Deerfoot: The Seneca World Champion Long-Distance Runner
At the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo, Lieutenant Billy Mills, a young Lakota and United States Marine Reserve Officer, came from behind in the 10,000-meter race to win the gold medal, the first American ever to win at that distance. Yet long before Mills’ extraordinary feat, American Indians were achieving fame as competitive long-distance runners. Among the many Native legends were Tom Longboat (Onondaga), Louis Tewanima (Hopi) and Ellison “Tarzan” Brown (Narragansett). But they all followed in the steps of the 19th century champion Lewis Bennett (1830–1896), Seneca, who was popularly known as “Deerfoot.”
Deerfoot was the master of pedestrianism, a sport of long-distance running popular in the 19th century, especially in England, Ireland and Scotland. Official challenges were advertised in the press by promoters, who were often shady characters, and terms were negotiated at prominent taverns or inns that were adjacent to cricket fields or horse tracks. These promoters served as managers as well as trainers and gave their runners colorful names, such as “Crowcatcher,” “American Deer” and “Young England,” to sell the event to the public.
Pedestrian races attracted thousands of paid admissions. A great cause of their popularity was that spectators were encouraged to bet heavily on the outcome. Victors in races were rewarded with prize money, sometimes a share of the admission receipts and a championship cup. Until 1865, when a more accurate stopwatch was invented, races were timed by a chronograph, a watch that was accurate to one-fourth to one-fifth of a second.
Deerfoot dominated distance racing from ten to 12 miles. He held the world record for the one-hour run – 11 miles, 790 yards – from 1863 to 1897! Indeed, his performances reshaped the sport by introducing strategies that later legends of long-distance running, most notably Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia and Paavo Nurmi of Finland, adopted in the first decades of the 20th century. Deerfoot competed and won against the most accomplished runners of his day.
Making his achievements even more spectacular, the Seneca was no young aspiring runner when he ran in championship races in the British Isles. He was 32 years old when he set the world record in the one-hour race!
Through the history of the Six Nations, runners were not merely athletes intent on “going for the gold.” They summoned councils, conveyed intelligence from nation to nation and warned of impending danger. Significantly, runners brought messages and carried stringed wampum to signify their official role, diplomatic protocol and the weight of their words. For energy on their demanding task, runners wore a bearskin or deerskin pouch on a light belt on their breechclout that contained pounded parched corn mixed with maple sugar. To this day, Six Nations chiefs still designate “runners,” using the term to describe a person who serves the Iroquois Confederacy as a conduit for the conduct of essential business. For this role, the runner is accorded respect as a community leader worthy of other higher positions of authority.
Seneca athletic training was in lacrosse. Known to the Six Nations as the “Creator’s Game,” it was both an Iroquoian ritual and an entertaining competitive athletic competition. Lacrosse games were also often used to channel tensions and overcome factionalism. On the lacrosse fields, Deerfoot excelled because of his exceptional endurance, more than his blinding sprint speed. Between 5 feet 10. inches and 6 feet tall and weighing 162 pounds, he was a force to be reckoned with, both as a lacrosse player and, later, as a long-distance runner.
Deerfoot clearly was drawn to running not by his skill as a lacrosse player, but by the success of earlier Seneca competitive runners such as John Steeprock and the significant prize money that could be won. By the 1850s, other Seneca runners, including Albert Smith, Sundown and Strong Smoke, were achieving distinction in long-distance competition.
Lewis Bennett was born in 1830 into the Snipe Clan. He was given the name Hut-geh-so-do-neh or “He Peeks Through the Door.” At the time of his birth, his family resided on the Buffalo Creek Reservation, the Senecas’ largest and most populated reservation, situated on lands that make up the present City of Buffalo and environs. There, the Bennett family were members of the Seneca Mission Church. In 1838 in the federal Treaty of Buffalo Creek, the Senecas were dispossessed of all of their lands, except for a one-mile territory, the Oil Spring reservation. Under this treaty, one of the more egregious in American Indian history, the Six Nations, including the Senecas, were to be removed to lands west of Missouri, then the Indian Territory. Most refused to leave New York, including the Bennetts.
Because of protests about the treaty, one that had been obtained by bribery and coercion, the Senecas were later able to regain the Allegany and Cattaraugus reservations in a federal treaty concluded in 1842. After the securing of these lands, Deerfoot and his family resettled at Cattaraugus, where they lived the rest of their lives.
