Historical Markers
Carbon County [Jim Thorpe] Historical Marker
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Carbon County [Jim Thorpe]

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
County Courthouse, Broadway and Susquehanna Sts., Jim Thorpe

Dedication Date:
June 13, 1982

Behind the Marker

 Jim Thorpe in his Olympic uniform, Stockholm, Sweden, 1912.
Jim Thorpe in his Olympic uniform, Stockholm, Sweden, 1912.
The 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Swede, were a tremendous success for the United States, mostly because of the feats of one man in track and field events. Jim Thorpe, a Sauk and Fox Indian from Oklahoma and student at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, won the gold medal in the pentathlon and the decathlon. "Sir," King Gustav V of Sweden said as he placed a laurel wreath on Thorpe's head, "you are the greatest athlete in the world." The plain-spoken athlete replied, "Thanks, King."

The curiously intertwined stories of Jim Thorpe the man and Jim Thorpe the town tell us much about the fate of Indians in twentieth-century Pennsylvania. Jim Thorpe was the most famous student to attend the marker Carlisle Indian School during its forty years of operation. Like most Carlisle students, he was not from Pennsylvania, but his time within the state's borders altered his life profoundly. It also had an impact on non-Indian Pennsylvanians, who took great pride in claiming the man called "the greatest athlete in the world" as one of their own, so much so that a community he never visited took his name when he died.
In this 1932 photograph, Thorpe's sons, Phil and Billy, have been cast in the role of stereotypical Indians.
Jim Thorpe and his sons Phil and Billy, 1932.

Jim Thorpe was born in the U.S. Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) in 1888. Both of his parents were of mixed European and Native American heritage. His father had Sauk and Fox ancestry as well as Irish, and his mother was Chippewa and French. The federal government's Indian Removal policy of the 1830s, which sought to resettle all Indians living east of the Mississippi in the West, brought Thorpe's parents to Oklahoma. By the time of Thorpe's birth, however, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt and other reformers were pursuing a new tactic in Indian education, taking children off of reservations and enrolling them in vocational boarding schools so that they could be assimilated into white society.

As a boy, Jim Thorpe attended a reservation school and then a boarding school in Kansas before arriving at the Carlisle School at age sixteen. He immediately distinguished himself as an athlete, excelling in every sport the school offered: track, baseball, basketball, boxing, tennis, and others. Famed coach Glenn "Pop" Warner made him the centerpiece of Carlisle's football team, which managed to beat teams from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and other much larger and better funded schools.
Jim Thorpe in Baseball Uniform.
Jim Thorpe, c. 1916

Thorpe's celebrity as "the greatest athlete in the world" after the 1912 Olympics was short-lived. A year later he was stripped of his medals when officials learned that he had played semipro baseball in the minor leagues in 1909, a violation of the Olympics' rule of amateur status. The incident, still considered one of the great injustices of Olympic history, permanently scarred Thorpe psychologically, and for the rest of his life he battled alcoholism. He continued to excel in sports, playing professional baseball in the 1910s and professional football in the 1920s.
Carlisle Indian School Football Team of 1908 including Jim Thorpe, Coach Warner and 24 other team members, all in uniform.
The 1908 Carlisle Indian football team. Jim Thorpe is standing next to coach...

After retiring from sports, he made a living in Hollywood as a laborer and bit actor in films, and during World War II, he served in the Merchant Marine. He died in Philadelphia in 1953, financially destitute but still widely heralded as the greatest athlete in American history.

When Thorpe died, the coal-shipping communities of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk in the Lehigh Valley merged and renamed themselves in his honor. Thorpe never visited there during his lifetime, but with his widow's approval, local leaders raised the money to inter his remains under a large granite monument erected in his honor.

There is a certain irony in how the communities of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk abandoned their original Native American names in favor of the European-sounding name of a famous Native American. The Indian inhabitants of the Lehigh Valley were long gone when Mauch Chunk took shape as coal and railroad town in the early 1800s, but the markerIndian Jasper Quarries in the region were silent reminders of that earlier presence for anyone who cared to look. Nevertheless, the Indian the townsfolk chose to honor in 1953 was not a local product; he was a famous outsider who offered a tenuous connection to the rich and troubled history of the European-Indian encounter in Pennsylvania.
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