Was Redskins' first coach a fraud?

Historian questions claims of first coach's Native American heritage

Updated: September 2, 2014, 9:23 PM ET
By John Barr | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- Washington owner Daniel Snyder continues to maintain that his NFL team was nicknamed the "Redskins" to honor its first head coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz, even though Dietz was jailed for falsifying his Native American identity to avoid the draft in World War I.

In his recent interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines," Snyder repeatedly said that the polarizing nickname of his franchise would be far more acceptable if people simply appreciated its historical origins.

Snyder said he first learned of that history from his father, Gerry Snyder, a freelance writer who penned several books, along with pages of the Washington media guide relating to the early years of the franchise.

"He'd always say to me, and I use all the time, 'The truth is on your side,'" Snyder said. He insisted that when the franchise was born in Boston in 1932, it was renamed "Redskins" in 1933 by then-owner George Preston Marshall to honor Dietz.

"Coach Dietz was Native American, he named the team with the then owner," Snyder told "Outside the Lines," adding: "The historical facts are the historical facts."

But those "facts" have been debated for years by historians and questioned by federal investigators.

Historian Linda Waggoner started researching Dietz before 2002, when she began writing a biography of Dietz's wife, Angel De Cora, a Native American artist. Waggoner said she found that Dietz "was not who he told her [De Cora] he was."

Dietz gained attention playing football from 1907 to 1912 at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School alongside Jim Thorpe and under legendary coach Glenn "Pop" Warner. He coached Washington State to an undefeated season and its only Rose Bowl victory on New Year's Day 1916.

But, according to Waggoner, that entire time Dietz was living a lie -- he'd assumed the identity, Waggoner said, of a missing Oglala Sioux Army veteran named James "One Star."

"He started the lie and then embellished it and continued to weave and deceive throughout his life, Waggoner said

Dietz was born in 1884 in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. An accomplished artist, he found a summer job after high school, working on a government Indian school art exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Around that time, Waggoner said, Dietz learned of a James "One Star," who vanished after being dishonorably discharged.

Dietz began passing himself off as William "Lone Star," the son of a half-blood Oglala Sioux woman named Julia "One Star," a phony autobiography that he carried with him to Carlisle and beyond, Waggoner said.

In June 1919, Dietz stood trial in Spokane, Washington, as the government accused him of falsely registering as "a non-citizen Indian of the United States" to avoid being drafted for World War I. The trial of the state's most celebrated football coach quickly became a public spectacle.

The agency that later became the FBI conducted a surprisingly thorough investigation of Dietz's birth to provide evidence for prosecutors. Multiple witnesses in Dietz's hometown, including two women who were present the day of Dietz's birth, told investigators Dietz was not Native American at all, but rather the son of German immigrants. Several Rice Lake residents said it had become a running joke when word trickled back to the area that the boy they remembered as "Willie" Dietz was posing as the descendant of an Oglala Sioux warrior. One of the more telling moments in the courtroom drama came during the testimony of Sallie Eaglehorse, the sister of James "One Star," the man whose identity Waggoner says Dietz stole. Eaglehorse revealed that Dietz had written her several letters, posing as her missing brother.

"I was really knocked over by the letters submitted as evidence that Dietz had written to her starting in 1912," Waggoner said. "They were so phony and full of verifiable lies, not to mention expressed in the kind of 'Indian talk' you'd hear on a bad Western."

The trial turned when the woman who raised Dietz testified that her biological child was stillborn and that, days later, her husband replaced the deceased infant with Dietz, who, she testified, was an Indian child. That testimony that didn't square with witnesses who said they saw a healthy baby the day he was born.

The trial ended in a hung jury. When prosecutors quickly re-filed modified charges, Dietz, who no longer had the money to continue the legal battle, pleaded no contest to falsifying his Native American roots to avoid the draft. He spent a month in the county jail.

But the myth of "Lone Star" Dietz, if it was indeed a myth, has endured to this day.

Tom Benjey, a historian and writer, who lives near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, wrote a biography of Dietz that was published in 2006. Benjey is convinced Dietz believed he was one-quarter Sioux. "You have to go to motives," Benjey said. Citing the intense prejudice Native Americans experienced at the time, Benjey said, it would have been far easier for Dietz to claim he was the son of German immigrants. "Dietz never stopped claiming that he was Native American," Benjey said. "He was convinced. It's likely he never knew for sure who his parents were."

The controversy over Dietz's origins kept his name alive and, according to Benjey, helped Dietz get inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

Despite evidence to the contrary, that's the version of "Lone Star" Dietz Dan Snyder chooses to believe.

"Mr. Dietz and his family said that he was an American Indian and Dan Snyder has no definitive reason to believe otherwise," a spokesman for Snyder said when asked last week about the federal investigation of Dietz and the historical research of Waggoner. Waggoner, whose been doing Native American genealogy since the early 1980s, is at once fascinated that the story of "Lone Star" Dietz has endured and disturbed by the fact that James "One Star" has been replaced by a man she describes as a "phony."

In her series of articles about Dietz, published in 2004 in Indian Country Today, Waggoner wrote: "It's not surprising that the Washington R*dskins are inspired by a misnomer, a fake and a fraud. What is surprising is that James One Star has been forgotten, and we have not seemed to notice." [Note: Waggoner wrote R*dskins in her piece.]

John Barr is an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Enterprise Unit Producer Arty Berko contributed to this report.

John Barr | email

Reporter ESPN Enterprise Unit

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.