Deerfoot first came to public attention at Fredonia, N.Y., in 1856 when he won a five-mile race in which he posted the time of 25 minutes flat. He followed up with a series of four- to 20-mile races from Buffalo to Boston. On June 21, 1861, he raced at National Racecourse, a horse trotting venue in the Corona district of Queens, N.Y., against several British pedestrians brought to the United States by promoter-trainer George Martin. The British runners included Jack White, the four-, six-, and 10-mile British champion. Although Deerfoot towered over the Englishman, the Seneca runner lost the race. After two other challenge races, both of which Deerfoot lost, Martin was nevertheless impressed by the Seneca’s performance and with his potential. As a cagey race promoter, Martin was also taken by the Seneca’s swagger. Seeing the box office potential of an “Indian,” Martin invited him to join his stable of runners in London.
Deerfoot decided to accept Martin’s invitation during the first year of the American Civil War. But he was not seeking to avoid military service. He and his fellow Seneca tribesmen were not United States citizens and were initially excluded from enlisting in military service in New York State by the Adjutant General’s office in Albany. (This position was not reversed until March 1862.) Deerfoot was strictly motivated by his desire to compete internationally with the world’s best runners and to win prize money.
On July 27, 1861, Deerfoot set sail for Liverpool on a 12-day trans- Atlantic voyage on the steamship City of Washington. From Liverpool, he travelled to London and checked into the Spotted Tavern on the Strand, in an area of the city heavily infested with drunks, gamblers and prostitutes.
Members of the Six Nations had long journeyed to England to cement alliances or entertain as performers. Too often they were viewed as relics of the ancient past or gawked at much like wild animals in a zoo. Other times, they were presented as noble, innocent denizens of the forest. By the end of the second decade of the 19th century, a broadside advertising a “Chief & Six Warriors of the Seneca Nation” demeaned them as “Wild Indian Savages.”
Besides outright racism, Deerfoot faced another major obstacle. During his stay in the British Isles, many British public officials expressed anti-American feelings. The burgeoning textile industry had Confederate sympathies, since it depended on cotton produced in the Southern states. In July 1861, at the time of Deerfoot’s arrival in England, the South appeared to be close to winning the war, repulsing Union forces at the First Battle of Bull Run.
On Aug. 11, 1861, Deerfoot’s challenge to British runners was published in the prominent British sporting magazine, Bell’s Life. The magazine announced that a North American Indian from Cattaraugus, “known by the name of Deerfoot and Red Jacket,” was seeking to break the six-mile and 10-mile records in winning the Championship Cup and Championship Belt. The notice indicated that the Indian was willing to run at either distance. Anyone accepting the challenge had only to cover the sum of £11 put down by Deerfoot and “meet the Indian or his representative at Wilson’s Spotted Dog [Tavern/Inn], on Friday next” to work out the details.
Thus began Deerfoots’ hectic visit to the British Isles, an intense round of competitive running and exhibitions over 22 months. In 87 weeks he ran 130 races, an average of one race every four and a half days, often at a distance of 10 miles or more! During his tour he captivated crowds of thousands of onlookers, breaking every record from 10 to 12 miles then in existence.
Deerfoot lost his first challenge, a six-mile race attended by 4,000 Londoners, offering a purse of £25, some gate money and the Champion’s Belt, but followed it up with a resounding victory at a four-mile race on Sept. 16, 1861. Deerfoot ran his opponents into the ground by an innovative strategy later repeated by Zatopec and Nurmi. He would surge ahead of the pack of runners and then slow down, allowing his opponents to catch up by overexerting themselves in the process. Once they reached him or slightly inched past him, Deerfoot would then speed up, pass them and cross the finish line first.
Accounts of his training methods vary. Earlier writings on Deerfoot suggest that he rarely trained and spent much of his free time celebrating his many victories in British pubs. Other accounts also describe Deerfoot as attending church services every Sunday in Great Britain. But his success as a runner at an advanced age and the frequency and overall length of his races suggest a high level of conditioning.
His appearance was quite dramatic. It undoubtedly shocked many in Victorian England when he uncovered his wolf skin cape/blanket and revealed his tall lithe body with his chest fully exposed. From head to toe, he played the role of the “Indian,” in a manner that suggested that at least some of his actions were choreographed by George Martin, his unsavory manager-trainer.
At the September 16 race, Deerfoot wore an eagle feather in his headband, a modified breechclout, actually more of a skirt, ornamented with porcupine quill-work, beads, wampum and jingling bells, and beautifully crafted moccasins on his feet. The English publication Sporting Life called him a “fine specimen of the sons of the forest.” The reporter rightly predicted Deerfoot’s future success and gave a warning to British runners: “We should advise our clippers to look well to their laurels, as he means business and nothing else.”
