Oldest Native American to Ever Live: White Wolf Chief John Smith

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Chief John Smith with white hair and heavily wrinkled skin sitting for a photo with a blanket around him in circa 1915
The oldest Native American to ever live, “White Wolf” Chief John Smith of the Chippewa people photographed in circa 1915. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

White Wolf Chief John Smith was a Native American of the Ojibwe (also known as Ojibwa, Chippewa, or Saulteux) people that lived in the Cass Lake, Minnesota area of the United States during the 1800s and early 1900s. He is best known for his extremely wrinkled appearance, and that people claimed that he is the oldest Native American to ever live. It is often claimed that he was 138 years old at the time of his death on February 6th, 1922.

White Wolf Chief John Smith pictured wearing a top hat and suit. You can clearly see his heavily wrinkled face in this image.
A reportedly 136-year-old Chief John Smith photographed by Agence Rol in 1921. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Chief John Smith was not only known as “White Wolf” but he also had many other nicknames, often related to the way his skin looked, or the fact he was old. He was known as Gaa-binagwiiyaas (translates to “which the flesh peels off”), Kahbe nagwi wens, Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce (which roughly means “wrinkled meat”), Grandpa John, and The Old Indian. John Smith had all of these nicknames because he was a relatively well-known face not only in Minnesota but also across the entire country. He was often used as the face of the Chippewa people in the area, being photographed by photographers that would sell the photos as postcards and similar things like that. Chief John Smith himself would carry around photos to sell to “fans”. As well as this, in 1920, White Wolf Chief John Smith featured in a movie that featured old Native Americans called “Recollections of Ga-be-nah-gewn-wonce”. It toured the country so it made him well-known across all of the United States.

White Wolf Chief John Smith smoking a pipe sitting in a forest while wearing traditional clothing in circa 1910s.
White Wolf John Smith smoking a pipe sitting in a forest while wearing traditional clothing in circa 1910s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It is not entirely known as to what caused the extreme wrinkling of Chief John Smith’s face and skin. Obviously, age will cause a lot of wrinkling but according to a Federal Commissioner of Indian Enrollment, his leathery skin was due to a condition that was just not diagnosed at the time and not age. His skin looks like how it did for much of his life, which is why his Native American name Ga-be-nah-gewn-wonce translated to “wrinkled meat”

Chief John Smith with a cover wrapped around him wearing a head band covered in stars with feather coming from the top.
An elderly Chief John Smith photographed in circa 1920. Credit: RareHistoricalPhotos

Not a huge amount is known about John Smith’s personal life. We do know that he had eight wives but only had one child, who was adopted, named Tom Smith. In 1914, White Wolf converted to Catholicism.

White Wolf Chief John Smith wearing traditional clothing at the age of 137
The “Oldest living being in America”, 137-year-old White Wolf Chief John Smith photographed here in circa 1921. Credit: RareHistoricalPhotos

If his claimed age of 137 is to be believed, that would mean that Chief John Smith could have been born as early as 1784, just after the end of the American Revolutionary War. This would not only make him the oldest Native American in history but also the oldest person to have ever lived. However, White Wolf’s true age at his death is often disputed. As there was no documentation identifying the birth dates of Native Americans, the government used key events to age them. Chief John Smith claimed to be between 7 and 10 at the time of the Leonid meteor shower which took place on the 13th of November 1833; this makes his birth year somewhere in the mid-1820s, so there it is likely that instead of 138, he was closer to the age of 100 at the time of his death caused by pneumonia on February 6, 1922.

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