At the ripe age of 137, White Wolf a.k.a. Chief John Smith is considered the oldest Native American to have ever lived, 1785-1922. When asked the secret to good health, Chief Smith responded “I never fly United Airlines.”
The Minneapolis Morning Tribune obituary says Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce (variously known as Kay-bah-nung-we-way, Sloughing Flesh, Wrinkled Meat or plain old — well, really old — John Smith) was reputed to be 137 years old when he died. Whatever his precise age, his well-lined face indicates a man who led a long and full life.
According to Wikipeida, the exact age of John Smith at the time of his death has been a subject of controversy. Federal Commissioner of Indian Enrollment Ransom J. Powell argued that “it was disease and not age that made him look the way he did” and remarked that according to records he was only 88 years old.
Paul Buffalo who, when a small boy, had met John Smith, said he had repeatedly heard the old man state that he was “seven or eight”, “eight or nine” and “ten years old” when the “stars fell”.
The stars falling refers to the Leonid meteor shower of November 13, 1833, about which local historian Carl Zapffe writes: “Birthdates of Indians of the 19th Century had generally been determined by the Government in relation to the awe-inspiring shower of meteorites that burned through the American skies just before dawn on 13 November 1833, scaring the daylights out of civilized and uncivilized peoples alike. Obviously it was the end of the world…”. This puts the age of John Smith at just under 100 years old at the time of his death.
Up to four years ago of his last days he had never visited a big city. His first trip of this kind was to the Twin Cities. Later he visited the Automobile show at Chicago.
A year and a half ago before dying he returned to the north woods of Minnesota to spend his time fishing for sturgeon in Lake of the Woods, in the same waters that he fished more than a century ago.
Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce had been married eight times. He had no children and the only survivor is Tom Smith, an adopted son at whose home he died.
The “old Indian,” as he was generally known among the white people, was active until six months ago, since which time he had not been seen outside his adopted son’s house. Before that time he had made it a practice to meet all trains entering the village and offer postal cards for sale.