SIX NATIONS – Last Thursday, January 9th, was the 65th anniversary of the death of world-renowned Onondaga long distance runner, Cogwagee, also known as Tom Longboat. Much is known about his career and his many accomplishments as an athlete, but he was also a man, and like all men he had flaws, which the media of the day loved to exaggerate and focus upon rather than his amazing athletic accomplishments.
Tom Longboat’s life began and ended at Six Nations of the Grand River, but the 61 years between these events, took Longboat from the horrors of the Mohawk Institute residential school, to the bloody battlefields of France where he served as a dispatch runner and target for German snipers.
He was 12 years old when he was placed in the infamous “Mush Hole” in Brantford. He hated every moment of it and escaped once only to be brought back and punished severely for his actions. But that didn’t stop him and he ran away a second time, finding refuge with an uncle who hid him from authorities and taught him about farming and the value of hard work in achieving goals, no matter what those goals might be. For Longboat, it was running. Years later, after he had become famous, he was asked to speak at the Mush Hole but refused saying, “I would not send my dog to that place.”
Throughout his formative years, Longboat ran everywhere, but he never considered racing as a career until he met fellow Six Nations running star of the time, Bill Davis who had become somewhat of a local hero on the reserve. The much older Davis became Longboat’s inspiration.
Longboat married Lauretta Maracle in 1907 before going off to war. In a matter of mistaken identity, or of outright incompetence, the Canadian military told his family that Tom had died in action. In fact, he did not, and upon his return to Six Nations he discovered his wife had remarried in 1918.
Longboat never contested the marriage and moved on with his life, later marrying Martha Silversmith of Six Nations with whom he had four children. He settled in Toronto where he worked as a garbage collector and postman. He returned to Six Nations after retiring where he died of pneumonia brought on by diabetes on January 9th, 1949.
A number of years ago, this reporter had the pleasure of interviewing Longboat’s last surviving child, Phyllis Winnie, who was back in the Six Nations community from her home in Buffalo for the annual Tom Longboat Run that year, which ran right past the old homestead.
She was a wonderful interview and very generous spirit, actually allowing me to go through the dilapidated old Longboat homestead. It tilted slightly and the rooms were filled with magazines and broken furniture and the kitchen in the back was piled high with old clothing and other garbage.
After poking around in the corner I saw a piece of silver metal, almost black with tarnish. Upon pulling it out I discovered it to be a trophy, all caved in and almost flat on the one side, then another. I could not believe what I was seeing. There were two lost Tom Longboat trophies with Tom’s name engraved on them.
After pulling the treasures out of the trash I handed them over to Phyllis who was waiting for me outside. She seemed a lot less excited about the find than I was, but thanked me for bringing them out anyhow.
She told me a story about her father’s first car, which he won as a prize for some race somewhere.
“He never liked it at all,” I recall her saying. “He hardly ever drove it preferring to either walk or run to wherever he wanted to go. Me? I loved it and wasn’t too happy with having to walk everywhere when we could have driven. I was very young then, but I remember.”
In an article published in the Ottawa Citizen when she was a young and spry 79 years old, Winnie describes her father as “a good father to me and my three brothers. He had a wonderful smile and was very kind.”
She also revealed why her father died at such a young age. Like most Native people, especially at Six Nations, Longboat suffered from diabetes in his later years. Winnie said that Longboat was afraid of needles and would not take his insulin shots and that shortened his life considerably.
Former Canadian Olympic runner Bruce Kidd wrote one of the best biographies on the Onondaga flash. In his biography, “Tom Longboat”, he refers to the prejudice of the early 1900’s by observing that Longboat was “treated more like a racehorse than a man,” by the contemporary media. Another excellent read on Tom Longboat is the biography “The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone” by Jack Batten.
Phillis Winnie is now 98 years of age and still living in Buffalo.