Sitting off Highway 903 in a small Pennsylvania town named in his honor sits the grave of the illustrious, well-known Native American athlete Jim Thorpe. For those not aware of this phenomenal athlete, Thorpe was a football, baseball and track star who won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics.
Controversial Burial Location
Thorpe died in Oklahoma without a will in 1953 at the age of 64 and his gravesite has created much turmoil in the lives of his surviving children. The now elderly children state that their loving father should be laid to rest in Oklahoma at a Native American Burial Ground. Two of Jim’s sons say this is what their father intended all along.
Jim’s wife, Patricia, had other plans however. With the help of local authorities, Patricia is said to have barged in during the middle of Thorpe’s Native American funeral in Oklahoma to have him whisked away and buried in the Pennsylvania town. She claimed it was her right given that Jim died without a will. Patricia wasn’t fond of Jim’s Native American ties and she often let her disdain for his ancestry shine through. Thorpe’s children state that according to Indian culture, when someone is not buried with their family in a proper Indian burial ground, the soul tends to wander the earth with unfinished business.
How Jim Thorpe, the Town, Was Named
Oklahoma’s governor in 1953 balked at the cost of a planned monument statue dedicated to the athlete. It was then that Patricia devised her plan to have him buried elsewhere. She struck a deal with two small Pennsylvania merging towns to build a memorial in his honor. Soon the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk became one combined town named Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Normally a town or city is named in someone’s honor if the deceased frequented or had a fondness for that area. But, not the city of Jim Thorpe. Thorpe never set foot in either of the Mauch Chunk towns.
Reportedly, before being able to rename itself Jim Thorpe, the town of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania had decided it needed a tourist attraction to help with the failing local economy. To solve their problem, the town asked the Thorpe family for possession of Jim’s body with the sole stipulation that they would lovingly rename their town Jim Thorpe and provide him with a nice gravesite and/or park combination located within the city limits. Patricia agreed and Jim was moved upon his death to what would be renamed Jim Thorpe, PA.
Fight to Have Thorpe’s Body Moved to Oklahoma
It has often been said that Thorpe’s spirit still roams among the living because of his burial rite interruption and subsequent burial in unfamiliar land. Oklahoma, being Thorpe’s home state, has been lobbying intensely to get his body back from the Pennsylvania resting place in which it now resides.
Jim’s Native American sons also want the body of their father moved to Oklahoma, where he can have a resting place among his ancestors. In 2013 Jim Thorpe’s sons received a legal victory in their quest to have their father removed from Pennsylvania and reburied in Oklahoma when a federal judge ruled that the town of Jim Thorpe amounted to a museum under the Repatriation Act law. The Repatriation Act requires that museums, which are defined as any institution or state or local government agency that receives federal funds, and/or federal agencies possessing American Indian remains to return said remains upon request of the deceased’s family or tribe.
Soon after this initial ruling, however, an appeals court located in Philadelphia sent out a ruling that the remains of Jim Thorpe should stay in the Pennsylvania town. The appeals court found that the original judge had misapplied the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. So the two brothers were sent back to square one in the fight to return their father’s body to what they deem as his rightful burial ground.
Tomb and Monuments
Jim’s final resting place sits within a large, marble above-ground tomb. There are etchings in the facade of the tomb depicting Thorpe’s success as an Olympic athlete and former football, basketball and baseball player. He is also depicted riding on horseback dressed in his full Native American attire.
Inside the tomb, Jim’s casket rests upon a small mound of dirt from his native Oklahoma and also from the stadium located in Stockholm where he was an official participant in the 1912 Olympics. Upon watching young Jim perform in one of the most noted Olympics ever, Sweden’s King Gustav V decided to declare Jim the greatest athlete in the world. Jim was a humble but proud man and accepted the title with grace and happiness.
With the gravesite being the main focal point, there is also a small area off to the left of the casket that has a wonderful sculpture dedicated to the Olympian titled “The Spirit of Thunder and Lightning.” All around the sculpture are tidbits of information telling of Thorpe’s exciting life and many accomplishments.
The public is welcome to visit the final resting place of Jim Thorpe. Located at Highway 903 in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. You can take US 209 to Hwy 903 into town, then go north on Hwy 903 for approximately 1.5 miles. The memorial location is on the west side, on Joe Boyle Circle.
Jim Thorpe Memorial – 103 E 10th St, Jim Thorpe, PA 18229