Later, Deerfoot added other aspects to his repertoire, including wild leaps in the air and so-called war cries. In sharp contrast to the favorable Sporting Life story, the New York Clipper constantly accused Deerfoot of “pulling the rug” over his British hosts and criticized Martin for making Deerfoot a laughingstock, “dressing him in all manner of queer costumes.”
After Deerfoot’s victory of September 16, he won 26 of the next 28 challenge races. Throughout the British Isles, crowds up to 15,000 people came just to witness the Seneca’s running. “Deerfoot mania” quickly spread, especially after November when he beat popular Sam “Homeboy” Barker, a diminutive British runner. Bell’s Life commented:
"No man… has produced anything approaching the same excitement as has been created by this tawny son of the Seneca tribe. This excitement, instead of abating by the frequent matches in which the Indian has engaged, on the contrary increases in a most extraordinary manner."
A play allegedly based on Deerfoot’s exploits opened at the Royal Olympic Theatre and a dance piece was written and performed in his honor. The size of the purses also increased. Because of strict Victorian mores, when he raced for a £60 prize that same month before 13,000 people in London, officials made him forego his bare chest and skirt/breech clout and instead wear long drawers and a woolen shirt.
On Dec. 4, 1861, Deerfoot participated at Cambridge in a six-mile race at the University’s Cricket Club at an event attended by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Unlike his highly formal mother, Queen Victoria, the popular Prince, known as Bertie, then a student at the university, was known for enjoying life to the fullest. Although the sport of pedestrianism in Great Britain was largely associated with the masses and not the upper classes, the Prince had become a fan of the Seneca runner. Now the Prince watched Deerfoot outperform his British rivals and at the awards ceremony, presented him with cash notes and a trophy. Prince Bertie later attended a banquet celebrating Deerfoot’s victory.
Yet just at the moment of Deerfoot’s greatest success, a new wave of anti-Americanism and racism gained steam. News had reached London that the British ship Trent had been stopped and boarded by members of the Union Navy, and that a Confederate envoy had been seized and arrested. After the incident, some English newspapers heaped criticism on Deerfoot. They attacked the Seneca Indian as a vulgar American, an acrobatic circus performer and even as a “wretched brandy-drinking savage,” even though Deerfoot at this time was on his best behavior and did nothing to deserve this condemnation.
Deerfoot won the next two challenge races that December; however, on December 16, he finished in a dead heat in an eight-mile contest against Teddy Mills, known as “Young England.” Since the Seneca by then was seen as invincible, some viewed the race as fixed, accusing Martin and his star Deerfoot of throwing the contest.
From February to May 1862, Deerfoot won the next 14 races in a row, all between four to 10 miles in length. An article in Bell’s Life referred to him as “the most extraordinary pedestrian [long distance challenge runner] that has ever appeared in England.” Despite the article’s optimistic tone, not all criticism of him had dissipated. Because of Deerfoot’s overwhelming success, he became known as a “sure thing” and the payout in the betting line became infinitesimal. Moreover, his entertainment as an “exotic Indian runner” in London and other major venues in Great Britain soon began to wear thin. Paid admission crowds became smaller.
To meet the declining interest in pedestrian competition, Martin then devised a race tour, more like a travelling circus, that included 80 stops and 16 major races in 14 weeks. Willing to do anything to attract publicity, Martin apparently convinced Deerfoot to stage a mock scalping in a tavern. The tour started in Tunbridge on May 7 and ended at Manchester on Sept. 1, 1862. Much of it was set for the English countryside and smaller cities, although the tour made stops at Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland, as well as several venues in Ireland.
The promoter built a portable 220-yard track that could be dismantled and set up for his races, most of which were held at cricket grounds. The troupe would run four miles in an exhibition race. Martin, in his typical bravado, advertised that Deerfoot would wear the same apparel that he donned before the Prince of Wales. To attract larger crowds, Martin also advertised that his travelling troupe would give prizes for boxing, sack racing, jumping, hammer throwing and vaulting. Perhaps as many as 150,000 people attended venues on the tour.
Unfortunately for Deerfoot’s reputation, the crowds became boisterous. Their heavy drinking and brawling was harshly criticized in the press. Martin, who clearly advertised the races as exhibitions, nevertheless once again was seen by the public as fixing the outcome, especially when Deerfoot began to lose.
