Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce Chief John, White Wolf, Smith

In our Dassel History Center archives, we have a picture of Magnus Johnson with an unidentified elderly Native American man. It seemed odd that such a striking man had no name. I did a reverse image search and came up with pages of information on this ancient gentleman.

Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce known to the white population as Chief John White Wolf Smith was a Chippewa Tribe member may have been born in 1784, and who died in 1922 at the age of 138.

Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce had a few differing accounts of his early years.  He states that he was between the ages of 7 and 10 the year “the stars fell from the sky” It has been surmised that this was 1833, widely believed to be only the Leonid Constellation Shower that lit up the sky from the east coast to the west coast.  However, the massive Meteor Storm of 1833 was caused by the orbit of the Temple Tuttle Comet passing near Earth.  This is an occurrence that happens about every 33 years.  This comet puts on quite the show. The normal yearly November Leonid Meteor Shower is caused by the Earth passing through the debris caused by the comet.  The Temple Tuttle Comet Storm would have happened back in 1799 which would be in line with him being born around 1784.  He may have been 15 at the time. 

Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce remembered the battles the Chippewa had with the Sioux prior to the turn of the 19th century.  The Sioux and Chippewa have an oral tradition of territorial battles.

Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce remembered the events of the War of 1812.  He told people that he participated in the war.  That would put him in his late 20s.

He claimed to have met the Schoolcraft and Cass exploration party which passed through the Cass Lake area in 1822.

No matter his birth date, Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce lived a full and eventful life.

Born in Cass Lake, Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce grew up in a time that was still amenable to the life of a native man living in a natural area of the country.  As a young man and older he hunted and fished the woods and lakes of the area. 

He became a celebrity; his photo used by local photographers as a stylized image of Native American life.  These photos were made into postcards and cabinet cards. Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce traveled for free by rail through the Cass Lake area selling these cards to travelers.

Two years before his death he appeared in a film called “Recollections of Ga-be-nah-Gewn-Wonce,” which toured the country.  He made many trips by rail and foot to Duluth. Everywhere he traveled he was welcomed as an elder and a storyteller. Four years prior to his death he visited a “Big City”, the twin cities for the first time.  Later that year he visited the Chicago Automobile show.

After he returned home to Cass Lake, he spent time greeting visitors to town as well as selling more cards. Six months prior to his death he moved in with his adopted son Tom Smith. He still engaged visitors but did not often leave the home.

Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce was married eight times, although he had no natural children. He did adopt Tom Smith.

He was active up to a week prior to his death from Pneumonia at his son’s home.

Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce is buried at the Cass Lake Cemetery.

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