Wednesday, Feb. 8, 1922: 137-year-old Indian dies

Posted on August 31st, 2005 – 11:11 PM
By Ben Welter

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. He had eight wives, but no children. He fought, he fished, he counseled, he rode horses and trains, he appeared in moving pictures, he sold postcards. In a 1971 interview, an Ojibwe named Paul Buffalo shared his memories of the man he knew as “Grandpa John.” Here’s the Tribune obituary, which appeared on page one with a two-column photo of Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce:

137-Year-Old Chippewa Indian
Dies in North Minnesota Home

Oldest Man in Country Was
Active Until Week
Before Death.

Cass Lake, Minn., Feb. 6 – Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce, also known as John Smith, a Chippewa Indian reputed to be 137 years old, died here today after a week’s illness with pneumonia.

Photo courtesy

Smith, whose Indian name means “Wrinkled meat,” had been very active in late years. A year ago he became totally blind, but his mind remained clear to the last, and he often recalled the days when he was a scout for the Chippewas in the wars with the Sioux. He also remembered events of the war of 1812. One of his boasts was that he had never fought against the white man.

Up to four years ago 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 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.

He claimed to have met the Schoolcraft and Cass exploration party which passed through here about 100 years ago, and recalled the changing of the name of the lake, then known as Red Cedar Lake, to Cass Lake, in honor of one of the leaders of the expeditions.

Two years ago he took the central part in moving pictures taken of Indians, called the “Recollections of Ga-be-nah-gewn-wonce,” which have been exhibited all over the Untied States.

Soon after the prohibition was put into effect, some bootleggers sold “Old Indian” what they claimed to be a quart of whisky, but which proved to be water. “Old Indian” did not say anything, but three years later the same bootleggers purchased a hind quarter of “venison” from him. This turned out to be a portion of an old horse which had just died.

To illustrate his vitality, it is related that seven years ago, when 130 years of age, “Old Indian” was knocked down by a switch engine, while crossing the railroad tracks. His injuries confined him to a hospital for only three weeks after which he suffered no ill effects.

Pagan rites will be omitted at the funeral of John Smith. He will be buried from the Catholic church here, which he joined about eight years ago.

Masked Bandits
Rob Ye Taverne
Guests of $4,000

Looting Party Lines 75
Guests Against Wall
When Raid Begins

Ten automobile bandits, all masked and each carrying two guns, held up Ye Taverne, road house on Superior boulevard, early today lined up 75 guests against the wall and robbed them of at least $4,000 in jewelry and cash.

The raid was staged at 12:30 a.m., while the dancing floor was crowded. The bandits drove up to the front entrance and marched into the place, led by a man believed to have an artificial leg.

“Throw up your hands! Line up against the wall!” he commanded, and as the panic-stricken crowd obeyed he ordered four of the bandits to watch the door.

As the bandits advanced into the room George Gilbert, head waiter, started to resist them. He was beaten on the head and fell. The leader of the gang stooped over and took $75 from his pockets.

John Kopald, 2627 Nicolett avenue, and Louis Sherman, 615 East Seventeenth street, proprietors, rushed to the aid of Gilbert, but were halted and searched. Kopald was robbed of $200 in cash and a diamond ring valued at $1,000. Sherman lost $60 in cash and a diamond worth $1,000.

Mrs. Kopald, who tried to conceal cash in the register, was forced away from the cage. The register then was robbed of $400. The bandits then turned to the dancers.

One woman concealed a $1,500 diamond ring in her mouth and pretended to faint. The bandits did not molest her.

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