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The origin of the name ‘Redskins’

by Chase Stuart on February 28, 2013

in History

The uniform worn by the Boston Redskins in 1935

The debate concerning whether the Washington Redskins should change its name has resurfaced in recent weeks. I have my opinion as to whether a name change is appropriate, but nobody cares to read that. Instead, I’d like to recount the history behind the name.

The nickname ‘Redskins’ predates the team playing football in Washington. The organization began playing football in 1932 — in Boston — under the nickname Braves. That was changed in 1933 to Redskins, and the franchise moved to Washington in 1937.

So where did the name Braves come from? The NFL was a fledgling league in the ’20s and ’30s, and teams in that era often chose names synonymous with the local baseball team. George Halas saw the success of the Cubs and named his team the Bears. When the Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit in 1934, the name “Lions” made sense for a city that already loved the Tigers. Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants began playing in New York in the 19th century, so it didn’t take the football team long to come up with a nickname in 1925. Like the Giants, the Boston football team simply copied one of the baseball team’s names — and they didn’t pick ‘Red Sox’. In 1932, the Atlanta Braves were still playing in Boston at Braves Field, and since that’s where the football team was scheduled to play, I imagine the team spent all of several seconds coming up with a name.

So how did the baseball Braves get its nickname? According to Wikipedia, the team’s owner, “James Gaffney, was a member of New York City’s political machine, Tammany Hall, which used an Indian chief as their symbol.”

So the Washington Redskins played at Braves Field as the Boston Braves in 1932, in essentially a “do what it takes to stay profitable” move. But on July 5th, 1933, Washington President and Owner George Preston Marshall announced that the team was undergoing a name change. Here is what the Boston Globe published on July 6th, 1933:

FOOTBALL BRAVES BECOME REDSKINS

It will be the Boston Redskins, and not the Boston Braves when the National Football League season gets under way next Fall. When Pres George Marshall entered an eleven from Boston in the professional football league last year the team was naturally christened the Boston Braves, but yesterday, just before starting for Chicago to attend the League’s annual meeting, he announced the change in name.

This new name is rather appropriate in more than one sense. The head and since the close of the 1932 season Pres Marshall and Coach Dietz have signed up a number of Indian players.1 Not only that, but the Boston National League ball park has long been called the Wigwam.

Some baseball player wearing a Boston Braves jersey in 1935.

Some baseball player wearing a Boston Braves jersey in 1935.

Regardless of the specific reason for the selection of the name, the move was likely uncontroversial. In 1921, the Cleveland football team was coached by Jim Thorpe and known as the Indians before folding. The next Cleveland expansion team two years later also called themselves the Indians but then merged with and into the Canton Bulldogs after one year. The Akron Pros renamed their team the Indians in 1926, which was also that franchise’s final season. In 1931, another Cleveland Indians team was born, but it lasted just one year, a common occurrence in Depression-era America. Of course, all four Ohio teams were surely trying to piggyback off of the success of Cleveland’s baseball team.

And Jim Thorpe coached and starred in a team composed entirely of Native Americans called the Oorang (Ohio) Indians in 1922 and 1923. So it seems unlikely that anyone batted an eye at the name “Redskins” being chosen by Marshall.2 And as the Globe’s article points out, the home stadium for the team was known as the Wigwam (and for a brief period when the baseball Braves were known as the Bees, the “Beehive.”) But that didn’t last long, either, because fifteen days after the name change, the Redskins announced that they were moving to Fenway Park. Here is what the Boston Globe printed on July 21, 1933:

REDSKINS’ FOOTBALL TEAM TO SHIFT TO FENWAY PARK

Fenway Park will be the scene of the home games this Fall of the Boston Redskins, formerly known as the Braves, the local club of the National League of Professional Football, George Marshall, president of the Redskins, announced last night.

In his communication Mr. Marshall emphasized that the change was made solely because of the more intimate advantages of playing in the Red Sox park, where the gridiron may be plotted closer to the grandstand and pavilion seats, and the 5000 temporary field seats are almost flush with the sidelines.

Disassociating the team with the Braves didn’t seem like a good reason to remove the Native American association. Perhaps ‘Redskins’ was chosen instead of ‘Indians’ to make fans think of their new co-tenants, the Red Sox, or perhaps Coach Dietz had some influence on Marshall. I’ll note that in 1980, another account of the situation by the Boston Globe indicates that while the events may have been publicly been announced in that order, the cause and effect may have been reversed:

When the “baseball Braves” hiked the rent for 1933, George Preston Marshall moved his club to Fenway Park and was faced with a dilemma. He didn’t want to give his former landlord the satisfaction of retaining their nickname, but his team’s uniforms were imprinted with Indian insignia.

Marshall solved the problem with a practicality and shrewdness that would become his trademark. He dubbed his team the “Redskins,” a name he kept when he moved his roadshow from Boston to Washington four years later.

