Why Is Oklahoma's Jim Thorpe Buried In Another State?

Native American Jim Thorpe was one of the greatest athletes of all time, and broke racial barriers 100 years ago. Yet this legendary Oklahoman is buried in a Pennsylvania town he never even saw.

Thursday, February 9th 2012, 3:05 pm

By: Craig Day

Native American Jim Thorpe was one of the greatest athletes of all time, and broke racial barriers 100 years ago. Yet this legendary Oklahoman is buried in a Pennsylvania town he never even saw.

King Gustav the Fifth of Sweden looked him in the eyes and said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." Jim Thorpe's storied reply: "Thanks, King."

There were dreams to build a shrine to him here in his home state of Oklahoma. So why was Jim Thorpe laid to rest a thousand miles from his home, in a town he never laid eyes on?

Jim Thorpe's' accomplishments are legendary. Immortalized in film, displayed at exhibits. He's forever a part of Native American, athletic and Oklahoma history.

Thorpe grew up in Sac & Fox tribal territory near Prague.

"The generation before him would have been the warriors," said Bob Blackburn of the Oklahoma History Center.

His tribal name translates into "Bright Path." Thorpe's' path took him around the world, and to great feats on the athletic field.

"Jim Thorpe couldn't be the warrior going on raids and fighting anymore, he used those same skills on the playing field," Blackburn said.

Thorpe was an all-American in college football, played in the NFL, had a 20 year pro baseball career. He went on to win two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in Sweden.

"He was this athlete that could excel at anything he wanted to do," Blackburn said.

Many know about his athletic feats, but may not know his final resting place is in Pennsylvania, instead of his native tribal lands in Oklahoma.

"Most everyone I've ever known, they've been brought back to their homeland," said Sac & Fox Chief George Thurman.

When Jim Thorpe died, his third wife Patricia wanted him buried in Oklahoma with state funds used for a memorial similar to the one in Claremore for Will Rogers. The funding didn't come through.

"Governor Murray vetoed the bill for fiscal reasons. He said the state should not be building memorials to people," Blackburn said.

Private funds paid for the Will Rogers Memorial. Still, Thorpe's' widow was outraged.

Bill Thorpe will never forget what happened during his fathers' funeral service.

"Dad's third wife came in with the police and a hearse and took his body away in the middle of the ceremony," said Jim Thorpe's son Bill Thorpe.

The body of the legendary athlete, and prominent figure, was whisked away to Pennsylvania to be buried.

"So these two little towns in Pennsylvania offer to build a memorial and to change the name of their town to Jim Thorpe. He was that well known nationally," Blackburn said.

Although Thorpe had attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, he had never been to the two merging towns that now bear his name.

Visit Jim Thorpe Rest In Peace Website

Bill Thorpe says he has nothing against Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. It's just time to bring his Father home.

"To have them come in and take his body like that, it was very, very upsetting not just to the family, but to tribal members," Bill Thorpe said.

"I've never heard of anything like that ever happening at any of the funerals that our tribe has ever conducted," Chief Thurman said.

In Sac and Fox tradition, funeral services last several days. Ceremonies that enable the spirit to move on weren't properly completed for Thorpe. And in tribal culture, many say when someone is not buried in the land of their family, the soul wanders.

Thorpe's family is suing under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, to bring Thorpe's remains to Oklahoma.

"I think a lot of the people in Oklahoma would be happy to see his body here," said Bill Thorpe.

In the most recent action, a federal judge ruled the case could proceed. If they're successful, a likely site for the memorial would be near the Sac & Fox headquarters in Stroud.

It has room for parking, easy access, and good security. Most important: it's on tribal ground, which Bill Thorpe says would please his dad.

They're hoping for another victory in the story of the greatest athlete of the 20th Century.

"I think this victory would be more important than any of the medals that he won because it's long lasting. Forever," Chief Thurman said.

"This is something that was my dad's wish," Bill Thorpe said.

The Borough Solicitor in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, which is like a city attorney here in Oklahoma, didn't return any calls for comment.

But there are many in Pennsylvania who say, the town has been a good steward of Thorpe's' legacy, the current memorial honors him, and they're proud to be associated with one of the greatest athletes of all time.


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