Friday, April 27, 2012

Carbon County

This week‘s feature is Carbon County, Pennsylvania as our TWIPA topic. Carbon County is located mid-point between the Wilkes Barre-Scranton area and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Physiographically it is split by two prominent geologically different settings, the Anthracite Uplands in the north and the Blue Mountain Section in the south which defines its borders with Lehigh and Northampton counties. The Lehigh River runs through the county and marks the general location of the Lehigh Indian path that connected the Shawnee towns at Wyoming on the North Branch Susquehanna with Nain at Bethlehem on the lower Lehigh River. Gnadenhutten (German translation “Cabins of Grace”), the Moravian Brethren mission located at the halfway point on the Lehigh path was founded in 1746. Today that place is called Lehighton and serves, would be white water buffs, with an exciting ride through the Lehigh gorge and its rapids.

The archaeological sites of Carbon County broadly represent the entire sequence of human habitation in the Commonwealth. Discoveries of Paleo-Indian fluted points and a sequence of Archaic sites have been reported at certain locations. One of these sites on Nesquehoning Creek yielded hints of Paleo-indian through Historic period artifacts. Test excavations at another site near Palmerton revealed a buried Archaic through Woodland sequence of occupations that archaeologists discovered beneath an old canal towpath. Much of the lithic material that these prehistoric tools were made from was mined on the high ridges around the Palmerton area and this lithic material was the preferred material for other sites in the county.
lithic materials from 36Cr39

In 1818, the town of Mauch Chunk, three miles upriver from Lehighton, was founded by Josiah White, an industrialist with interests in the coal and shipping business. Not surprising, the town eventually became known for its coal and railroad transportation.  Then, more than a century later, an interesting turn of events brought notoriety of a different kind to this small town in rural Pennsylvania.  In 1953 the town fathers of Mauch Chunk renamed the community after a prominent world renowned sports figure, Jim Thorpe.

Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe, one of two twin boys born around 1888 near Prague, Oklahoma, was a Native American of Sac, Fox and Irish heritage. His twin brother, Charlie died of pneumonia at the age of nine. His early education was obtained at the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School in Oklahoma but after his twin brother’s death Thorpe faced many challenges.  After several runaway incidents his father sent Thorpe to Kansas where he enrolled at the Haskell Institute, a boarding school for Native American children. Following his mother’s death several years later he developed depression which led to arguments with his father. He had had enough. Thorpe moved on, and in 1904 he made amends with his father and decided to attend the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where he was immediately recognized as someone having great athletic potential.  He briefly attended the Carlisle Indian School but left when his father died. After a period of time he returned to the school where beginning in 1907 he excelled in sports, breaking many of the school’s track and field records. Not stopping there, he competed in baseball, football, lacrosse and ballroom dancing where he and his partner won the 1912 college championship. His athletic career, especially in football, stands as a testimony to his natural ability, tenacity and character.

Jim Thorpe

Perhaps Jim Thorpe will remain best known for his Olympic record in the 1912 Summer Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden where he won two gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon events. Two challenge prizes donated by Sweden’s King Gustav V and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II were also won by Jim Thorpe. Several sources have said that when these prizes were handed to Thorpe, King Gustav said “”You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world” to which Thorpe replied “Thanks King” (Berontas 1993).

Unfortunately, not all was glorious with Jim Thorpe’s Olympic career. Rules barred professional athletes from participating in amateur sports – the international Olympic Commission (IOC) notwithstanding. The  rules seemingly lacked specificity in terms of when the rules actually ruled  ……….. anyone, who in the remotest way participated in the Olympics,………. had professional status (accepted money, ……..participated against professional athletes ……….or were instructors (teachers)………..were not of amateur ranking. Many athletes who violated these rules just changed their names to avoid exposure and subsequent embarrassment. Not surprising, Jim Thorpe’s amateur status was revoked by the American Athletic Union (AAU) thereby placing him in a dubious position with the International Olympic Commission. Much to Thorpe’s chagrin, the IOC later agreed with the AAU and stripped Thorpe of his Olympic Gold.  Jim Thorpe never lived to see his “Olympic Gold “reinstated in 1982 through the efforts of Robert Wheeler,his wife Florence Ridlon and U.S.Congress. Fortunately, though, he went on to enjoy an active professional career in baseball, football and basketball until his retirement from the sports world in 1922.

After Jim Thorpe retired from sports, life got tough. He struggled to support his family especially during the Great Depression. He had a number of movie roles as an extra playing in Westerns as the “Indian chief”. He also held short-lived jobs in the world of hard labor such as ditch digger, bouncer, security guard and for a brief period at the end of the Second World War, as a soldier in the Merchant marines. Later in life he drank heavily and by 1950 he developed cancer.  Jim Thorpe died in 1953 after suffering a third heart attack.  At his side was his wife, Patricia and others.

Thorpe’s third wife, Patricia, disenchanted over Oklahoma’s refusal to recognize Jim Thorpe’s accomplishments in the field of sports by not erecting a monument in his memory arranged with the Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk officials (these communities eventually merged) to rename the community in honor of her late husband, Jim Thorpe.  Their principal motive to do this was to bring notoriety to the town thereby placing it firmly on the map as a point of national interest. His remains now rest in the town of Jim Thorpe.

In June 2010 a federal law suit was filed against the Borough of Jim Thorpe by Jim Thorpe’s his son, Jack under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to have his father’s remains returned to Oklahoma where other family members are buried. The story ends here—for now.

Berontas, Bob
1993       “Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox Athlete”. Chelsea House Publications, London

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .


  1. There is much more to Carbon County archaeology than Jim Thorpe, who always seems to dominate the discussion of this area.
    If this is all the archaeological information available it speaks to a lack of understanding of Carbon County's history, importance and begs more research be done on the area.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mike. Indeed there is more to Carbon County than Jim Thorpe. Check out our archived posts from 6/26/2009 and 5/28/2010 for important work being done by Temple University on a site in Lehigh Gorge State Park. Thanks again for your interest in Pennsylvania archaeology!