The Native American Chief pictured on Babe Ruth’s Braves jersey sure looks similar to what the Redskins wore that year, so the explanation that Marshall already had his uniform in place (and modeled after the Braves) and thus needed a nickname to fit it makes sense. Whatever the reason behind the name change, it certainly didn’t work: the team struggled to gain acceptance in Boston. Attendance sank within a few years, and in 1936, the team regularly played in front of fewer than 5,000 home fans. After looking at Chicago and Los Angeles, Marshall eventually settled on bringing his Redskins to Washington and Griffith Stadium, home of baseball’s Senators. The franchise was an immediate hit both on and off the field, thanks in part to the drafting of Sammy Baugh in 1937. Had that not been the case, the organization would have likely folded… or perhaps Robert Griffin III would today be a Senator.

  1. As hard as it might be to believe, that sentence was not the result of a typo on my behalf. I’ll also note that the authenticity of Lone Star Deitz’ Native American heritage has been a point of contention. []
  2. In Boston’s inaugural season, the team rostered Corrie Artman, who played for the Stanford Indians in college. Yes, before Stanford was nicknamed the Cardinal, they were known as the Indians. []

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Allen February 28, 2013 at 12:58 am

“I have my opinion as to whether a name change is appropriate, but nobody cares to read that.”
False.

But thanks for sharing this instead.

Reply

Ben Stuplisberger February 28, 2013 at 10:13 am

Change it. That’s my opinion. I’m sure nobody cares to read it. ;)

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Chase Stuart February 28, 2013 at 6:49 pm

I can’t believe Richie hasn’t chimed in yet noting that he finds it interesting that the newspaper called founding a football team “entering an eleven” back in the 1930s.

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Richie March 1, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Should I take that as an insult?

Old writing styles are fun to read. But I still can’t figure out what this sentence means: “The head and since the close of the 1932 season Pres Marshall and Coach Dietz have signed up a number of Indian players.”

I also enjoy that they refer to him as “Pres”?

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Chase Stuart March 1, 2013 at 6:20 pm

No, just a hope that someone else was thinking the way I did.

I still can’t figure out that sentence, either. And yes, Pres was kind of odd. The comma placement seemed pretty random, too.

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JWL March 2, 2013 at 7:29 pm

I do not see a comma there.

As for old language, I like how short TD runs were often referred to as “plunges” in old game stories and line scores.

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Rob2 October 18, 2013 at 11:32 pm

George Marshall was the head of the team, and since the close of the ’32 season, also the president.

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mike carlson June 2, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I had always heard that the Boston Braves baseball team attributed the nickname to the disguises
worn at the Boston Tea Party. Havent even bothered to check it, but Tammany Hall was named for
an Indian named Tamenend and it seems such a NY thing the Tea Party makes sense…Sarah Palin was
not around then BTW

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Bahe Rock October 6, 2013 at 9:18 pm

I think the reason there were alot of teams with the name reference to indians back in the day was because Boston was the place where a very real radical transformation took place back in the 1880′s in regards to american indian rights. At that time (1880′s), supporters of a Ponca indian named Standing Bear did raise awareness of the mistreatment of indians by the war dept. and interior dept. of the u.s. govt. Standing Bear had to prove he was a human being in order to be allowed to go back to his original homeland on the niobrara river in Nebraska. He and his supporters fought like hell to prove he was a human being as opposed to what the govt. said he was, nothing more than a beast of the field. Non indians took courage and bestowed SB and indians in general with compassionate support to stand against the u.s. gov and the so-called “indian ring” (a group of wealthy politicans and businesses) that were intent on taking as much indian land as possible through making up new laws after the fact of taking indian lands. Teams were named for indians back in the day due to the fact they stood against great odds to fight for their rights in non indian courts with little knowledge of the non indian legal system but with great heart and the truth.

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Brian October 16, 2013 at 10:51 am

“Teams were named for indians back in the day due to the fact they stood against great odds to fight for their rights in non indian courts with little knowledge of the non indian legal system but with great heart and the truth.”

The suggestion that early 20th century white America had this much social and cultural empathy for its indigenous peoples is overwhelmingly refuted by the historical record.

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Bo Darville November 27, 2013 at 12:02 am

It was my understanding that the Redskin name was a hybrid of Red Sox and Braves.

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mikw December 19, 2013 at 11:26 am

Heard named redskins because of the Boston tea party sons of liberty dressed as mohawks that night the tea went into the sea

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Tom Benjey December 30, 2013 at 10:02 am

I have an idea as to what the awkward sentence: “The head and since the close of the 1932 season Pres Marshall and Coach Dietz have signed up a number of Indian players.” means. In 1932, George Preston Marshall was partnered with three other investors but he was the one who headed the team. After the season was over, they parted ways leaving Marshall as sole owner. Naming himself President of the club was then a trivial task.

BTW, I just found an October 1933 Boston Herald article that states that Marshall had purchased new uniforms for the team.

Tom Benjey, author of “Keep A-goin’: the life of Lone Star Dietz”

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James January 31, 2014 at 7:33 pm

Regardless of the origin as a team name, the origin as a noun is the reddish color of blood-stained skin stripped from killed Indians and used for various decorations, purses, bags, etc.

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KEN February 1, 2014 at 3:04 am

The name maybe offensive to some but EVERYTHING these days offend someone or other.

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