Chippewa Indian named Ga-Be-Nah-Gown-Wonce, which translates to “Wrinkled Meat,” never wanted to be a chief, but for sure, he knew a lot more than most people of his time did.

He thought his age would make it too difficult for him to be in charge and responsible for anything. He only wished to become an advisor, an appropriate title considering his centenarian status.

White people called him John Smith, or in most cases, Grandpa John, because he was more than 100 years old.

By the time the first post office was set up in Bena, Minnesota, in 1898, John Smith was in his late 70s, if not a few decades older.

Throughout much of his adult life, John Smith liked to hike to Federal Dam and back to Bena.

He traveled across the Deer River or Ball Club from Cass Lake. He seemed to have always been moving to the places where Indians live today.

He would briefly visit a location and then resume his trips. If anybody asked where he would go, he would casually say, “around the country.”

Wikimedia Commons

10 /10 A 137-Year-Old Man

On February 8, 1922, Ga-Be-Nah-Gown-Wonce died a week after the battle against pneumonia. The Chippewa Indian was primarily assumed to be 137 years old.

Many names throughout his life knew him; among the most catchy ones were Sloughing Flesh and Wrinkled Meat.

A year before his death, Smith became blind, but his wits remained as straightforward as they had always been.

Smith liked to recall the days when he served as a scout for the Chippewa during the war with the Sioux. At times he spoke about the events of the War of 1812.


9 /10 No More John Smith

In his younger days, there were many Indians called John Smith. As time went by, he outlived every single one of them.

There was no more John Smith the day he died. He was old and very much respected. People liked to say they knew him well, and many would like to take that name, but nobody could unless he gave it to them.

The only way someone could be entitled to the title was to earn his respect. It was also a matter of how much the person respected him.

Public Domain

8 /10 To Duluth By Train

John Smith had never made a trip to a big city until about four years before his death. A visit to the Twin Cities was his first.

Sometime later, Smith also went to an Automobile show in Chicago. When the train came along, he took trips to Duluth now and then.

He would stay in the city for a while before returning to the Lake of the Woods in northwestern Minnesota, where he spent time fishing for sturgeons like he had done many decades before.


7 /10 Division Point

The Great Northern Railroad Company used to have a line by Cass Lake and built a turntable known as the Division Point, where John Smith lived.

It was called “Division Point” because the train turned around at that spot. It was the end of the line (in that area) for the railroad company.

Had the company decided to build further, the train would probably have picked up more passengers. However, it picked up enough load on the route back anyway.


6 /10 A Passport

Everybody knew John Smith in the Division Point. Despite the ongoing conflict between white people and the Native Americans, the former respected the older man.

Smith had the opportunity to ride on some of the first passenger trains and steamboats, which qualified him for a passport.

Another good thing was that he never had to pay to get on the vehicles. It did not cost Smith anything to go wherever he wanted, a small privilege that seemed massive back then.

Public Domain

5 /10 Wonderful Stories

It was as if the train was his. The railroad company was good to let him ride along free of charge.

He knew the engineer, the conductors, and the brakeman. Everybody liked to talk to him and ask him many questions about anything.

Passengers also liked that he was with them, for they shared many wonderful stories. The company also earned good profits each time Smith was on the train because everybody wanted to go and pay for the ride.


4 /10 VIP Guest

When the older man stayed in Duluth, he was given the privilege to come and sleep in the best hotels in town.

He didn’t always go to the same hotel, but everywhere he went, there was always a luxurious room with a massive bed. There was no need to make a prior reservation.

Again, no hotel charged him for all the services. Even with the promise of a comfortable rest on a well-made bed, Smith always slept on the floor.


3 /10 An Adopted Son

John Smith married eight women, but not at the same time. He used to say that after losing his first wife, he could never find one he liked.

It probably was an irreplaceable true love. He had no biological children, but there was an adopted son named Tom Smith.

For the last six months of his life, John Smith stayed in his son’s home, where he died. Before that, the older man made it a habit to greet every train entering the village and offered postal cards.


2 /10 Hospitalization

During those six last months, John Smith never went out again. He was once hospitalized for injuries after a switch engine had knocked him down. He was crossing the tracks when it happened.

The incident occurred in 1915, so he was 130-year-old at the time. The older man was confined to a hospital for only three weeks.

There was no apparent effect from the injury whatsoever. Whether or not the damage affected his health dramatically remains unclear.


1 /10 Red Cedar Lake

In 1920, he participated in a national exhibition called the “Recollection of Ga-be-nah-gewn-wonce,” showcasing pictures of Native Americans.

John Smith even claimed to have encountered the expedition with Cass and Schoolcraft in the area in 1820. He also recalled changing the name Red Cedar Lake into Cass Lake in honor of one of the expedition’s leaders.

John Smith converted to Catholicism several years before his death and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery; Cass Lake and Pagan rites were omitted at the funeral.

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