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The Redbud City: Thorpe's advice rejected and how to live to be 100

Clyde Wooldridge
Contributing writer
Jim Thorpe in 1937


Jim Thorpe, famous Native American athlete, stormed into Native American politics on Saturday, Dec. 4, 1937, as he once did on the football gridiron. The former world’s decathlon champion and football All-American shifted quickly into political phrases as he returned to his hometown to denounce provisions of the Thomas-Rogers Indian Act. He urged against adoption of a separate constitution by the Sac & Fox tribe, of which he was a member.

“They want us to go back to the blanket,” shouted Thorpe as he electioneered among fellow tribe members for the defeat of the constitution in a tribal vote on Tuesday, Dec. 7.

He declared the act, which permitted Native American tribes to set up their own constitutions under approval of the Indian service and a vote of separate tribes, was an attempt to drive the Native Americans back to the reservation.

“What’s the use in educating an Indian and training him for citizenship, then forcing him to live under a separate constitution?” asked the aging athlete, who won football greatness under Glenn “Pop” Warner at Carlisle.

Thorpe — who set a decathlon mark in 1912 which stood about two decades until bettered by Kansas’ Jim Bausch — was accompanied by Mrs. Jennie Meek, former Shawnee resident. She also opposed adoption of a constitution by the Sac & Fox tribe. Both Thorpe and Meek lived in Los Angeles, where they appeared in motion pictures. They were accompanied by Joe DePorte, Shawnee Native American, who edited a golfing magazine in Los Angeles.

Thorpe and DePorte went to Cushing that afternoon to continue their campaign but returned to Shawnee that night. They were set to return to Los Angeles after the election on Tuesday. Thorpe was meeting plenty of opposition in his campaign from other tribal members, many of them relatives.

More than 600 members of the Sac & Fox tribe were eligible to vote in the election and ballots could be cast in the community house near Stroud, or the southern community house just east of Meeker, or at the Shawnee Indian agency.

Those supporting the bill declared it would give the tribe a more compact organization with which to handle its affairs and Native Americans would not relinquish any of their individual rights. The tribe was now operating under a council with a business committee.

The new constitution and charter under the Thomas-Rogers Act was already adopted by the Kickapoo and Iowa tribes. The Shawnee and Potawatomi tribes had not set dates for their election.


Members of the Sac & Fox tribe adopted a new tribal constitution in a special election on Dec. 7, 1937, by a majority of more than 3-2. This came despite a last-minute campaign by its most famous member, Jim Thorpe. The vote was 202 to 120.

F.E. Perkins, superintendent of the Shawnee Indian agency, said he believed “Jim’s presence here was a helping factor in the election. He had not lived among his people for a long time and wasn’t acquainted with conditions. The folks, I think, expressed their resentment of his interference in the way they voted.”

It was the third consecutive victory for the new Native American constitutions, authorized by the Thomas-Rogers Act in the last Congress. The Kickapoo and Iowa had already approved it. Perkins said the Shawnee would be next to vote.

Thorpe said he would continue his battle to place Native Americans on an equal footing with all other citizens of the United States without special supervision from the government.

“I have no quarrel with the local Indian agency officials,” Thorpe said, “but the election itself is an invasion of the vested rights of Indians.”


“Stay way from wimmen, don’t drink too much whiskey, or strong coffee, limit your tobacco to two or three chaws a day, stay out in the open, and you will live to be a hundred, if you stay away from wimmen.”

That was the advice of John Ferguson, of 822 South Broadway, who passed milestone No. 102 on Monday, Feb. 28, 1938. He said the first and final admonition was the most important. “Uncle John,” as his friends and neighbors affectionately called him, was a bit peevish because he was about to miss another birthday. He was a leap year baby, back in 1836, so he’s had only 24 birthdays, despite his 102 years of righteous living.

Mrs. Emma Welch, of 830 South Broadway, had looked after “Uncle John” the past few years. “He’s all alone,” explained Mrs. Welch, “and it was just up to someone to care for him, but the neighbors find it a pleasant task.”

On that Monday, Mrs. Welch and another neighbor, Mrs. Orl Wright, invited some friends and surprised “Uncle John” with a party.

Most any warm, sunny day you’ll find “Uncle John” sitting out in front of his little one-room hut on south Broadway. With the help of Captain Richard of the Salvation Army, Mrs. Welch and the other “wimmen folks,” built his present home several years earlier.

Ferguson spent most of his time tinkering around in a garden and raising chickens. It kept him busy. Uncle John snorted, “keeping these young rascals from ‘stealin’ my hens.”

Despite his withered appearance, the little old man’s voice was strong and steady, and his faded blue eyes sparkled with a piercing sharpness.

“Cut off strong coffee,” said Uncle John. “I drink only one cup a day, and two or three chews of ‘baccer’ a day and let medicine alone. Live outdoors. The tight houses and old hot gas stoves will kill you. Whiskey, it’s good just for medicine. I never was drunk in my life, but whiskey’s all right if you don’t drink too much. Matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind havin’ a quart right now to put a little rock candy in.” He squeaked a laugh and slapped his knee.

“I don’t know why I’m so old; a woman told me the other day it’s because I never got married. I never had time for ‘wimmen’ The world’s in a bad shape! Laziness got it, that’s all that’s the matter. Why these young fellers ridin’ around here in automobiles, never workin’ a lick. That’s all they do, just drive around in cars, and I bet half of em’ ain’t got drivers’ license either.

“I don’t know if they’re gonna have another war or not,” he mused, adding quickly, “but if they do it’ll sure be a lazy one. Naw, I don’t know who’ll be elected governor and I ain’t gonna say anyway. I said once and made enemies. I just don’t want’em cuttin’ my pension money off.”

“Uncle John’s pension amounts to $15 a month, barely enough to keep him in ‘baccer,’” said Mrs. Welch.

“I was born in Smith County, near Tyler, Texas,” said Uncle John. “I came to this country in the 1870s and lived up in the Arbuckle Mountains. That was before I lived with the Whiteheads.”

For more than 40 years, Uncle John lived and farmed with the Whiteheads, well-known members of the Potawatomi tribe, who currently resided southwest of Shawnee. He helped build the old Indian mission, south of Shawnee, in 1875. Mrs. Whitehead was connected to the government’s Indian project there.

“Yes-sir, and I helped lay the ties for the old Choctaw railroad before they came into Shawnee, back in 1895,” Uncle John recollected.

Since that time, he farmed, and as late as a year ago, picked cotton in a field south of Shawnee. “It’s just been the last five years that I ain’t been able to get around and take care of myself,” he said.

Clyde Wooldridge is a local historian.