Historicist: The Onondaga Wonder

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Historicist: The Onondaga Wonder

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Tom Longboat, the Canadian Runner, April 22, 1907  Library and Archives Canada (C 014090)

Tom Longboat, the Canadian Runner, April 22, 1907. Library and Archives Canada (C-014090).


On February 6, 1909, a sell-out crowd of 12,000 packed New York’s Madison Square Garden for what was being billed as the race of the century. In Toronto, Massey Hall, the Star building, and other public venues were jammed so locals could receive up-to-the-moment telegraphed updates on the race. Tom Longboat, the famous runner of Onondaga descent, was to go head-to-head against Alfie Shrubb of England in a contest to crown the World’s Professional Marathon Champion.

Circling the arena track, the men would cover 26 miles and 385 yards. In the years prior to the First World War, there was a public craze for such long distance races. Spectators were eager to see a test of endurance, athleticism, and strategy. On this occasion, there were even special trains scheduled to carry spectators to New York from Toronto, Montreal, and other Canadian communities.

Newspapers hyped the race with daily stories and photos of the competitors in training. The younger Longboat, born in humble origins on Ontario’s Six Nations Reserve (but based in Toronto for his running career), had recently turned professional. As an amateur he’d been nearly unbeatable. Shrubb was a former bricklayer who’d taken up distance running at age 18 and broke nine world records as an amateur. Having been ruled ineligible by amateur authorities in 1906, Shrubb now—at age 35—made a lucrative living barnstorming across the continent running professional races. It was on this highly public stage, within weeks of his most important race, when all of Longboat’s closest associates abandoned him.


First, Longboat’s trainer, Mike Flanagan, walked out, complaining of the runner’s physical condition and supposed refusal to train. He told the Globe: “I wouldn’t take $200 a day to handle that fellow. He is the most contrary piece of furniture I have ever had anything to do with.” Just days later, Longboat’s manager (and the trainer’s brother) Tom J. Flanagan, quit too. Although he was close enough friends to have been the best man at Longboat’s wedding only two weeks earlier, Flanagan sold the runner’s contract to another promoter for a quick $2,000. “I would give a finger to have him beat Shrubb for Canada’s sake,” Flanagan told one newspaper, “but I’ll not be on the track or have anything to do with him personally. He can win if he is right and I know it, but I am out of the Indian’s game for good.”

Longboat was about the only person who questioned his former manager’s loyalty, telling the press that “he sold me like a racehorse.” Reporters, however, relied on all-too-easy stereotypes of the day. The Globe editorialized that it was Longboat’s fault for not training. “He has all the waywardness and lack of responsibility of his race,” it read. Such contemporary accusations were repeated by unquestioning biographers and cemented into fact. Longboat was painted as his own worst enemy—troublesome, lazy, and irresponsible—without regard for Longboat’s own opinion.

At the start line of a marathon  Longboat is the third competitor from the right, April 3, 1909  Library of Congress (LC B2  676 13 [P&P])

At the start line of a marathon. Longboat is the third competitor from the right, April 3, 1909. Library of Congress (LC-B2- 676-13 [P&P]).

Just shy of his eighteenth birthday, Tom Longboat ran his first competitive long-distance race in Caledonia in the spring of 1905. From that point on, he was seemingly unbeatable—whether in a three-mile race or a marathon. And he would lose only three races as an amateur. His great early triumph was to win the 1907 Boston Marathon in a time that shattered the previous record by five minutes. When he arrived back in Toronto after the race, he was greeted by tens of thousands at the train station and carried him aloft shoulders to a reception at City Hall.

Needing assistance with registering for races, expenses, and ensuring he kept clean with amateur athletics bodies, Longboat went through a couple of managers. By the time the Irish-born owner of the Grand Central Hotel on Simcoe Street was handling Longboat’s affairs, the Onondaga runner was well on his way to becoming one of the world’s most famous athletes and a Canadian idol.

But no matter what he accomplished or how much he might be adored by the public, Jack Batten argues in The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone (Tundra Books, 2002), “Longboat was never allowed to forget what he was and where he came from.”

Runners (including Tom Longboat) in a marathon, April 3, 1909  Library of Congress (LC B2  677 1 [P&P])

Runners (including Tom Longboat) in a marathon, April 3, 1909. Library of Congress (LC-B2- 677-1 [P&P]).


While Flanagan’s cultivation of close friendships with sportswriters ensured frequent press coverage for Longboat, the stories weren’t always respectful. “When Tom was winning, everyone was his friend,” Will Cardinal argues in Tom Longboat: Running Against the Wind (Eschia Books, 2008), “but when he lost, newspapers printed long articles (more like rants) against him, and they were often peppered with racist undertones. When he won, he was the ‘strong noble Native runner!’ and when he lost, he became ‘the stubborn, lazy Injun who was his own worst enemy.'”

