Thomas Longboat: Marathon Legend

Thomas Longboat Biography

Fourteen thousand fans spent the evening of December 15, 1908, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, watching two men race a marathon on an indoor track. Many who couldn’t get a ticket waited outside, eagerly anticipating the results. It was a reflection of the time when audiences craved one-on-one endurance competitions.

The image depicts Thomas Longboat, a celebrated Indigenous Canadian long-distance runner, standing proudly next to an impressive trophy collection. The trophies vary in size, with the largest being almost as tall as Longboat himself. He is dressed in athletic attire, including a tank top embellished with a winged emblem, shorts, and laced athletic shoes. The background features ornate details, suggesting the photograph may have been taken in a studio. Longboat's expression is serious and composed, and his achievement is underscored by the signature "Gyatt Toronto-07" at the bottom right, indicating the photo was likely taken in 1907 in Toronto by a photographer named Gyatt.
Thomas Longboat, 1907.

Thomas (Tom) Longboat came into that race still relatively new to competitive distance running. He had been running for much of his life. As his mother said about Tom, “He run every morning. He run every night.” But his competitive running career had only started a few years prior, in 1905. Yet, while the years of competition were few, the victories had become numerous and impressive. Many had already billed him as the world’s fastest distance runner. He had the records to prove it.

This night would go as many had before. Tom won. He finished the race in 2 hours, 45 minutes and 5.2 seconds. For his victory, Tom received $3,750.

Tom would run two more indoor marathons in the next six weeks, winning both while taking time between the race days to get married.

Born on July 4, 1886, near Brantford, Ontario, Canada, Tom’s birth name was Cogwagee. His family was part of the Onondaga people, a Native American tribe who lived in what is now the United States for centuries but moved to Canada after the American Revolution, as they had sided with the British during the war.

Growing up in the tribe, Tom played lacrosse, which was popular amongst the community members. And it was lacrosse that would lead Tom to competitive running. In 1905, one of Tom’s lacrosse teammates challenged Tom to a race. As would become his norm, Tom easily won. He began entering racing competitions after this victory.

As his running career progressed, Tom developed “a long slow stride that was deceiving in its speed and seemed to carry him over the ground with the least possible exertion.” It would take him to many victories. In 1907, he won the Boston Marathon. About his race, it was written,

“Longboat’s defeat of his field of upwards of 100 starters, creditable as it was, was as nothing compared to the phenomenal, though official time of which he covered the hilly course. His time was 2 hours, 24 minutes and 20 4/5 seconds or more than five minutes better than the record made by J.O. Caffrey, another Canadian runner, six years ago.

Never before has any runner either amateur or professional, in this country or abroad, on the road or on the under path ever approached the figures set up by Longboat yesterday afternoon.

His work demonstrated beyond all question that he is the greatest distance runner that the world has ever seen.”

Tom was celebrated for his victory back in Toronto. The mayor greeted Tom upon his return with an education scholarship fund and a gold medal from the city. “Mr. Mayor, I thank you kindly for the splendid reception, for the medal and the city grant and I shall try to behave so as to prove myself worthy of the City’s kindness,” Tom replied.

The following year, Tom was running in the Olympics. He didn’t win, with some believing that Tom was drugged before the race. But though he didn’t win the Olympics, Tom became a World Champion a year later.

Tom’s running career had many successes but also came with many challenges. He experienced racism in the press and dealt with issues surrounding amateur status. Yet, he did what he set out to do. He wanted to show the world the talents of an Onondaga runner. And in doing so, he inspired many Native Americans to take up running.

A few years after the Olympics came World War I. Tom joined to serve his country. He survived the war but came home having been wounded twice. For decades after, Tom worked and lived a quiet life relative to his previous fame. He passed away in 1949.

Notes

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Click here to read a story of another champion athlete, Jim Thorpe.

To cite: “Thomas Longboat: Marathon Legend.” Published by Historical Snapshots.

Sources

  • Batten, Jack. The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone: The Story of Tom Longboat. United States, Tundra, 2009.
  • Cronin, Fergus, “The Rise and Fall of Tom Longboat”, MacLeans Magazine. Vol. 69 (February 4, 1956) p.20.
  • Littlechild, Wilton. Tom Longboat : Canada’s outstanding Indian athlete. University of Alberta Libraries, 1975.
  • Longboat Was Drugged”. Lindsay Watchman Warder. Lindsay, Ontario. September 17, 1908. p. 4. Archived from the original on January 24, 2023.
  • “T Longboat, the Canadian runner Standing (HS85-10-18314).” Wikimedia Commons (British Library), Wikimedia Foundation, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:T_Longboat,_the_Canadian_runner_Standing_(HS85-10-18314).jpg
  • The Brantford Courier, Brantford: April 20, 1907
  • “Tom Longboat.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Longboat