World’s oldest man — Kentuckian John Shell

Posted by | July 6, 2011

He never wore shoes much and chewed tobacco inveterately. He grew 3 sets of teeth during his long life, he claimed. And when he died on July 5, 1922, his oldest child was 99 years old and his youngest only seven. Other men in the mountains lived to advanced ages, but none ever came close to John Shell.

John Shell’s father Samuel, a gunsmith of Dutch descent, and his wife Mary Ann Fry Shell, moved according to one account from Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley to settle in East Tennessee, where John was born in 1788 near the Roaring River. Other accounts state that both parents were born in the Carolinas. All their known children were born in Tennessee. John’s mother lived to great age; she is believed to have been 102 years old when she died in 1877.

The Shell family moved on to Kentucky, settling first on Poor Fork and later moving over the mountain to Laurel Creek/Greasy Creek in the part of Harlan that became Leslie County in 1878.

The town was originally called Licking Creek by early hunters because of deer licks there, when it was still part of Virginia. The name was later changed to Laurel Creek, justified by the laurel thickets that abound there. Then one day, John Shell shot and wounded a bear on the mountain at the mouth of Shell’s Fork on the Laurel. The bear ran off the mountain and fell into the “Blue-hole”.

The water was so deep that John could not get his bear out. The bear, in time, began to decompose. Its accumulated fat created a greasy scum that rose to the surface of the water for some time. People downstream then renamed the tributary to suit its aspects. It is called Greasy Creek to this day. Yes, John Shell had quite the reputation as a storyteller.

Harlan became a county when Shell was 12 years old, he stated, and that he had stood on a tree stump and shouted the news to the people. This took place in 1819, which would place his age at the time of his death at 115, not 134 years old. In his early years he helped defend the settlement of Harlan against a flaming-arrow Indian attack.

John recalled the earthquake which rumbled through Kentucky in 1811, saying that it came in December, early in the morning and lasted for two days, shaking the dishes from the table and pictures from the walls. He could call to mind when the stars fell at night long in bunches and one after the other in 1837 or 1838. And John remembered seeing Daniel Boone had killed many bear, deer and wild turkeys.

John Shell“Uncle John” Shell, 131 years old, at the Bluegrass Fair, Lexington, in 1919. First time he had seen anything but the backwoods of Leslie County. He died two years later at an actual age of 113.

Only about three or four families lived in the mouth of the Clover Fork in that era, but one of them produced Elizabeth Nance (or Nantz), whom John married in 1844. Their union in turn brought forth Mary Ann, William, Nicholas, Sarah, John, Martha, Elizabeth and Alijah. They are thought to have had twelve children total.

There was the matter of getting a living. Shell was a gunsmith, a miller, a wainwright, and a blacksmith. He made knives, axes, hammers, spinning wheels, looms, and whiskey.

When the Civil War broke out, Shell rode all the way to Virginia to fight for the Confederacy. “When John Shell arrived in Virginia and finally got to see Robert E. Lee to enlist to fight for the Confederacy,” relates Shell descendent Naomi A. Middleton Taylor in a family history, “Robert E. Lee said to him, ‘Sir, I admire you for riding this far. But sir, I cannot take you because of your age.’ John Shell was disappointed. You see, he was 74 years old.”

After the death of his first wife and after he was well over one hundred years old, John married Elizabeth Chappel and had one son by her, Albert James Shell. She died when the child was three years old.

John and Albert went to the Kentucky State Fair in 1919 as guests of the governor and John was displayed as the oldest man in the world. Many folks at the fair doubted his claim of age. He became ‘biling mad,’ stormed home and found a tax receipt which showed he had paid taxes in 1809.

He argued that he must have been at least 21 years old at the time to have done that. Harlan County tax lists, however, show that he first appears in 1844 which would place his birth date at 1822, not 1788.

At the time of his last appearance in the lowlands, ‘Uncle John’ weighed 130 pounds and was 5 feet 5 inches tall. It is said that he was breaking a horse to ride on his last day and that he fell off and hurt his back. He died that night.

Many Shell descendants live in the Harlan area to this day.

