"Was Jim Thorpe Irish?" asked Rita O'Donnell as she queried from a porch walk on Broadway in the Historic District of Jim Thorpe. "A visitor asked me and I didn't know what to say," she continued. "Wasn't he Native American?"
According to the book "American Airedale," when asked about his heritage, this how Big Jim responded, "Throughout his life, Jim Thorpe shrugged off discussions of his ancestry with typical offhand humor. 'My father, Hiram Thorpe, was half Sac and Fox and half Irish. My mother was three-fourths Sac and Fox and one-fourth French,' he explained to an inquisitive reporter. 'That makes me five-eighths Indian, one-fourth Irish, and one-eighth French. Guess you'd call me American Airedale.'"
But, according to Kate Buford, author of the new Jim Thorpe biography, "Native American Son," he got neither his tribal nor his European heritage correct-and he wasn't Irish at all.
Let's look at each of Jim Thorpe's grandparents. Before beginning, note that the spelling of "Thorpe" will revert to "Thorp," without the final "e." Jim was probably born the last name of "Thorp," and the "e" was added in his teenage years when he was sent away to boarding school.
That said, his father was Hiram Phillip Thorp. Hiram P. Thorp was the son of Hiram Grace Thorp from Connecticut, and No-ten-o-quah, a full-blooded member of the Sac and Fox tribe.
His mother, Charlotte Vieux, was a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Band. Charlotte Vieux was the daughter of Jacob Vieux, grandson of French trapper Jacques Vieau and a Potawatomi-Menominee woman. His son, Louis Vieux married Sha Note/Charlotte Le Great, a Potawatomi. Her mother, Elizabeth Goslin Vieux, was Potawatomi-Kickapoo.
Buford writes that the U.S. government declared Jim Thorpe to be of mixed blood. Thus, Jim Thorpe had a heritage from the Sac, Fox, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Menominee Native American nations, and a European heritage from France and from his grandfather, Hiram G. Thorp's forebears.
Until the publication of Buford's "Native American Son," every reference to Hiram G. Thorp's ancestry claimed that he was of Irish ancestry. Various sources said that he was "a man of Irish or perhaps English descent," "an Irishman," or "an Irish immigrant trapper."
According to Buford, "Though Jim thought he was of Irish descent, there is no indication of a direct connection of Ireland in his ancestry… His great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, William Thorp… was one of the founders… of New Haven." Buford references that Jim Thorpe's family genealogy was prepared for the author by certified genealogist Anita A. Lustenberger in 2004.
According to Buford, William Thorp, an Englishman, was the first member of Jim Thorpe's family to reside in America.
William Thorp traveled from London to Boston in 1837 with Puritan leaders John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton on the 43-passenger Hector. They settled at Quinnipiac and founded the New Haven Colony in 1638.
The "Thorp" name came to Great Britain with the Viking invasions of Britain and Ireland. "Thorp" is an Old Norse/Anglo-Saxon word meaning farmstead, village or hamlet. "Thorp" appears in many English place names such as Bridgethorpe. In Britain, there is a Thorpe Amusement Park-named after the hamlet, not the athlete.
"Thorp" families were early residents in the English counties of York, Gloucester, Salop, Essex, Lincoln, Northampton, Suffolk, Surrey, Wilts, and Cambridge-as well as in the city and vicinity of London. The earliest known line of the family traces its descent from Robert Thorp in Yorkshire around the year 1200.
If this isn't confusing enough, Jim Thorpe was married three times, and none of his wives were Native American. That suggests that not one of his children are even one-third Native American. And they are about one-sixteenth Sac and Fox. Yet, there is a lawsuit claiming that Big Jim is a Native American antiquity claimed by the Sac and Fox tribe as represented by his son, Jack.
So Rita O'Donnell, Is Jim Thorpe Native American, French, English or Irish? Well, he's buried in the Irish heritage town that bears his name-Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania-and come every St. Patty's Day, thousands of revelers in the town for the big parade raise their mugs to celebrate everyone's Irishness-including Jim Thorpe.