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Bay City's Ancient History Returns to the Headlines After 380 Years

Son of Jim Thorpe Sues Pennsylvania Town for Return of Father's Body

June 27, 2010       2 Comments
By: Dave Rogers

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Some Bay Cityans interested in history may take notice of a headline that splashed across the nation's news media in the past few days.

It read: "Jim Thorpe's Son Seeks Return of Remains."

That also was the essence of the headline in the Bay City Times on an article I wrote 30 years ago after interviewing the son, Jack Thorpe, in Oklahoma.

No one here would care much about this story had it not been for the fact that the tribe to which the great Jim Thorpe belonged -- the Sauk Tribe of Oklahoma -- originally was located in Bay City.

The main Sauk village was located on the west bank of the river somewhere between Veterans Memorial Park and Salzburg. The massacre by the Chippewa, Ottawa and Pottowatomi tribes occurred about 1640.

Skull Island, where the bones of the massacred tribal members were found when the first settlers arrived here 200 years later, has been located near James Clements Airport. It is now joined to the mainland and is in private ownership, having been part of the North American Chemical Co. complex in the early part of the last century.

When I asked Jack Thorpe, who had been the principal chief of the tribe in 1980, about the massacre, he acknowledged the basic facts and said the tribe had oral history that went back to the days when they lived in Bay City and when the massacre occurred.

It was an amazing revelation that opened my eyes to a period in local history that not only had been forgotten by most, but was denied by some. Subsequent research has proven the basic validity of the facts: the Sauks did live here, they were massacred according to accounts by the Chippewa and other tribes through the years, and they were exiled to Wisconsin where they merged with the Fox Tribe.

The merger of surviving tribal members and the move to Oklahoma happened after the Black Hawk War, an 1832 event in Wisconsin and Illinois that involved young Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as officers for the U.S. troops.

In fact there are unverified reports that Jim Thorpe was a grandson of the famous Sauk chief Black Hawk.

The tribal headquarters in Oklahoma is known as the Sac and Fox tribe, where Jacobus Franciscus "Jim" Thorpe grew up after his birth May 28, 1888.

For 30 years Jack Thorpe has been waiting, patiently, for the right time to file suit against the Pennsylvania town that bought his father's body from his stepmother and made it the focal point of a tourism campaign.

TV newscaster Eric Jylha noticed the story coming over the wire the other night and forwarded it with the comment: "I knew you'd be interested in this."

Yes, very much so, Eric, since when I left Jack Thorpe in Oklahoma in 1980 he left some parts of the story of his father still to be resolved.

I had a few contacts with Jack through the years but forgot over the course of time that Jim's body -- the body of perhaps the greatest athlete in American history -- lay in what had been called Mauch Chunk Pennsylvania -- since 1953 called Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

I have told this story for about 20 years to trolley history tours through the Bay City Public Schools Community Education Department and the Bay County Historical Society and now on tours sponsored by Historical Press L.L.C. in cooperation with the Bay City Antique Center.

In fact I had long ago lost track of Jack Thorpe and his quest to have his father's Olympic medals restored -- which he achieved several years after my interview with him in 1980 -- and to reclaim his father's body.

The news media did not mention the indelicate fact that Jack's stepmother, Patricia, the third wife of Jim, had sold the body of the great athlete to the Pennsylvania town in 1953 for $5,000.

The story as it appeared in the media said: "A son of sports great Jim Thorpe sued the Pennsylvania town that bears his father's name Thursday, demanding that it return his remains to Oklahoma under a federal law designed to give Native American artifacts back to their tribal homelands."

"Jack Thorpe, 72, of Shawnee, Okla., sued in federal court in Scranton, saying he had waited until the last of his half-sisters died to avoid a family conflict over the lawsuit.

"The bones of my father do not make or break your town," Jack Thorpe, a past chief of the Sac and Fox tribe, said of the defendants, who include numerous current and former town officials. "I resent using my father as a tourist attraction."

Jim Thorpe won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics and later played professional football and baseball, appeared as an Indian in B-list Hollywood movies, then struggled financially and with alcoholism before his March 1953 death in California at age 64.

"In a bizarre deal to draw tourists, the merging towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pa., brokered a deal with Thorpe's ambitious third wife that renamed the community Jim Thorpe in 1954 and brought his remains to a corner of the Pocono Mountains that he likely never saw," the news reports read.

"Thorpe's three daughters long endorsed the arrangement, especially daughter Grace, a Native American activist who sometimes visited for the town's annual Jim Thorpe celebration. But Jack and his three brothers opposed it, believing their father belongs in sacred tribal burial land in Shawnee."

"Yes, I know that he was the greatest all-around athlete this country's ever produced," Jack Thorpe said. "He was also Native American, and he had his tribe and his family. ... So you've always had two different cultures butting heads."

"Tucked in a steep valley on the western edge of the Poconos, the town of Jim Thorpe has been a popular tourist draw for decades, offering historic architecture, quaint shops, train excursions and outdoor recreation from whitewater rafting to guided fall foliage tours," the media reports went on.

John McGuire, the town council vice president, favors keeping Thorpe's remains at the roadside memorial overlooking the Lehigh River. He believes a majority of the town's residents do, too.

"The townspeople are proud of it. We have an association that takes care of the monument and the grounds, and the statues that were placed in his honor," McGuire said. "We try to honor Jim Thorpe as much as possible."

Even if the lawsuit is successful, town official McGuire considers it unlikely that the town would change its name again.

"It's been that way for 60 years. I don't see a reason to change it. We're well known for what we now are," he said.

But, the reasonable people of the town certainly can't defend a monumental injustice perpetrated in a crass, filthy lucre tainted bargain, can they?

Thorpe made news during the 1912 Olympics, when his track exploits led King Gustav V of Sweden to declare, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." The 24-year-old Thorpe replied: "Thanks, King."

The medals were rescinded a year later over concerns Thorpe had played some semi-professional baseball. But the family had them restored posthumously in 1982.

Jack Thorpe now hopes town leaders will let Jim Thorpe's body rest in sacred Native American soil without the messy details of a trial. That, of course, would be the right thing to do and would help ameliorate a monumental wrong going back more than half a century. ###___

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mosher Says:       On June 28, 2010 at 09:57 AM
This is great to learn of the Bay City connection, Dave.

Just as Elvis' and Michael Jackson's estates make more posthumously than before, the town should offer to send back the physical remains if they can share in licensing of "Thorpiana"--Jim Thorpe-branded souvenir items.

I remember construction of a riverfront project halted because of native remains. How can Bay City market the historic Sauk connection--host an annual conference?
wallsopp Says:       On July 01, 2010 at 01:39 PM
Fascinating story Dave. Also very sad, thorpe was such a champion but such sadness and tragedy in his life. It is especially sad to see that he had been so exploited.
Keep up great work.
Bill
Agree? or Disagree?


Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at carraroe@aol.com)

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