When crowds dwindled and the tour ran out of money, Martin returned to his London base. There, Deerfoot rekindled his magic as a long distance runner. On Oct. 27, 1862, in London at Brompton in a one-hour race before 4,000 to 5,000 spectators, the Seneca broke the world record of William “the American Deer” Jackson. However, an ugly incident during a six-mile race at the Copenhagen Grounds at Wandsworth threatened again to stain his reputation. Unlike his previous restraint, Deerfoot raced into the stands after a spectator. Although no account of this incident suggests why Deerfoot behaved so out of character, one could only speculate that he was being taunted.
On Jan. 12, 1863, Deerfoot beat his own mark in a one-hour race by running 11 miles, 790 yards, setting a world record, at the Hackney Wick, a one-acre track behind a famous pub in East London. In another one-hour race in London on February 23, he won the £100 prize after his opponents fell by the wayside and couldn’t complete the race. On Good Friday, 1863, once again competing at Brompton, Deerfoot defeated William “the Crowcatcher” Lang, who was given a 100-yard head start in this handicap race. The Seneca extended his one-hour record to 11 miles, 797 yards; however, the race was set for 12 miles and Lang passed Deerfoot at the end, crossing the 12-mile finish line ahead of the Seneca.
In his last four races in Great Britain in April 1863, Deerfoot failed to finish and was jeered by spectators, who demanded more from the great champion. Realizing he was no longer at the top of his game and disturbed by the catcalls of fair-weather English fans, he was now anxious to return home to Seneca Country. He sailed on board the Great Eastern, the world’s largest luxury liner. As a celebrity, he showed off his prowess by running races against ship stewards, to the delight of his fellow passengers.
Once again at Cattaraugus, Deerfoot continued to run professionally at a variety of venues including county fairs and city parks, in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Syracuse. Much like the great Jesse Owens after the 1936 Olympics, he even ran against racehorses in exhibitions. In Chicago in mid-summer 1865, in front of a crowd of 2,000 people including the city’s leading officials, he and another Seneca named Stevens teamed in a relay-styled race against two fast nag trotting horses, named “Cooley” and “Princess.” The two men were required to cover a little more than two miles while the horses ran twice the distance. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune described the Senecas as wiry young men, who ”go about preparing for a run with all the coolness imaginable. They think no more of starting for a run of ten miles than others would think of taking a pleasure walk.” The two Senecas won the race, beating the horses by two to three seconds, and shared the prize of $1,000. On Aug. 28, 1870, in Montreal, Deerfoot ran his last professional race. Interestingly, he was defeated by another American Indian, named Kerwonwe, at an event appropriately held at the city’s lacrosse grounds. At the age of 40, his competitive days of running for prize money were now over, although he continued to give exhibitions at Six Nations agricultural fairs.
After his retirement, Deerfoot returned to his Cattaraugus reservation and took up farming. After his first wife died around 1880, he remarried and raised his six children on his farm. Like prominent Senecas Red Jacket, Ely Parker and William Hoag, Deerfoot became a member of the local Masonic Lodge. He remained a celebrity for the rest of his life because of his extraordinary 22 months in Great Britain.
Deerfoot was an honored guest, along with other prominent Natives, at the 1893 World’s Fair, more commonly known as the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago. There, he again made headlines, but this time when a deranged woman on the streets of that city attempted to kill him. Surviving, he returned to Cattaraugus, where he spent the last three years of his life.
Deerfoot died the same year, 1896, that the modern Olympic Games were revived in Greece. The Athens Olympics brought new attention to long-distance running by making the marathon the crowning event on the last day. From major news outlets in Great Britain and in the United States to immigrant newspapers, the Seneca’s passing was noted and his brilliant athletic achievements lauded. The obituary, “Deerfoot-Lewis Bennett, the Seneca Indian,” appearing in The Irish World and American Industrial Liberator noted: “In his younger days Deerfoot made records for long-distance running which have never been broken.” Deerfoot was buried in an unmarked grave on the reservation, but because of his international fame he was later re-interred in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery in the shadow of Red Jacket’s monument. He rests next to the graves of Ely Parker as well as chiefs Young King, Little Billy, Captain Pollard, Destroy Town and Tall Peter. Members of the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan raised $150 to fund his headstone.
While it is true that Lewis Bennett, as Deerfoot, had to play the role of the stereotyped “Indian” in his career, he, nevertheless, should be remembered as one of the most extraordinary athletes of his time, beating the fastest white men in world-class competition. Much like Jesse Owens’ accomplishments later at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Deerfoot’s victories as an “Indian” challenged the racial assumptions and theories of his time. He proudly wore his one feather headband in competition to signify his Seneca Nation and employed strategies derived from his lacrosse background to set world records. Importantly, although his racing occurred far from home, he never left his roots, residing all his life in Seneca territory.
