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Scenes from the Past...

Noisy Fun at 14th & W Streets Seven Decades Ago

Many residents of Washington, DC have visited or read about the many Native American sites in and around the city, including sites in Rock Creek Park. Most residents, however, might not think that a well-known Native American may have once occupied their 1880s row house; that fact came as a surprise to the current owner of 1430 Swann Street, NW. At least the individual claimed to be an Indian, but in his line of work, the truth was often exaggerated.

The row of homes between 1422 and 1430 Swann Street were owned and built by George E. Emmons (1853-1941) following the issuance of his building permit on November 20, 1883. At the time, the street was known as Pierce Place, and in the spring of 1884, Emmons advertised the house at 1430 for sale for $3,300, requiring a down payment of $1,300.

The headline of the article that appeared in the February 2, 1932 edition of the Washington Post, “Indian overtakes Zoo Deer in Chase,” no doubt attracted attention to the morning readers of the paper. It revealed that the renter of 1430 Swann Street beginning about 1932 was, allegedly, “a full blood” Native American named Swift Eagle, who was apparently able to live up to his name.

Swift Eagle was better known in local amusement and vaudeville theaters as the drum-beating and chanting sidekick to a wrestler called Chief Thunderbird from British Columbia. Eagle’s actual life, however, might have been far less dramatic, although it did include time spent in the DC jail. He claimed to be either a half- or full-blooded Indian from New Mexico, but records show that he had actually been born in California.

Swift Eagle and his wrestling partner, Chief Thunderbird, made headlines in Washington, DC beginning in October and November of 1937 when they were the featured attraction at the popular Joe Turner’s Arena, a 2,000 seat venue located near the corner of 14th and W Streets, NW. Chief Thunderbird wrestled Cliff “Swede” Olsen on October 28, 1937, and won the match, pinning Olsen in 26 minutes.

Olsen, however, was not aware of the unusual tactics of Chief Thunderbird and his sidekick Swift Eagle, who often joined him in the ring, beating a tom-tom in concert with his Chief’s every move. Adding chants to distract the opponent, Olsen often turned to attempt a hit on Eagle, whereupon Thunderbird would seize on the opportunity to the delight of the crowd. Thunderbird, to the amazement of promoter Joe Turner and the crowd, had entered the stage in full Indian Chief regalia, complete with headdress, while Swift Eagle entered nearly naked, wearing little more than his headband and tom-tom.

Olsen filed a protest with Turner to prevent Swift Eagle from accompanying his rival on or near the ring, but Turner’s showmanship and sense of promotion said that he could not keep Thunderbird’s “second stooge” from doing what he does best. A full picture and article announcing the event appeared in the November 11, 1937 edition of the Washington Post, seen here.

It stated that “Swift Eagle will take up his place in Thunderbird’s corner and hammer away on his antiquated tom-tom. Whatever it is necessary during the course of the match he will go to town, so to speak, on the tom-tom and release Indian chants tantamount to a war whoop-de-doo.”

Chief Thunderbird, seen here in full headdress, was born in 1896 in British Columbia, Canada as Jean Baptiste Paul, the hereditary chief of the Tsartlip Indians at Brentwood on Vancouver Island. He wrestled from 1933 to 1955, visiting places such as Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Hawaii.

Chief Thunderbird returned to Washington DC in March of 1938 for a match with a Russian named Boris Demitroff. A newspaper account mentioned he “usually brings along a fellow dark face, Swift Eagle, who helps the chief on and off with his robe, supplies a rich baritone for the war-whoops Thunderbird emits every now and then, and performs other minor chores.” Still revered in Canada, the headdress that became Chief Thunderbird’s trademark was the first artifact to be placed in the Aboriginal Sport Gallery, an exhibit that officially opened on February 17, 2008 at the B.C. Place Stadium on Vancouver Island.

Swift Eagle seems not to have had such an impressive sideshow résumé as his sometime boss, Chief Thunderbird. Two years before he moved into 1430 Swann Street, NW, Swift Eagle had been enumerated in the 1930 census with his wife and child close by in a rented house at 1328 Q Street, NW. That document reveals that he had been born about 1897 in California, also the birthplace of both of his parents — not in New Mexico as he claimed on stage. He paid $23.50 in monthly rent, and was listed as a “negro,” casting some doubt about his claim of even being a Native American. His job as a garage mechanic seems to have literally paid the rent rather than his muse as a wrestling sidekick. His wife Frankie had been born in California about 1908, and they had married about 1926. Their son James had been born in 1928.

Earlier, in January of 1928, Eagle been sentenced to 90 days in jail and fined $500 or an additional 90 days by Judge Mattingly of the DC Police Court for the illegal possession and transportation of liquor. He had been caught in a car near 14th and G Streets, NW that had been stopped for a minor traffic violation by Police Officer William E. Atkinson who spotted 108 quarts of liquor in the car; it was the height of prohibition! (The District’s Sheppard Act had introduced prohibition of intoxicating liquors in the city effective on November 1, 1917, a full two years before the national prohibition. Both were repealed in 1933.)

While Chief Thunderbird would go on making headlines and travel the world for the next several decades, the last newspaper mention of Swift Eagle appeared in August of 1940, and was aptly titled “Roughing it in New York.” It reported Eagle heading up a “camp” of 12 country-deprived boys atop a New York City apartment building, “with tents, a miniature lake with six carp, and Swift Eagle, an Indian from New Mexico.” Police had stopped their previous practice of camping on the city streets and roasting potatoes and hot dogs on the street corner. There was no mention of his former vaudeville life, his wife, or his child.