Among the list of great Canadian athletes, we tend to focus a bit too much on hockey players. The truth is, Canada has had many amazing athletes and today I am looking at one of them, Tom Longboat.
Tom Longboat was born on the Six Nations Reserve on July 4, 1886, to a family deep in poverty who ran a small farm. His name at birth was Gagwe:gih, which means everything.
When he was three, his father, George, died.
As a child, Longboat would often run around the area, once stating that he ran 65 kilometres from Hamilton to Brantford, arriving home before his mother who had left hours earlier in a wagon.
The Haudenosaunee were known for long-distance running, with runners carrying messages and stringed wampum to signify their distinct and recognized role as part of diplomatic protocol between Indigenous groups.
When he was 12, Longboat was forced to attend residential school. He hated the school, where he was pressured to give up his traditional beliefs in favour of Christianity. He was also told he could not speak his own language.
He would attempt two escapes, with the second one being more successful. His uncle would hide him from the authorities who were searching for him.
Longboat became interested in running when he was 15 after Bill Davis, a fellow resident of his reserve, finished second in the Boston Marathon.
In 1905, Longboat began to race, taking second in his first race at Caledonia, Ontario.
In 1906, he won his first major race when he took first place in the Around the Bay Road Race, winning by over three minutes. The Ottawa Journal would write on Nov. 15, 1906, quote:
“Tom Longboat, the Indian runner, is the live in Toronto. Thomas, you have our sincere sympathy.”
He would began training with Bill Davis, the man who inspired him around this time.
The Herald wrote quote:
“Marsh was the pacemaker in the early part of the race, but right behind him was Longboat, who occasionally shot to the front just to test his speed. They alternated as pacemakers until the Stone Road junction was reached, when Longboat decided that the time had come for him to cut loose. He left Marsh as if he had been standing.”
In 1907, Longboat travelled to Boston to take part in the Boston Marathon. He would finish with a record time of 2:24:24, which was almost five minutes faster than any of the previous ten winners of the event. He was the first Indigenous person to win the race, and remains only one of two Indigenous to have ever won it.
The Ottawa Citizen reported on the win, stating quote:
“Longboat running as steadily as if on a practice canter, his long legs eating up yards at every step, was given a terrific reception as he breasted the tape. He was the favourite and many bets were placed on him at even money. All the Canadians, nevertheless, made creditable showings.”
Americans began to accuse Longboat of being aided by performance enhancing drugs, called jobbing, at the time.
The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:
“The people have liked to see an Indian win. There may be superior folk who think that it is no great thing to be a champion runner, or football player, or oarsman, but the popular vote is against them. We glory in our athletes in this northern clime.”
As Longboat journeyed back to Canada, the newspapers reported on his journey. The Ottawa Citizen would at one point state that as Longboat crossed at Niagara, he made his manager tip his hat to the Canadian flag.
When he returned home to Canada, 200,000 people were part of a celebration in Toronto for him. Around this time, Longboat had become a celebrity across North America.
As the Olympics arrived in 1908, Longboat was a favourite to win the race. William Foran, a Canadian Athletic Federation official, would state quote:
“Tom Longboat will start in the Olympic Marathon and Tom Longboat will win.”
Prior to even going to the Olympics, the American team protested Longboat’s attendance stating he was not an amateur. The Toronto Evening Telegram stated quote:
“Canada has been quite sufficiently sacrificed to the Old Country craze for pleasing the Yankees at all costs. If this craze is to be carried out of diplomacy into sport, and Longboat is to be disqualified . . . then every Canadian athlete owes it to his country to leave the Olympian games.”
Even though he competed, Longboat would suffer difficulties in the race. Longboat would be one of several competitors who collapsed during the race. Even the man who did win the race was suffering from extreme dehydration and fatigue. More than half the competitors did not finish the race, collapsing from sunstroke as Longboat did.
