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.

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.

The gesture was ill-advised. Brown suddenly awakened to the fact that his competitor was now making his decisive move. This was the turning point in this famous marathon. Brown sped up, and Kelley could not keep up. Jerry Nason, the best-known newspaper reporter covering the Boston Marathon, later referred to the spot as “Heartbreak Hill” suggesting that “Tarzan” broke Kelley’s heart there. This famous site is now marked by a statue with two figures called Young at Heart. Strangely, both of the figures are of Kelley, as a young and old man. Brown, the winner of the contest, is missing.

Brown’s outstanding performance won him a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, for the notorious Berlin Summer Olympics hosted by Germany’s new Nazi regime. The track-and-field contingent included African- Americans Jessie Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, as well as Marty Glickman, of the Jewish faith, at an event designed to bolster the host’s Aryan supremacist ideology.

On August 9 on a bright sunny day with the temperature around 71 degrees, Brown was one of the favorites to medal in the Marathon. At the 25-kilometer mark, he was in fourth place. Remarkable film clips of the race, available on YouTube, show him nonchalantly pausing for a drink at an aid station. However, at the 28-kilometer mark, he suffered a severe cramp in his right thigh and his leg knotted up, forcing him to stop and rub it. Allegedly, he was disqualified when a spectator came to his aid and when he veered off the course, clear violations of the rules.

In disbelief that “Tarzan,” a favorite to medal, had not finished the race, writers over the years have tried to explain what had happened. They blamed it on his taking a warm bath before the race, on his pulling a muscle fooling around imitating a British distance walker, on a chronic foot injury or on a hernia aggravated in the qualifying trials. A family tradition points to his alleged fight with a Nazi supporter of Hitler in a beer garden before the race and his subsequent arrest. According to the story, he was held in jail overnight and warned by authorities not to win the marathon.

After returning to the United States empty handed, he continued to run the marathon, seeking to redeem his reputation by claiming that he could run and win two marathons within 24 hours. In the fall of 1936, he delivered on his boast, winning marathons on back-to-back days, first in Port Chester, N.Y. on October 11, and in Manchester, N.H., more than 200 miles away on the following day! He also continued to run in the Boston Marathon for the next decade. He was a fan favorite not only because of his great athletic talent, but because he had a flair for being unpredictable. In 1937, Brown, somewhat out of condition, and suffering from problems with his feet, finished 31st. His 1938 race has entered Boston Marathon lore, although his wife Ethel Mae later claimed the incident happened the year before. Supposedly as a result of the sweltering conditions, Brown decided to abandon his quest for the championship. He ran off the course, waved to the crowd, and jumped into Lake Cochituate to cool off.

In 1939, Brown reached the pinnacle of his career. He began to take long-distance running seriously again. Training vigorously, he ran two practice marathons a week between Pawtucket, R.I. and Attleboro, Mass., and ran another 17 miles twice a week. That year, he won 20 of 22 long-distance races, setting records in nearly every event! In a ten-mile race in Cranston, R.I., he equaled the world record held by Pavlo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, perhaps the greatest long-distance runner of all time. Brown also won both the 15- and 20- kilometer races at the United States National Track and Field Championship and a well-publicized race at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, N.Y. On a chilly day in April 1939, Brown won the Boston Marathon again. In doing so, he eclipsed the race record by more than two minutes. According to several sources, he downed several hot dogs and several bottles of soda pop just prior to the race.

But his hopes for an Olympic rematch in Helsinki were crushed by the world war. Qualifying for the 1940 Olympic team and favored to win the marathon, Brown saw his plans came to a sudden end when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. No Olympic games were held again until 1948, when Brown, then 36, was well past his prime.

Brown’s Boston Marathon running days came to an end in 1946. Making a comeback in that race, he fi nished a surprising 12th. He returned to his work as a mason and catching and selling fi sh, although he continued to run in challenge races. Until the age of 59, this remarkable athlete also put on exhibitions, sometimes entertaining the crowds by running backwards. In fi nancial trouble for much of his later life, like Longboat before him, he was forced to sell his prized medals and trophies to pay for groceries as well as for his medical bills. But in 1973, he was inducted into both the RRCA Distance Running Hall of Fame and the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. Two years later, Brown was killed outside of a bar in Westerly apparently after being hit by a van. The memory of the ‘”King of the Boston Streets” is kept alive today in the “Annual Tarzan Brown 5.5 Mile Mystic River Run” that takes place in southeastern Connecticut.

The Tradition Continues

Festivities leading up to the running of the 120th Boston Marathon in 2016 included a major conference “Native American Running: Culture, Health, Sport.” It was sponsored by Harvard University, in cooperation with its Peabody Museum, its American Indian Studies Program and Radcliffe College as well as the Boston Athletic Association, the sponsor of the Boston Marathon. The conference also commemorated the 80th anniversary of the win by Ellison Myers “Tarzan” Brown, Sr. in the 1936 race. The conference explored the history and traditional roles of American Indian running as well as its health benefits to youths and adults alike.

American Indians from all over North America participated, including descendants of the great Native marathoners. Among the honored attendees and speakers was Billy Mills, a Lakota and winner of the 10,000-meter race at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964. Several conferees of American Indian descent ran in the 2016 Boston Marathon to honor their legendary ancestors and tribal members. These included William Winnie, honoring his great grandfather Tom Longboat, Dale Lolar, a Penobscot honoring Andrew Sockalexis, and Mikki Wosencroft, a Narragansett honoring “Tarzan” Brown. The fans of this great sports event were now reminded that the first residents of the Northeast had not disappeared, but were still visible, even on the streets of Boston.

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.