by Ed Godfrey Published: March 15, 2009
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TAHLEQUAH - At age 92, Joe Thornton doesn’t chase rabbits with a stick and string anymore.

But Time magazine once called this Oklahoma man "a modern William Tell.” Forty-eight years ago, Thornton was the best archer in the world.

He won the world archery championships in Oslo, Norway, in 1961, breaking three world records. He dominated other world-class archers that year, winning the tournament with ease.

"I could have thrown away my last dozen arrows and still won the world championship,” Thornton said.

Thornton came by his gift naturally because he is a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, Time magazine reported in 1961.

Actually, he is 11/16{+t}{+h} Cherokee. And although gifted with a bow, Thornton worked hard to become a world champion.

"I would try to practice about three hours a day,” he said. "I studied other archers, what they did and how they did it, and of course, I read everything I could about it.”

Humble beginnings
Thornton was born in 1916 in Adair County where he finished the eighth grade before attending the Seneca Indian School in Wyandotte.

A year later, he went to the Chilocco Indian School near Newkirk where he finished high school.

It was at Chilocco where Thornton first picked up a bow. He and his classmates made crude homemade bows and arrows for hunting.

"We would kill rabbits, roast ‘em and eat ‘em,” Thornton said.

Killing a rabbit with a bow and arrow wasn’t hard, he said, "if you are sneaky.”

Military service
Thornton joined the U.S. Army in 1934 where he spent three years at Fort Sill where he was field radio operator.

After leaving the Army, he moved to Stilwell then Tahlequah bebore rejoining the military in 1943 to serve during World War II in the Signal Corps.

As part of the War Department Radio Station in Alexandria, Va., Thornton worked on transmitters to ensure the Pentagon could send messages to U.S. Army units throughout the world.

He received a Presidential Unit Citation Award for his service.

Rediscovering archery
Thornton returned to Tahlequah when the war ended and opened a radio and TV repair business. Ten years later, he was reintroduced to archery by an employee.

"In the shop I would hire college boys to help out with the work, put up antennas and little things like that,” he said.

"One of the boys had messed a little with modern archery and told me about archery clubs and tournaments around the state.

by Ed Godfrey
Reporter Sr.
Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more...
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Born: Aug. 2, 1916 in Stilwell

Thornton’s awards

→1961: Gold medalist in World Archery Championship in Oslo, Norway (broke three world records)

→1962: Won British International Trials Archery Championship

→1963: Silver medalist in World Archery Championship in Helsinki, Finland

→1965: Silver medalist in World Archery Championship in Vasteras, Sweden

→1970: Won National Archery Championship in Oxford, Ohio

→1978: Inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame

→2004: Inducted into the Oklahoma State Archery Association Hall of Fame along with his wife, Helen

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