Even complimentary coverage in the wake of the Boston Marathon—in which one newspaper explicitly stated that “we claim Longboat as a Canadian”—drew attention to the fact that First Nations people were seen as outside, and inferior to mainstream Canadian society. Late in his career, Longboat’s questioning of his trainers’ methods and disagreements with his manager over the frequency with which he raced was seen as subversive in an era when First Nations peoples were expected to unquestioningly adopt white, Protestant habits.

“He was a better man as an Indian than he was trained as a white man,” Flanagan stated in a 1956 Maclean’s article. “I often thought if we could have kept him on the reservation and brought him out just to run, what he could have done would have been even more remarkable.” Such paternalistic statements were common from his manager and reporters. One sportswriter in the Star actually wrote that Longboat “must be taken in hand by a trainer who will handle him like a race horse—made to live and work absolutely under his trainer’s orders—or he will be into the discard before the year is out. Longboat cannot be left to his own devices a moment when preparing for a race.”

Runners with Longboat on the far right, ca  1910–1915  Library of Congress (LC B2  2809 5 [P&P])

Runners with Longboat on the far right, ca. 1910–1915. Library of Congress (LC-B2- 2809-5 [P&P]).


After a disappointing result in the marathon at the 1908 Olympics, Longboat finally turned professional so he could openly earn money for running. For some time, Shrubb—who lived at the Grand Central Hotel in Toronto along with Longboat—had been urging the Onondaga to make the jump. In professional races, competition was stiffer and, although he was always highly competitive, Longboat didn’t always win. Some began to question if he was past his prime.

Longboat rarely had input into when or where or how frequently his manager entered him in races. In the lead-up to the 1909 Longboat-Shrubb marathon, he’d raced several times. And, according to Bruce Kidd in a 1983 journal article, had finished a recent race “tired to the point of collapse, with a swollen and bleeding knee…with feet a mass of blisters.” So when Longboat was reluctant to train, it was with good cause. However, neither the media nor his trainers gave Longboat credit for knowing what was best for himself.
He’d always bristled at forceful or domineering trainers. His early stint at the West End YMCA was unhappy because the rules and strictures reminded him of his childhood residence at the Mohawk Institute, an Anglican boarding school in Brantford. Longboat developed his own training regimen. Every day he took two long-distance walks, lifted light weights, and played handball or other vigorous sports. Running was part of his system but was limited to twice per week. Furthermore he often sought to rest entirely after a big race to ensure proper recovery for his body. It’d be an accepted training regimen today, but at the time, Batten argues, Longboat was viewed “as just another foolish and stubborn Indian.”

After he turned professional, Flanagan complained: “There were times when he did not feel like running, when he refused to train properly and just generally went prima donna on me.”

And so, despite nagging injuries, Longboat’s supposedly relaxed approach to training in early 1909 caused his entourage to abandon him. By contrast, Shrubb received a 10-day postponement of that race for a toe injury. The English runner explained to the Star: “I never run unless I feel like it. I know there are many athletes that go out to train when they are not feeling quite well, but they are doing themselves more harm than good.” He faced no controversy or public complaint. How would such a comment have been interpreted coming from Longboat?

Shrubb was regarded as the best in the world at distances up to 12 miles, but he’d never run beyond 20 miles, let alone a marathon. Longboat, on the other hand, specialized in longer distances and the marathon. Prognosticators speculated that Shrubb’s strategy in the 1909 indoor marathon would be to sprint at the beginning. Putting as much distance between he and Longboat, he’d try to maintain that lead for the duration. When the starting pistol sounded, that’s exactly what he did. By the fifteenth mile, Shrubb had lapped his opponent eight times. The First Nations runner’s unorthodox style was to keep his stride low—his feet barely lifting off the ground—with his hands at hip level. It was, Batten says, “actually an intelligent style, economical and energy-saving,” but very unlike the long, high strides—with arms at chest level—that most runners of the day used.

With a strong sense of pace, Longboat would run at a steady speed until—with an opponent fatiguing—he sensed the right moment to accelerate. Late in the race, as Shrubb alternated between running, walking, and even stopping entirely to change his shoes, Longboat made his move.

At 19 miles, Shrubb’s lead was down to six laps; in the twenty-first mile, it was four laps. As Longboat lessened the gap, the crowd grew more frenzied. At the side of the track—where his wife repeatedly chanted “Go, Tom, go!”—Flanagan suddenly appeared. Stripped of his suit jacket, shirt and tie, he ran up and down one straightaway, jeering Shrubb and leading the cheers for his former client.

With two miles to go, Longboat caught and passed Shrubb. Shortly after, Shrubb conceded the contest and stepped off the track while Longboat jogged the remaining distance to become Professional Champion of the World.

