Canada’s Indigenous Heroes – Thomas Charles Longboat

Thomas Charles Longboat was Canada’s most successful long-distance runner and set a course record for the Boston Marathon in 1907.

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Legendary Onondaga runner Tom Longboat won the famed Boston Marathon in 1907. (CBC.ca)

Tom Longboat – Long Distance Runner

Thomas Charles Longboat (June 4, 1887 – January 9, 1949), whose native name was Cogwagee, which means “Everything”, was an Onondaga distance runner from the Six Nations Indian reserve near Brantford, Ontario, and for much of his career the dominant long-distance runner of the time. June 4 was officially declared “Tom Longboat Day” in Ontario with the passage of Bill 120, a Private Member’s Bill put forward by Liberal MPP, Mike Colle (Eglinton-Lawrence). He was known as the bulldog of Britannia and was a fighter for the air force at the time.

When Longboat was a child, a Mohawk resident of the reserve, Bill Davis, who in 1901 finished second in the Boston Marathon, interested him in running races. He began racing in 1905, finishing second in the Victoria Day race at Caledonia, Ontario. His first important victory was in the Around the Bay Road Race in Hamilton, Ontario in 1906, which he won by three minutes. In 1907 he won the Boston Marathon in a record time of 2:24:24 over the old 24-1/2 mile course, four minutes and 59 seconds faster than any of the previous ten winners of the event. He collapsed, however, in the 1908 Olympic marathon, along with several other leading runners, and a rematch was organized the same year at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Longboat won this race, turned professional, and in 1909 at the same venue won the title of Professional Champion of the World in another marathon.

Onondaga runner Tom Longboat won the Boston Marathon in 1907. But his legacy today is as much about what he endured outside racing as what he accomplished within it.
Onondaga runner Tom Longboat won the Boston Marathon in 1907. But his legacy today is as much about what he endured outside racing as what he accomplished within it. (sportsnet.ca)

His coaches did not approve of his alternation of hard workouts with “active rest” such as long walks. When he was a professional, these recovery periods annoyed his promoters and the sports press often labeled him “lazy”, although the practice of incorporating “hard”, “easy”, and “recovery” days into training is normal today. Because of this and other disputes with his managers, Longboat bought out his contract, after which his times improved.

Marathon runner Tom Longboat competing in the U.S.A.
Marathon Runner Tom Longboat. (digitalcollections.detroitpubliclibrary.org)

Members of his family wouldn’t even believe how fast he could run over such a long distance until he gave his brother a half an hour head start driving a horse and buggy while he ran on foot, and yet he still made it to Hamilton first.

Longboat’s chief rival was Alfred Shrubb, whom he raced ten times, winning all the races at 20 miles or more and losing all those at shorter distances.

British runner, Alfred Shrubb racing Tom Longboat
British runner, Alfred Shrubb racing Tom Longboat (canadashistory.ca)

He served as a dispatch runner in France in World War I while maintaining a professional career. He retired following the war.

Tom Longboat (seated on the right) the Indigenous long distance runner buying a paper from a little French newspaper boy. June 1917. Library and Archives Canada
Tom Longboat (seated on the right) the Indigenous long-distance runner buying a paper from a little French newspaper boy. June 1917. Library and Archives Canada / PA-001479

Tom Longboat was enrolled at the Mohawk Institute Residential School at age 12, a legal obligation under the Indian Act at that time. He hated life at the school, where he was pressured to give up his Onondaga beliefs in favor of Christianity, as well as his language. After one unsuccessful escape attempt, he tried again and reached the home of his uncle, who agreed to hide him from authorities. After his athletic successes, he was invited to speak at the institute but refused, stating that “I wouldn’t even send my dog to that place.”

In 1908 he married Lauretta Maracle. In 1916 he enlisted in the Canadian Army, running messages between military posts. After he was mistakenly declared dead during World War I, Lauretta remarried in 1918. He later married Martha Silversmith, with whom he had four children. After the war Longboat settled in Toronto where he worked until 1944. He retired to the Six Nations Reserve and died of pneumonia on January 9, 1949.

In 1951 the Tom Longboat Awards were instituted by Jan Eisenhardt. This program, administered since 1999 by the Aboriginal Sport Circle, annually honors outstanding First Nations athletes and sportsmen in each province; national male and female winners are selected from the provincial winners. Longboat was inducted into both Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (in 1955) and the Indian Hall of Fame.

Longboat is also commemorated annually by the Toronto Island 10 km race, as well as having his name and image printed on a limited edition stamp by Canada Post. Awards are given out to top Indigenous amateur athletes in Canada every year.

Statue: One of the most accomplished Six Nations athletes in history was honoured throughout the Pan Am and Para Pan games in Toronto.
One of the most accomplished Six Nations athletes in history was honored throughout the Pan Am and Para Pan games in Toronto. (chch.com)

Tom Longboat was inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. He was the first person of Indigenous descent (Onondaga) to win the Boston Marathon, and one of only two Indigenous runners ever to win it (the other being Ellison Brown, a Narragansett.

Headline news in The Boston Post
Headline news in The Boston Post (Running Up That Hill)

Today’s Sources:

* MacLean’s                                                                     http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/canadian-encyclopedia-30-important-indigenous-leaders/

* Wikipedia                                                                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Longboat

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December, 2013, and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (http://fiorabooks.com), to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

2 thoughts on “Canada’s Indigenous Heroes – Thomas Charles Longboat”

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, I grew up in a time when racism and discrimination against Canada’s Indigenous peoples were socially acceptable. Last year, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of modern Canada, and Justin Trudeau called on all Canadians to work toward reconciliation with regard to our Indigenous Peoples. Canadians need to know about the marvelous contributions made by Indigenous people. Thanks, Robbie.

      Liked by 1 person

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