A rematch was organized at Madison Square Garden the same year. The Montreal Gazette reported on the frenzy to see the race, stating quote:
“No consideration was shown by the frantic mob that stormed the entrance on Madison Avenue. Women were tossed about, crushed and battered in the maelstrom of struggling men who were fighting one another in a desperate attempt to get past the barriers. So great was the crush that the squad of police that tried to stem the onslaught was shoved aside in the swirling eddy of humanity and the bluecoats were helpless.”
Running against Dorando Pietri, the man who won the marathon at the Olympics but had been disqualified because he fell and was helped up by umpires, Longboat dominated. The Montreal Gazette continues stating quote:
“The scene that followed Dorando’s dramatic failure in the London Stadium was nothing to that which was witnessed in Madison Square Garden last night. He tried to struggle to his feet but failed. He was carried to his dressing room, where he was soon revived. In the meantime, Longboat shot around the track in the sprint pace and as the yells and Indian whoops cracked one’s ear drums, he galloped in a winner.”
Following that race win, he chose to go professional.
In 1908, he married Laurette Maracle.
In 1909, Longboat became the Professional Champion of the World by dominating races throughout the year. Through his races, the Montreal Star would publish hour-by-hour mile-by-mile bulletins of his races outside their offices. In Toronto, police would stop him from taking part in races because spectators jammed traffic in the business section.
Throughout his career, Longboat was often the target of racism from the press. This was especially shown in how Longboat prepared for his runs.
He would develop a method of having hard workouts, followed with active rest such as long walks. These recovery periods annoyed his promotors and the press would call Longboat lazy.
Longboat’s alteration of hard, easy and recovery days is now the norm for training among runners today.
Eventually, Longboat would buy out his contract due to the complaints of his managers for his running method. The press stated that since he was Indigenous, he would not be able to handle his own money, or the proper training regime.
Tom Flanagan, the man who had taken over his training after the Boston Marathon, would state quote:
“He was all right until he started to make money. There were times when he did not feel like running, when he refused to train properly, and just generally went prima donna on me.”
The truth was that Longboat was using a method of training that was revolutionary for the time.
Of course, once he took matters into his own hands, his times began to improve as he was free to use his own training methods.
Unfortunately, after 1909, back and knee problems began to impact his running. While it was common knowledge that he had these issues, the press blamed his quote:
Tom Flanagan, the former manager of Longboat, then began to spread rumours that Longboat did not train much, which further pushed the press to attack Longboat.
In 1911, Longboat was arrested for drunkenness, which was widely quoted in the press with many columnists writing about his supposed alcoholism. In truth, his racing career and post-athletic work cast a lot of doubt on the stories of alcoholism and the claims are largely unfounded beyond the arrest. There have been claims that the temperance movement was behind some of the reporting.
Even with the negative press against him, Longboat was able to win two major races only a month after his arrest.
In 1912, he ran 15 miles in one hour and 18 minutes, seven minutes faster than his amateur record.
Longboat’s running ability was legendary and there is one story of how his own family did not believe how fast he could run over a long distance. To prove it to them, he gave his brother a half hour head start with a horse and buggy, while Longboat would run on foot, to see how made it to Hamilton first. In that race with his brother, Longboat won.
In his time as an amateur runner, he lost only three races, one of which was his first race. When he turned professional, he had two national track records and several unofficial world records.
As his fame rose, Longboat was asked to speak at the residential school he was forced to attend as a child. Longboat would say quote:
“I wouldn’t even send my dog to that place.”
When the First World War began, Longboat enlisted to serve overseas.
The North Bay Nugget reported that Longboat was initially denied because he was married, but this was overturned.
Serving as a dispatch runner, he would also run in races in France, including winning the Canadian Corps Dominion Day Competition in 1918. He would also be promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal in 1916.
During the war, he was twice wounded and twice declared dead. The Ottawa Journal reported on Oct. 15, 1917, quote:
“Word has received here from Tom Daly, former trainer of Tecumseh Lacrosse Club and Toronto Baseball Club, who went overseas with the sportsmen’s battalion, that Tom Longboat, the famous Indian marathon runner, has been killed in action.”
