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Throwback Thursday: The Recreational Runner Who Saved America

America's fate during the Revolutionary War was still very much in doubt when Jonas Cattell left at dawn and raced 10 miles through the backwoods of southern New Jersey to warn the troops about a surprise attack.
Courtesy Terry Jones

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

America's fate during the Revolutionary War was still very much in doubt when Jonas Cattell left at dawn and raced 10 miles through the backwoods of southern New Jersey to warn the troops about a surprise attack. It was October 22, 1777. He needed to reach Fort Mercer, on the bank of the Delaware River, and he needed to get there faster than the enemy. Unlike his more famous alarm-sounding contemporary Paul Revere, Cattell didn't need a horse: he outran his foes on foot. Despite being outnumbered about 1,200 to 400, the Americans held the fort that day, sustaining only a few casualties in what would be called the Battle of Red Bank. Cattell pulled off the warning because he'd spent many years of his young life mastering every trail, creek, hill, stream, and ditch in the area by running through and over them.


So, to make it nice and clear: On October 22, 1777, a recreational distance runner saved America.

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When Cattell died, in 1849, his local newspaper, the Constitution, called him "the most remarkable man New Jersey ever reared. In fact, it is only in the pages of fiction that his counterpart can be found."

Those sentences proved to be the best sendup Cattell would ever receive. Most history books make no mention of him at Fort Mercer. Others give credit to an anonymous person. One book incorrectly identified Cattell as a messenger to George Washington. Cattell's descendant Robert Allen found that one on eBay; it was apparently used at a Phoenix elementary school.

Mostly, though, Cattell is not remembered at all. Revere has a poem and a Beastie Boys song and a lasting place in American lore. Swamp Fox Francis Marion inspired the movie The Patriot. Betsy Ross is credited with sewing a flag she almost certainly never sewed. Short history lessons are reserved for Dolley Madison, and all she did was save a portrait of Washington.

Cattell saved American troops, and he did it based on his strengths as a runner. He was 200 years ahead of a movement that has drawn 30 million Americans to regularly participate each year. Yet he's so anonymous that funding dried up for a statue of him a few miles from where he lived. Difficult as it may have been to beat a marching army while running through the wilderness, it's proven even harder for Cattell to become a legend.


Cattell's grave site, located near his home in New Jersey. Photo by Mark Dent

Today, Haddonfield, New Jersey, is home to upscale salons and restaurants and beautiful, sprawling houses. In 1777, though, mile after mile of rugged wilderness surrounded most of the region where Jonas Cattell worked as an apprentice to a blacksmith at a stable behind a tavern in the center of town.

He was 18 years old, and the Revolutionary War was raging. America had declared independence in Philadelphia, but that city, about 20 miles across the Delaware River, couldn't have been further from free. The British were occupying it. Two forts, built by American troops, prevented them from using Philadelphia as the home base for a major offensive against the Americans: Mifflin on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware and Mercer on the New Jersey side. The forts' cannon fire made it effectively impossible to ship supplies up the river. The British and their German mercenary allies, known as the Hessians, would have to take control of at least one of those forts or their troops in Philadelphia would likely have to evacuate because of the lack of supplies.

They made their move the night of October 21. About 1,200 Hessians swarmed into Haddonfield, breaking into people's homes and taking prisoners, including Cattell. He and other Americans were forced to tend the fire overnight. In the morning, the Hessians deserted their prisoners and makeshift camp. They were headed 10 miles southwest to ambush the American troops at Fort Mercer. They had three times as many men, but letting Cattell go proved to be a fatal mistake.


Cattell stood over six foot tall, an imposing product of the woods whose customary outfit of red flannel would have made him a double for the Brawny man. Rarely did anyone spot him without a gun in one hand, tomahawk in the other, and a trusty hound by his side. And he ran everywhere.

According to an account of his life published in The Literary Digest in 1933, Cattell "developed his own frontier. Long before he was grown the puzzling land and water intricacies of the whole neighborhood, and the intimate ways of its wild inhabitants were an open book" to him. Maybe it was in his DNA: Cattell was part Lenni Lenape Indian. Native Americans, unlike most of the Europeans who settled in the new world, had been running long distances for hunting and ceremonial purposes for centuries.

Nobody ran like Cattell did, and even many animals had trouble keeping up. Some friends once bought Cattell a horse to aid him in a foxhunt. He ditched it after a mile and continued on foot. Later in his life, people started saying Cattell ran ninety miles to the southern tip of New Jersey and back within a day because of a bet. Take that story with a colossal grain of salt. But on the morning of October 22, 1777, a real challenge presented itself: the race to beat the Hessians.

They took off down Kings Highway, a thoroughfare linking Boston to Charleston, South Carolina. Cattell hid off road alongside them. They marched. He ran. Few people could have handled the terrain or the navigation, but Cattell knew where to go and how to stay out of sight. After about seven miles, he came to Big Timber Creek. He recounted to a reporter for the Constitution many years later that the bridge was out and a bunch of boats had been sabotaged to prevent enemies from using them. He hopped into one anyway and started rowing across, the leaky boat full of water by the time he reached the other side. Cattell is estimated to have beat the Hessian troops by a few hours.


At Fort Mercer, under the command of Colonel Christopher Greene, the Americans shifted their focus away from the Delaware River to inland. The Hessians were now the ones dealt a surprise, one they couldn't overcome: over 300 of their men were killed or wounded, while the Americans lost only 37.

