Roger Williams on YouTube: Ellison “Tarzan” Brown – Boston Marathon winner
Boston Marathon’s Native Imprint
Tuesday, April 20, 2021

As another Patriot’s Day goes by in Massachusetts and the iconic Boston Marathon 2021 edition is postponed due to COVID-19, it gives everyone an opportunity to reflect on the incredible history of this legendary race. In 125 years of this world renowned marathon, one of the most famous features of this internationally revered event earned its nickname.

It was 85 years ago today, on April 20, 1936, when Boston Globe writer Jerry Nason gave us the name of “Heartbreak Hill.” On that day, the winner of the previous year’s race, the great Johnny Kelley, managed to catch up to Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, the young Narragansett Indian from Rhode Island who had appeared to be tiring. Kelley assumed this as well and even patted “Tarzan” on the back. The pat on the back seemed to startle Brown from his trance-like state.

Kelley had caught up to Brown just as the Newton hills were coming up at the tail end of the Boston course. Kelley made a comment to “Tarzan” basically telling him he gave it a good try but to step aside and let the big boys take over. Brown’s competitive fire had been sparked once again. The two men took turns grabbing the lead from one another until Brown took the lead for good on the last hill. Kelley faded to a 5th place finish while the young Native American ran his way to what would be the first of two Boston Marathon victories.

Tarzan Brown winning the 1939 Marathon
A photo from the collection of the Boston Public Library shows Narragansett citizen Ellison “Tarzan” Brown winning the Boston Marathon in 1939.

It was then that Jerry Nason stated that “Tarzan” Brown “broke Kelley’s heart” on the final hill. The Heartbreak Hill name was born. Brown and Kelley would go on to the 1936 U.S. Olympic Team and compete at the Olympic Games in Hitler’s Germany and as teammates to the great Jesse Owens. Both men would also become 2-time Boston Marathon winners as well.

At the part of the course by Heartbreak Hill, a statue was erected of a young Johnny Kelley and an elderly Johnny Kelley, on account of his running in 61 Boston Marathons, holding and raising hands in victory, with a plaque commemorating the epic event of that day in 1936.

Sadly, the man who won on Heartbreak Hill was merely listed as a footnote to another man’s legacy. Ellison “Tarzan” Brown has faded to the background, as if simply an answer to a tricky trivia question. Outside of the Narragansett Tribe and Boston Marathon historians, “Tarzan” Brown has fallen into obscurity and rarely appears on anyone’s radar, including among much of Indian Country.

Nevertheless, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown still had his moments. Heartbreak Hill gained its name thanks to a Native American persevering, which is something synonymous with Indigenous peoples.

Native Americans have many heroes to look up to, from past and present, and Native Americans have showed prowess in many areas. Thanks to this energetic Narragansett Indian from southern Rhode Island, the Boston Marathon and Heartbreak Hill are proof of that.


Brian Lightfoot Brown studied U.S. History at the University of Rhode Island, is an enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island and a grand nephew of 2-time Boston Marathon winner and 1936 U.S. Olympian Ellison “Tarzan” Brown.

Note: Content © Brian Lightfoot Brown