Sources: Oldest Man in World is Buried in Kentucky, “New York Times”, July 11, 1922

Author details life of 134-year-old ancestor, Richmond woman writes book about her long-lived family member, “Everyday People” column, ‘The Palladium-Item’ by Rachel E. Sheeley,

Harlan+KY appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history John+Shell

32 Responses

  • joe green says:

    thats my great great great grand father and im proud to be related to him

  • Christian SantaMaria says:

    John Shell is my great great great great grandfather and i think he would have been a great person to meet. He does reflect so many other people in my family line that descend from him. I am descended from his child, John.

  • nellie says:

    Those three sets of teeth, if true could be related to a good regeneration gene. A long life combined with good telling story skills make him an interesting man.

  • Anne says:

    I’m from Harlan, and I’m descended from a John Shell (originally Schell/Schild) from PA, but I don’t think it’s this guy!?

  • Kim Shell-Thomas says:

    I am from Hoskinston, KY orginally and Albert Shell (Son of John Shell) was my grandfather. Making John Shell my great grandfather. I heard many stories of him while growing up from Pi Pi as we called (Albert). Seems like at a very young age I saw the cabin where John Shell lived in greasy creek, KY.

  • Nathaniel Shell says:

    My Name is nathaniel Shell i have a family tree that is almost completed and am wanting to add any family that is related to old man john shell. father samuel shell please call me at 615 200 5601 or email me at…ps kim shell please contact me reguarding albert shell thanks

  • John was my great great grandfather. His daughter Sarah was my great grandmother. Thank you for posting this article. I never knew!

  • Kristy Huff Markeson says:

    John was my great great grandfather. His youngest son Albert was my great grandfather and Albert’s son Noah my grandfather. Noah grew up and worked the coal mines in Harlan and had 14 children, one was my mother Jackie Shell.

  • Amber Shell Ford says:

    To Kristy Huff Markeson: I am Albert’s grand daughter, and would love to get in touch with you. My email is, or you can contact me via Facebook, search for email address Thank you!

  • Nathaniel Gullis Shell says:

    I am wanting to let you all know that the shell family history is done for my bloodline for a copy please email me at Thanks Alot

  • Jason Downey says:

    my great uncle children owns the home that John Shell lived in . I ave been in the house,i have pics of me when i was 12 or 13 around the house. I plane on moving there this year

  • Jason Downey says:

    i have no relationship that i know of.

  • Jason Downey says:

    i seen the home last year and is still standing

  • Kendra says:

    I’m his great great granddaughter. His tall tale traits definitely run in my family. It at least gives me hope I will live to be in my 100’s.

  • april richardson says:

    I too am a descent of John Shell down the line. In our family books we have pictures of John and his sons. We (Shells) descents of Landon Christopher Shell and Alice Irene Hefner Shell are having our anual family reunion on June 23, 2012 from 11:00 a.m. until, with lunch being served at 12:30. It will be held at Faith Freewill Baptist Church 1308 Jamestown Road Morganton N.C. 28655. Take exit 100 (Jamestown Rd.) off I-40 and follow signs to church fellowship hall. We ask that you bring a well filled picnic basket, photos, and any other memorabilia you can share with us;as keeping our family ansestory “alive” for our children is very important. You may contact Anne Jones (828)764-3724 or Clifford Rose (828)733-4441 if you have any questions. We pray all relatives do attend and are doing well. We look forward to seeing you and meeting new relitives. God Bless You All.

  • Laura Peterson says:

    Hi we are just on our way home from our annual trip to my relatives who own John Shells old house when we stumbled on this article…my great aunt Sara who lives across the road from the old house loves to share and get information about the family history and is currently in the process of replacing John Shell’s headstone that was stolen. Just talked to her … until she gets her email up you can email me any info or questiions and i will pass along to her …

  • Nathaniel Shell says:

    I am asking that all family please send me a copy of your blood line. also you may get a copy of mine at anytime for your records. my email is…also check us out on facebook look for ole man john shell and click add as friend and i will be able to approve you. i am trying to get all family to connect and learn about each other. i have so much information on john shell. so it may take me a little bit to go though this and i will let you know if you have any questions. thanks so much and i will see u on faceboook

  • Cris Shell says:

    I am very excited to see this information!! Before my grandpa died (Charlie Shell) from Hazard Ky, he use to tell me stories about John. I tell people about our family history but am often told that is just not possible so to see this is a God Send. Thank you all who have posted information. Thank you, Cris Shell

  • He was my grandmother Allie Shell Halcomb’s Grandfather she told me stories about him My mother Minnie H. Lewis also told little things he use to do. I am very proud to be in his family . I ordered a book that a lady from London , KY wrote its a reall good book has a lot of information on him. I wish i could have known him.

