Was Chief John Smith 137 Years Old?

You’ve probably heard of John Smith before. He was a British colonizer turned Pocahontas’ love interest in the Disney animated movie. Or – in historical context – John Smith helped found Jamestown and Pocahontas saved him from execution. But, did you know there’s another John Smith in American history?

Yep, we’re talking about the OG: Chief John Smith, a Chippewa Indian who lived to be 137 years old! 

You would think living to be 137 is the most interesting thing about Chief John Smith. But you would be mistaken! Let’s look back at five unbelievable facts about Chief John Smith!

1. Chief John Smith Had A Lot of Different Nicknames

The Chief’s nicknames centered around his old age and his wrinkly skin. He was known as “White Wolf.” But, the Chippewa people also called him “Grandpa John” and the “Old Indian.” Other nicknames included “Gaa-binagwiiyaas” and “Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce.” When translated, this means (respectively) “which the flesh peels off” and  “wrinkled meat”. Harsh!

2. Chief John Smith Had 8 Wives and 1 Adopted Son

Mean nicknames and leathery skin didn’t stop John Smith from being a true ladies man. During his 137 long years, he apparently had eight wives. He only ever had one child: An adopted son named Tom Smith. Tom was an instrumental part of John’s life until the end. He continuously vouched for his father’s age when others disbelieved.

3. John Survived Getting Hit By a Train

Tom Smith claimed that his father was very active in the years before his death. Tom described an incident in 1920 where John was hit by a train while crossing the railroad tracks. While this type of accident usually has a fatal ending for the victim, John survived. And it only took him 3 weeks to fully recover from his injuries! Right up until his death, John participated in everyday life. When visitors came to his home, he would tell stories and chat.

4. Smith’s Age Has Been Up For Debate

Chief John’s age has been highly controversial. Many people have gotten into serious debates about if this was factual, and if it’s even possible! The Federal Commissioner of Indian Enrollment argued that “it was disease and not age that made him look the way he did.” They also stated that, according to records, John was only 88 years old. Since Native Americans didn’t have records of birthdays, the government used key, historical events to identify their age. 

John repeatedly claimed that he was 7-10 years old when the “stars fell.” This was assumed to be the Leonid meteor shower on November 13, 1833. This would mean he was born in the mid-1820s. This makes him closer to 100 years old when he died, not 137.

5. Chief John Smith Died of Pneumonia 

In 1922, John Smith got sick with pneumonia. Due to his old age and weaker immune system, he died shortly after becoming sick on February 6, 1922. Smith was buried in a Catholic church cemetery in Cass Lake, Minnesota. He had resided in the woods by Cass Lake, Minnesota throughout his life. Even though his birth year was still unknown – and debated – his gravestone listed it as 1784.

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