Tom Longboat: Onondaga Champion Marathon Runner
‘‘Tom Longboat Day,” comes every June 4 in Ontario,thanks to a bill passed in 2008 by the ProvincialParliament. It honors Thomas Charles Longboat (Onondaga), one of Canada’s most celebrated athletesand war heroes. Longboat was born on June 4, 1887, on the Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford, Ont. He was giventhe name Cogwagee, meaning “Everything.”
His father died when he was five, and his family struggled to survive on their small farm on the reserve. Brought up in the Longhouse tradition, he was sent at the age of 12 to the Mohawk Institute, a residential school on the reserve, well known for its strict regimen and its assimilationist focus. He rebelled by running away from the school.
Soon to be famous for his competitive running, Longboat drew inspiration from two Seneca athletes, Deerfoot, the great 19th century champion runner (see “Deerfoot: The Seneca World Champion Long-Distance Runner” on page 33), and Frank Pierce, from New York’s Cattaraugus reservation, who competed in the marathon at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. Much like the early training of the two Senecas, Longboat’s running benefitted from his playing lacrosse, the Six Nations’ national sport. Bill Davis (Mohawk), who placed second in the Boston Marathon in 1901, initially trained Longboat as a runner.
Longboat, 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighing a little more than 140 pounds, won his first long-distance race, one of 19 miles, at Hamilton, Ont., in 1906. The next year, then 19, Longboat dominated the Boston Marathon, setting a record by nearly five minutes even though the race took place in a sleeting storm. Longboat passed James J. Lee and John J. Hayes, later the 1908 Olympic champion, and easily won. As a result of this stunning victory, young Longboat became the favorite to win the 1908 Olympic marathon, which was set for Rome but shifted to London after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1907.
The 1908 Olympic marathon wound through the streets of London on a steamy August day. Less than half of the competitors were able to finish the race. While in second place at the 20-mile mark, Longboat collapsed from heat exhaustion, although there were suspicions that he had been drugged. In this controversial race, Dorando Pietri, an Italian runner in the lead, who himself was nearing collapse from heat exhaustion, was aided across the finish line by supporters coming down from the stands onto the track. As result, Hayes, an unaided runner who finished the race, was declared the winner. Later, Longboat defeated Pietri in several races in North America.
In early February 1909, in one of his more famous competitions, Longboat raced the marathon on a wooden track inside Madison Square Garden in New York City. He went head-to-head against his frequent rival Alfred Shrubb, an English middle- and long-distance runner who held every record from six to 11 miles. Despite an ankle injury, Longboat won this well publicized match when Shrubb, who was holding the lead, gave up after the 24th mile. Indeed, the Onondaga runner continued to beat his rival Shrubb in subsequent races at every distance from 20 miles up.
Longboat then turned professional and sought prize money, thereby losing his amateur status and his ability to race again for Canada in the Olympic Games. Dubbed the “Bronze Mercury,” he was viewed as invincible in the marathon and continued to win as a professional right up to World War I, setting a world record for the 15-mile race in 1912.
In 1916 at the age of 29, Longboat gave up his professional running career, and with it its prize moneys, and enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I. He was one of 292 members of the Six Nations from the Grand River who served in the war. The Onondaga was transferred overseas to the 107th Pioneer Battalion that fought at the major battles of Vimy, Ypres and the Somme. Facing the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas, Longboat was assigned to be a dispatch carrier, along with Arthur Jamieson (Tuscarora), who had finished eighth in the 1916 Boston Marathon, and Joe Benjamin Keeper (Norway House Cree First Nation) who had placed fourth in the 10,000-meter race in the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. Interestingly, this was the same role Iroquois runners played in the 17th and 18th centuries, bringing news back from one village to another on orders from their chiefs. During the war, Longboat was officially but erroneously reported killed in action, leading his wife to remarry.
After the war, Longboat married for the second time. He settled down with his four children in Toronto where he worked as a city street cleaner until the mid-1940s. Even though he had made significant money as a professional athlete, he had invested poorly and had given much of his winnings away to his extended family and friends. Sadly, he eventually had to pawn his medals. In the last decades of his life, he also suffered from diabetes. On Jan. 9, 1949, Longboat died of pneumonia.
In 1955, Longboat was elected to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. Today, his legacy is kept alive by the Aboriginal Sports Circle in Canada, which bestows the Tom Longboat Award each year to the best Native athlete in every province. In addition, the City of Toronto named an elementary school in his honor and dedicated their annual Toronto Island 10K race to him, the greatest long-distance runner ever to come out of Canada.
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