White Wolf – The Oldest Native American?
There are many fascinating stories of Native Americans, and these foster our interest in their majestic culture and our love of Native American blankets, handicrafts, and jewelry.
One famous Native American is the man who is purported to have lived a staggering 137 years: Chief John Smith.
Who Was Chief John Smith?
White Wolf, aka Chief John Smith, was a Chippewa Indian who lived in the northern Minnesota woodlands. He resided for most of his life by Cass Lake and Lake of the Woods. He was known to his tribe as “Gah-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce”, which translates as “Wrinkled Meat”. To the local white population, he was simply “The Old Indian”.
According to the Chippewa people, his son, eyewitness accounts, and he himself, John Smith was a remarkable 137 years old when he died in 1922.
John Smith’s Life
Smith’s date of birth is controversial. It has been conservatively estimated as being around 1820, however, has been claimed to be as far back as around 1784.
John Smith had eight wives, yet only one son (Tom Smith), who was adopted. He is known to have been elected chief of the Chippewa but declined as he was not willing to take on that responsibility. Little else is known about his life.
When the Great Northern Railway was constructed through the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in 1898, Smith was already renowned for his extreme age. He was used by local photographers for postcards to depict a stylized version on Ojibwe life, and he would carry and sell these himself. He travelled free on trains that ran through the Reservation.
Known for his wrinkled, ancient appearance, he was famous in his local area, and in 1920 he was the focus of a travelling motion picture exhibition which featured old Native Americans. The exhibit toured the US.
John Smith was hit by a train in 1920 while crossing tracks, yet he recovered in only a few weeks. He was active right up until 1922, receiving visitors in his son’s home and reciting stories for them. He died in 1922 after contracting pneumonia.
But was he really 137 years old?
His Longevity - What Does the Evidence Say?
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Native Americans’ birthdates were determined by the government and were calculated relative to the Leonid Meteor Shower which occurred in November 1833. This event terrified both Native and non-Native people.
Based on the account of Paul Buffalo, who lived with the Chippewa people as a child and met Smith when he was a small boy, Smith told him he was around ten years old “when the stars fell”. This would place Smith’s birthdate at around 1822 – hence making him one hundred years old when he died.
Ransom J. Powell, the Federal Commissioner of Indian Enrollment, insisted that Smith’s appearance was a result of disease rather than age and that he was, at most, 88 years old when he died.
The evidence, however, is not so simple.
It is highly possible that there was an earlier meteor shower in the 1780s or 1790s. The Leonid Meteor Shower alone is known to occur every thirty-three years or so – and it as not until 1792 that the cause of “stars falling” began to be understood.
Smith himself claimed to clearly remember battles between the Chippewa and the Sioux which occurred before 1800. He also claimed to remember – and have participated in – the War of 1812.
Smith’s adopted son Tom maintained that he was indeed 137 at his death.
John Smith is buried in Cass Lake’s Catholic Cemetery; his tombstone states his birth year as 1784.
Regardless of his actual age, it can’t be denied that John Smith lived to remarkably old age, especially considering the era in which he lived.