondaga reservation in central New York. George had injured his ankle prior to the marathon, and both he and Brown failed to catch the ultimate winner, the famous Johnny Kelley.

But Brown decisively entered Marathon history with his first win, in April 1936, on a day when it drizzled off and on. Unlike Brown’s previous marathon strategies where he stayed in the middle of the pack for the first half of the race, he set a pace at the beginning that was so fast he passed the press vehicles before they reached the first checkpoint. He actually broke the record for the first five miles of the race. By the 20th mile, his main competitor, once again Johnny Kelley, had caught up to him. At the last of the Newton hills, more of a gradual rising slope near Boston College, between mile 20 and 21 of the race, Kelley briefly overtook him. Passing the Narragansett, Kelly patted him on the back.

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.