Ellison Brown

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Ellison Myers Brown Sr (September 12, 1913 – August 23, 1975),[1] widely known as Tarzan Brown, is a member and a direct descendant of the last acknowledged royal family of the Narragansett indian Tribe of rhode island , also known as Deerfoot amongst his people, was a two-time winner of the Boston Marathon, in 1936 (2:33:40) and 1939 (2:28:51). He also participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. He was scheduled to participate in the 1940 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but these were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II. Tarzan Brown is still one of only two Native Americans to have won the Boston Marathon (the other being Thomas Longboat of the Onondaga Nation from Canada, in 1907) and the only Native American to have more than one victory in Boston. He was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 1973.

Brown set the American men's record for the marathon at the 1939 Boston Marathon (2:28:51) and at a 1940 marathon in Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts (2:27:30).[2]


Ellison Myers Brown was born on September 12, 1913 in Porter Hill, Rhode Island to Narragansett Indian parents Byron Otis Brown and Grace Ethel Babcock, who had three daughters (Myra, Alice aka "Nina" and Grace) and four sons (including Ellison). Unfortunately for their family, the boys would not die peacefully of old age. Brown's brother Franklin drowned, Elwin died when a gun discharged being possibly an accident at the hands of a neighbor, and Clifford who was stabbed to death in Providence in a fight after being released from prison after murdering his best friend.[3] Brown received little formal schooling. He attended the Tomaquag School in Alton for at least 3 years, and didn't complete his schooling beyond seventh grade. The nickname "Tarzan", so the story goes, was given to him early in life. He was a natural outdoorsman with an athletic build and lots of strength. He liked to climb trees, swing from branches rope to ropes. He wasn't afraid of heights, had lots of strength, good balance, and seemingly had no limits. Tarzan Brown first received notice for running when he was merely 12 years old, as he ran and followed fellow Native American runner, Horatio Stanton, as Stanton was training for an upcoming race. Thomas "Tip" Salimeno, Stanton's trainer, took young Ellison under his wing when Ellison reached the age of 16, and the first steps to an illustrious career in marathon running were underway, a career that saw Brown eventually win the Boston Marathon in 1936 and 1939 and become a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.[4]

The Narragansett[edit]

The Narragansett can trace their lineage back to the Paleo-Indians from around 11,000 BCE, at the end of the last Ice Age, and some can trace back even further. The Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, in 1524, sailed along the Atlantic Coast and into Narragansett Bay. He lived among the native peoples for fifteen days and described them as having the most civil customs he had met on his voyage. The Narragansett lived under an organized system of leaders, and had relations with the neighboring tribes, in some cases providing protection for smaller bands. Methods of fishing and agriculture were developed by the regional inhabitants.

There were many conflicts when the Europeans colonized the area in which the Narragansett people resided. In the Pequot War (1636–37), the Narragansett allied with the English, having been promised a part of the Pequot lands, but the promise was not kept. In December 1675, colonial soldiers destroyed the winter camp of the Narragansett, massacring a majority of women, children, and elderly men. This became known as the Great Swamp Massacre. Three hundred women and children may have been burned to death that day, along with an estimated six hundred Narragansett men killed. Hundreds of others were chained and sold into slavery. By the end of the war the population of the Narragansett, initially 15,000 to 17,000, was reduced, by one estimate, to perhaps only 500 survivors.[3]

Heartbreak Hill & 1936 Boston Marathon victory[edit]

Heartbreak Hill is an ascent over 0.4-mile (600 m) between the 20 and 21-mile (32 and 34 km) marks, near Boston College. It is the last of four "Newton hills", which begin at the 16-mile (26 km) mark and challenge contestants with late (if modest) climbs after the course's general downhill trend to that point. Though Heartbreak Hill itself rises only 88 feet (27 m) vertically (from an elevation of 148 to 236 feet (45 to 72 m)),[5] it comes in the portion of a marathon distance where muscle glycogen stores are most likely to be depleted—a phenomenon referred to by marathoners as "hitting the wall."

"Tarzan" Brown had taken off so fast at the start of the 1936 Boston Marathon that the press followed the second runner, John A. Kelley, until the 20-mile mark, and it was on this hill that Kelley caught up to Tarzan. As Kelley overtook Tarzan—an amazing feat given the steady record breaking pace Tarzan had set—Kelley patted Tarzan on the back. What followed was a struggle between Tarzan, who took the lead on the downhills, and Kelley, who took the lead on the uphills, until finally Tarzan took the lead again to win the race, as Kelley faded to a fifth-place finish. This struggle inspired reporter Jerry Nason to name the last Newton hill "Heartbreak Hill" because Tarzan "broke Kelley's heart" there.[4]

1936 Olympic Games in Hitler's Germany & iron man stunt[edit]

Brown was selected to compete on the U.S. Olympic team for the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany and was a teammate of the legendary track and field star Jesse Owens. There are various stories of what exactly occurred while Brown was in Hitler's Germany for the 1936 Olympics. It is known that for more than half of the Olympic marathon, Brown was holding his own and was in the top five when an issue with some leg cramps arose. Brown was known to have issues with a hernia from time to time, but he was suffering from leg cramps, and ultimately this forced him to withdraw and be disqualified from competition when a German spectator stepped in to aid him with rubbing out the cramps. Later in 1936, Brown won the venerable Port Chester, NY marathon in 2:36:56.7. The next day, October 12, 1936, he won a second marathon, the New England Marathon Championship in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 2:45:52,[1] which he later stated was to show critics and detractors that he had not quit in the Berlin Olympics, earlier in 1936.