On February 8, a huge crowd gathered at the train station in Toronto. Expecting to see Longboat—who’d remained in New York for a few days—the crowd instead hoisted Flanagan upon their shoulders as the hero of the hour. “I had no intention of stepping into the arena,” Flanagan was quoted in one newspaper, “but when I saw how things were shaping I just had to strip off my coat and go at it….And we won.” He was widely credited with the victory.

“To Flanagan belongs the real credit of winning the race,” the Star‘s Lou Marsh wrote of Flanagan. “He worked like a hero and pulled a man through to victory who had but little real licence to win.”
When Longboat finally arrived in Toronto a few days later, Cardinal notes, he was not greeted by a parade, but a mere handful of reporters. He was usually quite mild-mannered and rarely complained publicly. But still smarting from having had his contract sold so suddenly, Longboat shot back at those who would give Flanagan credit:

I do not like the idea of doing all the work and somebody else getting all the credit for winning my victories. Do you think that Flanagan could make me run if I do not want to? I can get along without assistance and if any of these other runners want to race me they will have to make arrangements with me, and no one else.

As the preeminent marathoner, Longboat was challenged by the other leading runners of the day, leading to many more dramatic races. He raced Shrubb 11 times in the coming years—each would win five times and both did not finish on one occasion. Shrubb would later say that Longboat “was one of the greatest, if not the greatest marathoner of all time.”

In an era when a teacher made around $400 per year, Longboat earned $17,000 in his first three years as a professional. He built a two-storey house for his mother on the Six Nations Reserve, and bought gifts for friends. Dressing stylishly in bowler hats, tailored suits, and high-collared shirts, the sociable sportsman entertained at his house in grand fashion.

At the peak of his fame, he was welcomed warmly and received complimentary drinks from Torontonians whenever he entered a tavern. One summer night in July 1911, while meandering home after meeting some friends in a beverage room, Longboat was arrested for public drunkenness. The punishment of a suspended sentence was mild and Longboat quickly demonstrated his resiliency by having two of his best career performances in local races that summer. But the long-term impact was devastating as critics tarred Longboat with the racist stigma of the “drunken Indian” for the rest of his life. Uncritical biographers would casually note—without citing any evidence—Longboat’s reputation as a heavy drinker and a ne’er-do-well. To make matters worse, Longboat was plagued by impostors who cashed in on the runner’s celebrity—and the inability of many to tell the difference between one Aboriginal and another—to rouse free drinks for the “champion” from gullible Torontonians.

Tom Eck and Longboat, no date  Library of Congress (LC B2  622 1 [P&P])

Tom Eck and Longboat, no date. Library of Congress (LC-B2- 622-1 [P&P]).


In 1912, public interest in long-distance running faded almost overnight, and the big paydays for competitors like Longboat and Shrubb subsided. After serving in the First World War, Longboat married a new woman and started a family. He worked briefly as a homesteader in Alberta, then at the Dunlop rubber factory in Toronto and at steel mills in Buffalo and Hamilton until, like many fellow workers, he was laid off in 1926. That year, the former runner secured work with Toronto’s street-cleaning department. Many thought his was the ultimate come-down, the culmination of a rags-to-riches-to-rags storyline. Such condescension failed to account for Longboat’s own opinion.

Longboat was from a working-class background and had a fourth grade education. He had previously had an office job but hated the tedium. As a street-cleaner, he enjoyed that he worked outdoors and walked long distances every day. Furthermore, Longboat remained employed throughout the Great Depression, and maintained a comfortable lifestyle for his family—living in a series of spacious, rented houses in respectable, middle-class neighbourhoods.

Although Longboat had been baptized Anglican for his first marriage, he always retained his connection with his native culture and had consulted the Six Nations’ medicine man to deal with injuries. So when Longboat died of pneumonia on January 9, 1949, Longboat was buried according to his traditional beliefs. “He was dressed in new cotton and wool,” a newspaper reported, “which had been hand stitched by the women in his family…On his feet were new buckskin moccasins. A friend whittled a V in the top of the coffin to permit his spirit to escape. The entire service was spoken in Onondaga, the chants led by his two sons.”

Beginning with Kidd, more recent biographers given Longboat a more sympathetic reappraisal. Moving past the simplistic storyline of the past and doing away with racist assumptions, these writers cast Longboat—not Flanagan or anyone else—as the key actor in the runner’s story. Longboat has been honoured by the naming of a short street and a junior high school in Toronto and with a plaque on the Six Nations Reserve.


Sources consulted: Jack Batten, The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone (Tundra Books, 2002); Will Cardinal, Tom Longboat: Running Against the Wind (Eschia Books, 2008); Bruce Kidd, “In Defence of Tom Longboat,” Canadian Journal of History of Sport Vol XIV; No. 1 (May 1983); and Kidd, Tom Longboat (Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1980).

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