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ABOUT 300 YARDS NORTHEAST OF THIS MARKER STOOD THE LOG CABIN OF HIRIAM AND CHARLOTTE THORPE. HERE ON MAY 28, 1888, WERE BORN THE TWIN SONS, JAMES FRANCIS "JIM" AND CHARLES. JIM WAS TO BECOME ONE OF THE GREATEST ATHLETES IN ALL HISTORY.
The land isn't owned by the Thorpe family anymore. Indeed, it wasn't Thorpe property when Jim was a boy, but rather an "allotment" of land that was doled out to Hiram—accepted as the correct spelling, the plaque notwithstanding—and Charlotte by the General Allotment Act of 1887, a federal law that granted the use of land to Indians. Jack drives up the road a little and then gets out of the car to unlatch a rundown gate to Hiram's allotment.
"You can still see the foundation of Hiram's old shop over there," says Jack. "He was a blacksmith. And right where I'm standing, on top of this ridge, is where my father's house was. Our people always built their houses on a ridge to get the wind." Indeed, a soft breeze picks that moment to break the intense afternoon heat of late August.
There's nothing to indicate that the man whom most people consider to have been America's greatest athlete was born at this place 94 years ago. David Perkins, who sharecrops on the property, doesn't think that's peculiar. "He wasn't thought that well of around here," says Perkins. "I don't agree with the people—and I'm somewhat of a student of Thorpe's history—but people around here said, 'Oh, he was just another crazy Indian.' " In fact, there's nothing in the way of Jim Thorpe memorabilia in this area of Oklahoma, except for a display of assorted photographs, a painting, newspaper clippings and a bust at the Sac and Fox museum. Even Thorpe's own people voted last January to change the name of the Jim Thorpe Memorial Park to the Sac and Fox Park. "It was just a way to get back at me," says Jack. "There's a lot of jealousy over the Thorpe name around here."
Nonetheless, the country around Thorpe's birthplace is very peaceful, alive with the sounds of insects and birds. A herd of cattle grazes nearby. The best way to navigate around the allotment is with your eyes down to avoid the burrs and the cowchips.
The property is posted against hunting, but Jack admits that doesn't mean much to him. He still comes over often to hunt and fish. "Signs?" he says laughing. "It's one of the Indians' bad habits. We don't pay much attention to signs." Maybe that's why Jim had such trouble getting along in the white man's world. Maybe he never paid enough attention to the signs.
Hiram is buried about a mile away from the allotment, in the community cemetery across the street from Garden Grove Missionary Baptist Church. His grave is surrounded by those of a dozen or so other Thorpes. Jack marches to the northeast corner of the cemetery and indicates an area of ground. "Right here would be a good spot for Dad," he says. "It's nice and cool, near his family, near the woods, near where he was born. He'd like it." Jack stretches out his hands as if to visualize his father's tombstone.
"According to the Indian religion, our dead have to be laid to rest between sunrise and noon on the third day after death. We believe this has to be done properly to release the spirit. Otherwise, the spirit roams until it's released. Dad's been dead almost 30 years, and his spirit is still roaming." To communicate with him, several of the clan gathered on Sac and Fox land last summer for a "ghost feast."
Jim's seven children all want the body back in Oklahoma. Grace, 60, and Gail, 64, who live together in Tahlequah, Okla., and Charlotte, 63, who lives in Phoenix, were born to Jim and his first wife, Iva Miller Thorpe. Four sons were the product of his second marriage, to Freeda Kirkpatrick, the only one of Thorpe's three wives still alive. They are: Jack; Carl Phillip, 55, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington; Richard, 48, a government worker in Oklahoma City; and William, 54, who is with an aircraft company in Dallas. Jim and his third wife, Patricia, had no children. To varying degrees, all the children blame Patricia for the unrestful state of Thorpe's soul. "Look, I don't have anything against the people of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania," says Jack. "They did what they thought was right. But I don't see where it would hurt them if they didn't have the body. No matter what the motives of anybody, it comes down to the same thing—Dad's body was sold as a tourist attraction."
In Jim Thorpe, Pa., Johnny Otto agrees, but from a different perspective. "All we got here is a dead Indian," he says.