Published on January 12, 2012 by Casey
Jacobus Franciscus “Jim” Thorpe (Sac and Fox (Sauk): Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to “Bright Path”) (May 28, 1888 – March 28, 1953) was an American athlete of mixed ancestry (Caucasian and Native American). Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football (collegiate and professional), and also played professional baseball and basketball. He lost his Olympic titles after it was found he was paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the amateurism rules. In 1983, 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restored his Olympic medals.
Of Native American and European American ancestry, Thorpe grew up in the Sac and Fox nation in Oklahoma. He played as part of several All-American Indian teams throughout his career, and “barnstormed” as a professional basketball player with a team composed entirely of American Indians.
He played professional sports until age 41, the end of his sports career coinciding with the start of the Great Depression. Thorpe struggled to earn a living after that, working several odd jobs. Thorpe suffered from alcoholism, and lived his last years in failing health and poverty.
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Information about Thorpe’s birth, name, and ethnic background varies widely. He was born in Indian Territory, but no birth certificate has been found. Thorpe was generally considered born on May 28, 1888, near the town of Prague, Oklahoma. He was christened “Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe” in the Catholic Church.
Thorpe’s parents were both of mixed-race ancestry. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and a Sac and Fox Indian mother. His mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and a Potawatomi mother, a descendant of Chief Louis Vieux. Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as “path lighted by great flash of lightning” or, more simply, “Bright Path”. As was the custom for Sac and Fox, Thorpe was named for something occurring around the time of his birth, in this case the light brightening the path to the cabin where he was born. Thorpe’s parents were both Roman Catholic, a faith which Thorpe observed throughout his adult life.
Thorpe attended the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School in Stroud, Oklahoma, with his twin brother Charlie. Charlie helped Jim through school, but died of pneumonia when they were nine years old. Thereafter, Thorpe ran away from school on several occasions. Hiram Thorpe then sent him to the Haskell Institute, an “Indian” boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas, so that he would not run away again. When his mother died of childbirth complications two years later, Thorpe became depressed. After several arguments with his father, the teenaged Thorpe left home to work on a horse ranch.
In 1904, the sixteen year old Thorpe returned to his father and decided to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There, his athletic ability was recognized and he was coached by Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, one of the most influential coaches of early American football history. Later that year, Hiram Thorpe died from gangrene poisoning after being wounded in a hunting accident. Thorpe again dropped out of school. He resumed farm work for a few years and then returned to Carlisle Indian Industrial School.