One story stated that he entered a communication trench which was buried by a shell, trapping him and a few others for six days before they were rescued. In 1919, Longboat stated to Lou Marsh that this story was not true.
While he was serving overseas, a Vaudeville comedian named Edgar Laplante began to travel around the United States pretending to be him and giving concerts, profiting off of Longboat’s fame.
In August. 1917, Laplante, using Longboat’s name, enlisted as a civilian crewman with the US Army Transport Service. This made news around the United States, which often included a photo of Laplante who looked nothing like Longboat. Some newspapers questioned who the real Longboat was, the one serving for the United States or the one serving for Canada. Most newspapers sided with the imposter.
The Vancouver Province wrote quote:
“The Tom Longboat faker has sprung into notoriety again. This time he has, according to the latest information, joined the United States transport service. The bogus Longboat is evidently the same individual who worked the trick in California until exposed. One thing to the faker’s credit, is that he is persistent.”
Eventually, Longboat heard about the imposter and he wrote a letter threatening legal action, which was published in many newspapers. He would state quote:
“I am going to have three charges against this man. One for making false statements, second for impersonation, third for intent to defraud the public at large.”
Even when false reports of Longboat’s death were circulated, newspapers in the United States ran with photos of the imposter, not Longboat.
Longboat’s wife, believing him to be dead, remarried but after finding out that Longboat was alive stated she did not want to leave her new husband.
Longboat would later marry Martha Silversmith, with whom he had four children.
After the war, Longboat officially retired from running professional. During his running career, it was estimated he made $17,000, amounting to about $300,000 to $400,000 today. Over the course of the rest of his life, he would take on various jobs before he settled in Toronto with his family, where he worked until 1944 in the street cleaning department.
Through his later life, he would help other runners by giving them advice. The Windsor Star reported quote:
“His advice was something to be sought and his wide experience helped many young men in the marathon field. His great bit of advice was to save strength at the beginning of a race and use it in the finish.”
After he retired from work, he moved back to the Six Nations Reserve where he died of pneumonia on Jan. 9, 1949.
The Calgary Albertan stated quote:
“The courageous Indian brought many running titles to Canada, and made Ontario running mad. It is said the parks and back lanes of the Ontario capital were cluttered with aspiring youngsters whose ambition was to become his successor.”
The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“To Canadians born around the turn of the century, or a little later, the name Tom Longboat meant as much as Babe Ruth did in a later era.”
Alfred Shrubb, the main rival of Longboat during his career, stated quote:
“He was one of the greatest, if not the greatest marathoner of all time.”
When he was buried, he was buried with new moccasins on his feet, while from head to toe he was clothed in new cotton and woolen garments crafted by his family.
Even after his death, Longboat was met with racism in the press. On Feb. 4, 1956, Macleans wrote quote:
“He hated to train and he was a fool with his money, but for half a dozen dazzling years, this Canadian Indian could run farther, faster, than any may alive. His downfall was just as swift.”
In 1951, the Tom Longboat Awards were created and given to an outstanding Indigenous athlete in Canada in each province.
In 1955, Longboat was inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, followed by the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame and the Indian Hall of Fame.
In 1976, he was designated as a National Historic Person.
In 2000, a stamp was issued by Canada Post to honour Longboat. In 2013, Tom Longboat Lane was opened in Toronto, and that same year, June 4 was declared to be Tom Longboat Day in Ontario.
In 2018, a Google Doodle was created to celebrated his life, which made national news across Canada.
In 2022, possibly the biggest honour for a Canadian occurred when a Heritage Minute was made about Longboat.
In 1998, when doing up its list of the greatest stars of the 20th century for Canada, Tom Longboat finished first, ahead of people such as Wayne Gretzky, Lorne Michaels, Mary Pickford and Celine Dion.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Ottawa Journal, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Daily World, North Bay Nugget, Vancouver Province, Windsor Star, Calgary Albertan