In 1922, a man named Chief John Smith died. He was a Chippewa Native American who lived in the forests of northern Minnesota. He had spent most of his life near the Lake of the Woods and Cass Lake. He was referred to by the Chippewa people as Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce, which means “wrinkled meat.” His nickname probably came from the excessively wrinkled and leathery look of his face which was famous for many miles around his residence.
According to the Chippewa people, accounts by eyewitnesses and the chief himself, he was 137 years of age when he died in 1922. This puts his year of birth as 1785. His age is much disputed. But no one has managed to find out when he was actually born.
Age and claims
According to Paul Buffalo, who lived with the Chippewa people as a child and called John Smith ‘Grandpa’, Smith repeatedly claimed that he was between eight and ten years of age when ‘the stars had fallen’. This was most probably a reference to the Leonid meteor shower of 1833. Natural disasters and phenomena were used as a mark of reference by many Native American tribes as these occurrences were memorable and could be traced back in time.
But if Smith was actually eight or ten years of age during the phenomenon of the meteor shower, his birth year would be 1823 or 1825 and his age at the time of his death would be just under 100, which was far less than 137.
The newspaper which had reported Smith’s demise, the Star Tribune of Minnesota had tried to corroborate his age. It had drawn attention to the fact that Smith had remembered the precise battles which the Chippewa had fought with their neighboring tribe, the Sioux, which had taken place before the start of the 19th century with clarity.
The Star Tribune also stated that Smith had recollected the War of 1812 saying that while he had often boasted that he fought in the war, he had never engaged in war against the white man. If he were old enough to fight in the war at around 18 or 19 years old, his year of birth would have been 1794, which would be nearer to the year which he had claimed.
Though his age and death are still debated, very little is actually known of his life. From Paul Buffalo’s written accounts, historians know that Smith was elected as the chief of the Chippewa people but he had turned down the offer as he didn’t want to undertake the responsibility. He had married eight times but had no naturally born children of his own.
He had an adopted son named Tom Smith who had maintained that his father was 137 when he had died. He also said that Smith had been very dynamic in the years before he died. Tom Smith claimed that Smith had once been hit by a train while crossing rail tracks in 1920 and had recovered in three weeks. Smith was active even in the year in which he died. He had received visitors and told stories while he lived at his son’s home. In February 1922, he contracted pneumonia, which resulted in his death due to his very advanced age. Smith was buried in a Catholic Church graveyard in Cass Lake, Minnesota. His tombstone gives his year of birth as 1784.