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The Legend of Deerfoot

Family History Runs Far

Published November 10, 1997, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

While helping my wife research her ancestry, the Bennetts of Western New York, we made an interesting discovery. Lewis Bennett, a Seneca Indian from the Cattaraugus Reservation, dominated the long-distance racing scene in the mid-19th century. Born in 1830, Bennett ran under the name "Deerfoot," and achieved amazing feats on both sides of the Atlantic.

Deerfoot won his first race in 1856 at the Erie County fair, running five miles in 25 minutes. His victory earned him a purse of $50. His reputation spread beyond Western New York, and he raced frequently at fairs all over the Northeast. In the summer of 1861, an English promoter named George Martin recognized Deerfoot's financial potential and invited him to compete in England.

The English press portrayed Deerfoot as a "genuine child of the prairie," who had crossed the Atlantic to test the powers of local runners. Deerfoot lost his first English race on a track outside London in front of 4,000 spectators, but captured public imagination and media attention. In the following months, Deerfoot's promoters took him around the British Isles, scheduling weekly races with increasingly faster runners and larger crowds.

Deerfoot's tactical running style frustrated his competition, and pleased his spectators. Instead of running a strategic, even pace over long distances, Deerfoot raced the field, alternating fast surges from behind with slower jogs at the front. His intuitive running paid off with a victory over the Irish Champion John Levett, running 10 miles in 53:35.

Deerfoot's physical appearance and manners added to his attraction. He stood tall at almost 6 feet, and weighed 160 pounds. He ran most of his races with a naked chest, wearing a feather apron around his waist, and a band with one eagle feather around his head. His dark complexion was a stark contrast to the sun-starved British athletes. He yelled war whoops as he raced to victory. His popularity extended rapidly beyond the racing crowd, and The Prince of Wales attended many races and contributed to the purse.

To capitalize on Deerfoot's growing popularity, his promoters took the show on the roads. Equipped with a portable wooden track and a canvas tent, a group of four professional runners toured the provinces and the countryside. Deerfoot raced several nights each week, attracting a variable number of spectators.

During his 20-month European tour, Deerfoot went from mysterious runner, to entertainer, to world record holder. The intense competition against the best British and Irish runners helped him improve dramatically. With the aid of pace makers, he set world records of 10 miles in 51:26 and 12 miles in 1:02:02.

Following his return to America, Deerfoot continued to run locally, limiting his races to Western New York, New York City and Boston. In 1867, he ran an exhibition race against horses in Boston. In August 1868, he won a five-mile race in Buffalo in 24:15, despite giving the rest of the field a quarter-mile head start.

Deerfoot continued to run, but he yielded the race tracks of Western New York to younger Native Americans. He died Jan. 18, 1897, and was buried on the Cattaraugus Reservation. Three years later, his remains were moved to Buffalo and placed next to the grave of the Seneca orator Red Jacket.

For generations, Native Americans have taken pride in running and in being fleet of feet. The Song of Hiawatha, attributed to the 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, described these traits:

Out of childhood into manhood, 
Now had grown my Hiawatha, 
Skilled in the craft of hunters, 
Learned in all the lore of old men. 
In all youthful sports and pastimes, 
In all manly arts and labors, 
Swift of foot was Hiawatha. 
He could shoot an arrow from him, 
And run forward with such fleetness, 
That the arrow fell behind him. 

Kamal Jabbour runs the hills of Pompey carrying suction-cup arrows before trying the real thing. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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