The Battle of Red Bank followed an American victory at Saratoga. These victories helped convince the French the Americans were a legitimate side and worthy of their assistance. The British kept waiting in Philadelphia, growing desperate. They eventually did gain control of the forts, but the Red Bank victory marked a turning point for the Americans.

"It really starts to shift the momentum of the war," says Jen Janofsky, a historian and professor at Rowan University who is the curator at Red Bank Battlefield Park.

Cattell served numerous stints in area militias and as part of the Continental Army. He married Sarah Clement in 1780, had four kids, got remarried in 1796, and lived into his 90s, running and hunting as often as he could.

The obituary printed in the Constitution described him as "amiable" and "a man of integrity," praising everything from his athletic prowess to his voting record ("He always voted the Whig ticket, with unwavering fidelity"). Who could forget a guy like that? Locals certainly thought he'd be remembered.

"The fame of Jonas rests secure," the obit read, "not only with his contemporaries, our gray-headed men, but with everyone fond of the sports of the field."


A copy of the only known contemporary portrait of Cattell. Courtesy Gloucester County Historical Society

Let's get back to Paul Revere for a moment. Everything you've likely been taught about him is a lie.

The story goes that he waited outside of Boston for the appearance of one or two lanterns and then galloped on a horse, solo, to warn colonial militia men throughout the countryside all the way to Concord that "the British are coming." According to Revere's own notes, as detailed in this U.S. News and World Report article, he was captured by the British in the middle of his ride, long before he reached Concord. He didn't ride alone. He didn't even wait outside Boston for the signal of a lantern; he waited in the city, rowed across the Charles River, and then hopped on a horse.

Might Cattell's story be fictional, too? No one knows for sure, but that's how it goes with much of centuries-old history. It's likely many others could have warned the Americans of an attack, albeit not in as spectacular a way as Cattell. Unlike Revere's definitely false heroism, Cattell's holds up better than much of what we learn about Revolutionary War heroes.

Janofsky goes back to the first known recounting of Cattell's run to Fort Mercer. It comes from a Constitution newspaper article written in 1846. The article is apparently a reflection on Cattell's life and the Battle of Red Bank, written with input from him. Other articles were written about his run in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nobody seemed to challenge the account, which Janofsky believes is important to note.


"He was an excellent tracker and an excellent fox hunter, so could he do it? It sounds like he absolutely could," she says. "We don't have any documentation from Christopher Greene saying, 'he gave us a lot of help.' Maybe his warning gave them advanced notice. They were certainly prepared for this situation."

Possible reasons for history's neglect of Cattell have a little bit to do with politics and a little bit to do with luck. Revere's legacy grew in part because of his social standing, says Janofsky. Revere was a Boston aristocrat and a noted self-promoter. Cattell was a half-Native American, likely illiterate woodsman.

James Loewen, a renowned sociologist, historian, and author, has spent years challenging the way America chronicles history. Asked whether Cattell could have gotten short shrift because of his race and class, Loewen said, "Of course that's a possibility."

Now for the luck: Revere's self-promotion eventually made its way to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the beautiful, egregiously false poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." It is the foundation for the lessons children learn about him. Running's foremost legend, Pheidippides, is remembered for the same reason. The marathon race came into existence after the modern Olympics' first organizer learned about him through the poem. A hundred and twenty years later, hundreds of thousands people run marathons every year, and Nike took its name from the dying words poet Robert Browning placed in Pheidippides' mouth.


Meanwhile, Cattell can't even get a statue built in South Jersey. Terry Jones, a sculptor and a Delaware Valley-area history buff, was having drinks with Ed Cattell, Jonas Cattell's great grandson times six, a couple of years ago at a private club in Philadelphia. The topic shifted to historical figures, and Ed brought up the story of his ancestor. Jones recalls nearly spitting out his cognac. He'd never heard of Cattell, despite living in nearby suburban Philadelphia.

Jones' statue gained approval from the Haddonfield authorities in 2013, and a location was selected on the main drag of the town. The Philadelphia Inquirer even wrote a story about it. But funds have dried up. Hardly anybody has donated.

Cattell isn't completely forgotten, though. Every October his name resurfaces for a road race.


The 46th annual Jonas Cattell Memorial Run happened this Sunday. It's a 10-mile race that traces the route he took to warn the American army. Laser red signs marked with "Cattell" in white bubble letters hung every half-mile or so on area streets, providing directions for runners.

Whereas many historic and new American road races amass followings of hundreds and even thousands of people, the Jonas Cattell Memorial Run has experienced no such growth. There were 124 racers on Sunday, nearly the exact same number as in 1976, when 115 people took part. Ed Cattell hoped to solicit a few donations for the statue at the race a year or two ago. His plan didn't work so well.

"The thing about runners is they want to run," he said. "They don't know why they're running."

That's not to say the Jonas Cattell Memorial Run isn't a good event. The guy who won managed to do so while wearing the long brown pants and hazel button-coat of a colonial gentleman. Julie Cattell, a descendant of Jonas who traveled from Texas, finished first among the women. Participants got a shiny yellow long-sleeve shirt emblazoned with the lone surviving image of Cattell. It was a perfectly pleasant race ran under a sunny fall sky but not as big as one might imagine for an event honoring a would-be American hero in a place located near Philadelphia and not far from New York City.

After the runners took off from the starting line, I lingered around and chatted with Ed Cattell. Maybe 20 minutes passed, and every detail associated with a race had vanished with the runners. There were no stray water bottles, sweatshirts, or a big ticking clock you'd expect to see. Someone had even packed up a small bulletin board that featured last year's results and the course records.

At the approximate spot where a distance runner set off to save America, it felt like nobody had been there at all.