James (Jim) Francis Thorpe, also known as Wa-Tho-Huk (Bright Path), was an extremely gifted athlete. Thorpe grew up in Oklahoma in the Sauk and Fox nation and attended the Carlisle Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here did he suffer his first hardships. Jim and his twin brother Charles were forced to attend the school at a mere six years of age; a fact which was actually quite common at the time, though now is recognized as the sin that it was. When the boys were only nine years old, Charles contracted small-pox and passed away.
A few years later, Jim jumped into the world of sports by helping his school football team become two-time all-American champions. Thereafter, he went on to play football at a collegiate level as well as professional, also playing professional baseball and basketball.
Thorpe is well recognized as the first Native American to win a gold medal for the USA in the 1912 Summer Olympics. At that time he not only won a gold medal for the pentathlon, but also won gold and set a new record in the decathlon event. Thorpe was also given All-Around Championship of the Amateur Union of 1912. This feat was found even more incredible by his mismatched shoes that he can be shown wearing in his 1912 Olympic photos. Just before he was set to run, someone had stolen his shoes. In order to be allowed to compete, he had to find footwear. Jim Pulled two out of the garbage and although each were a different size, he still came in first place.
Unfortunately, he was stripped of his medals and titles in 1913 when an investigation into his career proved he had been paid for two seasons of semi-professional baseball prior to attending the Olympics, which automatically made him a professional athlete. As he had entered into the amateur Olympics, it was against the rules for professionals to join.
Even with this massive disappointment, James bounced back as strong as ever. In 1913 he had also signed with the New York Giants and remained with them for 6 seasons before leaving in 1919. During those years he also joined the Canton Bulldogs in 1915 and won three Professional Championships. He went on to play for six NFL teams, barnstormed for multiple Native American teams for basketball and several other All-American Indian teams for football. In 1920-1921, he became the first President of the American Professional Football Association.
The Buffalo Tribune interviewed Ashley Scott who now works in the museum that was once Jim Thorpe's home. She was able to give us some insight as to what his personal life was like during this height of his sports career.
“In 1917, Jim Thorpe bought a home in Yale, Oklahoma and lived there with his first wife, Iva Miller, until 1923. He bought the home with the money he made from selling his Indian allotment. When they moved there, they had a little boy and another baby on the way. They moved to Yale because, at the time, Jim was traveling playing professional sports, which made it difficult for Iva to follow him. She also had family that lived nearby. Sadly, their first born, James F Thorpe (Jr.), died during the 1918 flu epidemic at 3 years old. They would have three girls after Jim Jr: Gail, Charlotte, and Grace. All of the children from this union have since passed away. You can visit the home, which is presented much like how they lived in it, including authentic artifacts from their life . Many of the items were donated by the late Iva Miller (Iva Miller Thorpe Davies) when the home was being prepared as a museum.”
The Museum is currently open and offers tours to large and small groups.
James ended up having to quit sports at the beginning of the Great Depression. At this time he struggled to find work and had to work several odd jobs trying to make ends meet. Unfortunately, he suffered from alcoholism and lived out his life in poverty and poor health. James passed away on March 28, 1953 from heart failure.
30 years after his death, the 1983 IOC (International Olympic Committee) restored his medals with replicas. Jim Thorpe is still recorded as co-champion for both events in the Olympic records, sharing the title with the silver medal winners that took his place after he lost his medals. There has been much work put into place attempting to reinstate Thorpe as the only gold medal champion of that year.
Congresswoman Deb Haaland has stood up for Thorpe, saying that “...any person who has represented our country honorably and brought victory home for the United States in the Olympics is an American hero and should be recognized as one, but inherent biases took that honor from Jim Thorpe. This resolution not only recognizes Jim Thorpe for the hero that he is, it also ensures that the records reflect his incredible achievements.”
Most of Thorpe's family has passed away, including most of his children. Only his youngest son, Richard Thorpe remains living as well as his many grandchildren, all of whom are also fighting for his title to be restored.
Jim Thorpe was featured on the Wheaties Cereal box cover back in 2001 , that honor includes the stars of Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Wayne Greatzky.