  • Jamie pointer says:

    My mother Martha Rose Sailor says her half sisters are kin to him some way. Her sisters are Cubia, Jessie, Polly, Dallie, Giles, Elemer, and Billy. My mother and her sisters had the same dad. His name was Robert Sailor. Her step mother was Mallie Shell, who I think is my mother’s half sisters’ mother. My mother Martha Rose Sailor is from Eastern Ky up in Pineville. My mother’s mom’s name was Dorothy Brock.

  • Mary Renner says:

    John Shell is my great-great-great-great grandfather. He is my grandfather’s great-great grandfather. And my grandfather was Hampton Jewel Middleton. My grandpa Jewel mother was Baltie Ellen Shell Middleton. My mother wrote a book about John Shell and some of the family. I just seen this and wanted to put a few words in here.

  • Marilyn (Marlow) Combs says:

    I will get my geneology information out and get back with you.
    I have the bloodline that I will forward. I am looking forward to the reunion.

  • Wendy Rosen says:

    John Shell was my 7th Great Grandfather. It’s so wonderful to hear about him and the others who knew stories about him. We need to organize a reunion of all of his descendants! We should be able to connect with thousands via

  • steve cornett says:

    My name is Steve Cornett and John Shell was my grandmother Maudie Shell’s great great grandfather. My grandmother had a sister named Jackie Shell whom she was separated from at an early age due to the death of her mother and the murder of her dad at an early age. Sshe lost contact with Jackie and still cries for her almost 75 years later. PLEASE PLEASE help me find out where Jackie is… My phone number is 606-589-6432…Someone out there has to know what happened to her. Please help an old woman reunite or bring closure to 75 years of not knowing. Thanks and God bless…

  • Matthew Thomas says:

    I found out from a relative that this is one of my ancestors. I love finding out such an interesting history about my family!

  • Anita Baker Tolliver says:

    John Shell is my great, great, great grandfather! I too have heard many a story about his life. There is an annual reunion held at the old home place on 2009 every spring… It is wonderful! Please make plans to attend! Last year I was so surprised to see many folks that I knew there… I had no idea that we were related through this common ancestor! Get your family tree together and show up! Check the web site for more info

  • Bo Sexton says:

    John Shell is my 3rd great grandfather. I descend from his daughter Mary Ann who married Eli Huff. My mother, who was 17 when he died, said the last day she saw him he was riding a horse. There are many questions about his age at death. His death certificate shows he died at age of 114 on July 5, 1922. Date of birth listed as Sept. 15, 1807. Informant was Sam Creech. 1860 census lists his age at 37 and 1880 census shows age as 58. Probably born in 1822.

  • Bob Sexton says:

    Two errors in previous post. Forgot the second “b for my first name. John Shell is my 2nd great grandfather.

  • Wilton Gross says:

    I have a collection of pictures from my grandmother (deceased)(Lillian Callahan Gross) Buckhorn, KY – she was born in 1887 – The back of the picture says John Shell – 100 years old when taken. Many of the pictures she left me are from 1905 – 1930. I have other pictures with writing on the back that are from the same roll of film and I date it about 1922.

  • John Lewis says:

    John Shell was my 4th great grandfather.. I think that is correct. I go by his old house all the time and I think of how simple life must have been for him down on Greasy Creek. Wish I could have spent time with him also… I coach baseball at Harlan County High School and I tell what stories I know about John Shell to my players and to people in Harlan County.. I’m very proud to be associated and connected to the name “John Shell”…

  • Hollis J. Hoskins says:

    I am the son of Birchel Hoskins and Dorothy Shell Hoskins, Atkins. William Shell and Mary (Nolan) Shell were my grandparents. William was the son of JPM and Armintie (Farley) Shell. JPM was the son of “Old man John Shell”. I have been to the old house many times. I grew up on Greasy creek till I was 12 years old in great Grandpa JPM’s house. I have tons of records about Old man John’s family. I have an article from Springer Hoskins at Hyden, Ky. who owned a paper called The “Springboard” He supposedly confirmed John Shell to be 114 at his passing. (according to a poll tax receipt)

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