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

Color photo of the oldest native american to ever live - 137 year old White Wolf Chief John Smith
Colorized photograph of the oldest Native American to ever live (137-years-old), Chief John Smith a.k.a. White Wolf. Photograph taken sometime in the 1910s. Colorization by JHLColorizing

Chief John Smith, the oldest Native American to ever live, is known by many names but is likely most recognized as ‘White Wolf’. He was reputed to have been born in 1785, 9 years after the Declaration of Independence; this makes him 137 at the time of his death. If the age at death is true, this would make him not only the oldest Native American to ever live but also the oldest person to ever live.

White Wolf spent much of his life in Minnesota, United States and did not visit a large American city until as late as 1918. His first-ever journey was to Minneapolis–Saint Paul (known as the Twin Cities) in Minnesota. He also went on to visit Chicago. Despite visiting these large cities, John Smith’s home was Cass Lake, where he lived, fished, hunted, and eventually died.


John Smith was also known as Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce. This is translated to “wrinkled meat” due to the look and texture of his skin. The look of his skin is most likely due to disease rather than old age; it is documented that he already looked ancient 25 years before he died. However, if it is true that he was 137 at his death, this could be the reason why his skin was so wrinkled. Among the local white population, he was known as “The Old Indian”.

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 Leonid meteor shower which took place on the 13th of November 1833; this makes his birth year somewhere in the mid-1820s, so there is a chance that instead of 137, he was closer to the age of 100 at the time of his death. Despite this, Smith often recalled events from the War of 1812. His true birth year will never truly be known.

Chief John Smith photographed in 1915.
Chief John Smith photographed in c. 1915. This photo has a note stating that he died at the age of 132.

Other Interesting Facts

White Wolf had 8 wives during his life but had no children other than his adopted son, Tom Smith. He died at his son’s house.

He was baptized as a Catholic in 1914 and was buried in a Catholic Cemetary following his death from pneumonia on the 6th of February 1922.

The final years of Smith were most likely his most active: He would walk through trains and sell postcards, he was hit by a switch engine but was not badly injured and he went totally blind just a year before his death.

Smith often recalled times when he was a scout for the Chippewas in the wars with the Sioux.

White Wolf John Smith sitting by Cass Lake Minnesota in 1907.
White Wolf, Chief John Smith, photographed in the forest by Cass Lake, Minnesota on the 11th of November 1907.

This fantastic colorization was created by JHLColorizing.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy our other articles on the United States.

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