1939 Boston Marathon victory[edit]

In 1939, Brown was the first runner to break the 2:30 mark on the post-1926 Boston course.[6] According to official data from the Boston Athletic Association, many runners prior to 1926 finished the Boston Marathon in times under 2:30 (see List of winners of the Boston Marathon). Those runners competed on courses known to be shorter than the IAAF-defined marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers.[7] After the 17-mile mark in the 1939 race, Brown also broke every checkpoint record.[8] He would later qualify for the 1940 U.S. Olympic team but the games were canceled due to World War II's outbreak in Europe.[9]

Other notable moments in the Boston Marathon[edit]

Tarzan was also renowned for his antics during the Boston Marathon. In one of his earliest appearances as a runner in the 1935 race, he arrived in an outfit sewn together from one of his mother's old dresses by his sisters and he had sneakers that were falling apart; this was just two days after his mother had died. Approximately 21 miles into the race, Tarzan removed his sneakers, threw them into the crowd and ran the rest of the race (approximately five miles) barefoot, finishing 13th. This act etched him in the memories of Boston Marathon fans and endeared him in the hearts of many more. He had officially become a fan favorite and perhaps the most exciting, unorthodox and colorful character in the Boston Marathon's history. Then in the 1938 running of the Boston Marathon, Tarzan was leading on what was an unseasonably warm day when midway through the race, he ran off the road, waved to the crowd and jumped into Lake Cochituate to swim and cool off. After a while, he returned and ran the rest of the course, though other runners had already long since passed by. Most notably, fellow Rhode Islander Les Pawson (of Pawtucket, Rhode Island) won that year. Pawson was one of Tarzan's top rivals and friends. Tarzan was also seen arriving shortly before the start of the 1939 Boston Marathon eating hot dogs and drinking milkshakes just before the race and claimed that he had missed breakfast. Incidents like these led one member of the media to write insensitively about Brown. Most sports writers of that time period, when Tarzan first started running competitively, saw him as a "penniless redskin who would rather fish than work".[8]

Personal life, death and legacy[edit]

In addition to running, Brown worked as a stonemason and shellfisherman. He married a fellow Narragansett Indian named Ethel (Wilcox) Brown (April 23, 1919 - October 14, 2015) and had four children. He would sell the medals and trophies he won while racing in order to support his family. His nephews saw him as a story telling man.

Many varied accounts of the events on the evening of August 23, 1975 directly leading to Brown's death have been told, some stating he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, waiting for a ride home, as an altercation may have been taking place. However, amidst whatever confusion and circumstances there may have been, he was killed when a van hit him outside a bar in Westerly, Rhode Island.[4] Brown's injuries proved to be fatal. There is an annual Mystic River road race named in his honor in Mystic, Connecticut, every fall. As part of a conference commemorating past Native American runners of the Boston Marathon and to acknowledge the history and significance of running in Native American cultures, which led up to the day of the 2016 Boston Marathon race, Narragansett tribal member Mikki Wosencroft ran and completed the Boston course, as an acknowledged representative of Brown's family and the Narragansett tribe.[10]

  • "The economy in these depression times provided little for most Americans and nothing for Indians. They were a conquered people living on the margin... Ellison Myers Brown, born on the margin, saw running as his only way out of poverty." – Tom Derderian[11]
  • "Tarzan ran against people, not against numbers. He probably could have broke other records, but I never pushed him. When you're in a race you don't go out for records, you go out to win." – Tippy Salimeno[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Tarzan Brown". Archived from the original on 2016-04-23.
  2. ^ http://www.nyrr.org/sites/default/files/World%20and%20U.S.%20Records.pdf
  3. ^ a b Ward, Michael (1954). Ellison "Tarzan" Brown: The Narragansett Indian Who Twice Won the Boston Marathon. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc.
  4. ^ a b c Ward, Michael (2006-06-05). Ellison "Tarzan" Brown: The Narragansett Indian Who Twice Won the Boston Marathon. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-2416-8.
  5. ^ Boston Marathon Official Program, April 2005, p.68
  6. ^ Tarzan Brown Bio, Stats, and Results | Olympics at Sports-Reference.com Archived 2016-04-23 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ ARRS Boston Marathon page
  8. ^ a b "Legend of Tarzan: Stories about two-time winner have legs".
  9. ^ "Ellison Myers 'Tarzan' Brown". Native American Sport Council. Archived from the original on 2006-10-03. Retrieved 2007-03-18.
  10. ^ "Boston run a tribute to tribal hero Tarzan Brown".
  11. ^ Derderian, Tom (February 1996). The Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event. Human Kinetics Publishers. ISBN 0-88011-479-7.
  12. ^ Rodriguez, Bill (1981-04-19). "The Best Racer of All". Providence Journal-Bulletin. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-18.

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