Ellison Brown

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Ellison Myers Brown (September 22, 1913 – August 23, 1975),[1] widely known as Tarzan Brown, 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) and 1936 U.S. Olympian. He ran the marathon in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and also qualified for the 1940 Summer Olympics, but these were ultimately canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.

Tarzan Brown is one of two Native Americans to have won the Boston Marathon (the other being Thomas Longboat, of the Onondaga Nation from Canada, who won the 1907 marathon) and the only Native American to have more than one victory. 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 the 1940 marathon in Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts (2:27:30).[2]


Early life[edit]

Ellison Myers Brown was born on September 22, 1913 in Porter Hill, Rhode Island to Narragansett Indian parents Byron Otis Brown (1879 - 1943) and Grace Ethel (Babcock) Brown (1876 - 1935). Brown had three sisters (Myra, Alice aka "Nina", and Grace) and three brothers (Franklin, Elwin and Clifford).

Brown received little formal schooling. He attended the Tomaquag School in Alton for at least three years, but did not complete his schooling beyond seventh grade.

The nickname "Tarzan", according to stories, was given to him early in life. He was a natural outdoorsman who developed an athletic build and significant strength. Unafraid of heights, he loved to climb trees and swing from one branch to another, as well as rope to rope. His strength and balance were so remarkable, it seemed to observers that his athleticism had no limits, and reminded them of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘s famous fictional hero.

Brown was first noticed for his running talent when he was merely 12 years old. As Native American runner Horatio "Chief" Stanton was training for an upcoming race, his trainer Thomas "Tip" Salimeno watched as the boy ran, following after Stanton and trying to keep pace.

Salimeno took the young athlete under his wing when Brown turned 16 and began to train him, his first official steps to an illustrious career in marathon running that saw Brown eventually winning the Boston Marathon in both 1936 and 1939 and become a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.[3] Salimeno once said, "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."[4]

Heartbreak Hill and 1936 Boston Marathon victory[edit]

Heartbreak Hill, an ascent over 0.4-mile (600 m) between the 20 and 21-mile (32 and 34 km) marks, near Boston College, is the last of four "Newton hills", which begins at the 16-mile (26 km) mark and challenges contestants with late 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 muscular 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 condescendingly 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 Tarzan finally 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.[3]

1936 Olympic Games and 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 Germany for the 1936 Olympics. It is known that for more than half of the Olympic marathon, Brown was in the top five when an issue with leg cramps arose. Brown was known to have issues with a hernia from time to time. When a German spectator, said to have been a nurse, stepped in to aid him with rubbing out the severe cramps he was suffering from, he was forced to withdraw, and was disqualified from competition.

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 prove to critics and detractors that he had not quit in the Berlin Olympics earlier that summer.

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 performance stunts 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 worn sneakers that were falling apart. It 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.

By 1938, he had officially become a fan-favorite as perhaps the most exciting, unorthodox and colorful character in the Boston Marathon's history. In the 1938 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; he claimed that he had missed breakfast. Incidents like these led members of the media to write harshly about Brown. Most sports writers of he time period when Tarzan first started running competitively painted him as a "penniless redskin who would rather fish than work".[8]

Personal life[edit]

In addition to running, Brown worked as a stonemason and shellfish fisherman. He married a fellow Narragansett Indian named Ethel Wilcox (April 23, 1919 - October 14, 2015) and had four children. He usually sold the medals and trophies he won while racing in order to support his family. Tom Derderian wrote, “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." [10]

Brown’s nephews remember their uncle as a great storyteller.

Death and legacy[edit]

Many varied accounts of the events on the evening of August 23, 1975, directly leading to Brown's death have been told. Some state that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, waiting for a ride home, or that 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 Westerly, Rhode Island bar.[3] 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. At 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 to honor him and his legacy.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Tarzan Brown". Archived from the original on 2016-04-23.
  2. ^ [1][dead link]
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  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. ^ "Boston Marathon". Arrs.run. Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  8. ^ a b "Legend of Tarzan: Stories about two-time winner have legs". Bostonglobe.com.
  9. ^ "Ellison Myers 'Tarzan' Brown". Native American Sport Council. Archived from the original on 2006-10-03. Retrieved 2007-03-18.
  10. ^ Derderian, Tom (February 1996). The Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event. Human Kinetics Publishers. ISBN 0-88011-479-7.
  11. ^ "Boston run a tribute to tribal hero Tarzan Brown". Thewesterlysun.com.

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