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.
“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 http://snipurl.com/2u2j0
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, http://snipurl.com/2u2mm
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