Harmon’s Histories: Meet Missoula’s Joe Wells, the oldest person alive … maybe

“There is nothing in Uncle Joe Wells’ appearance to indicate that he is much past 55,” wrote a reporter for Montana’s Powder River County Examinernewspaper in 1921.

He spoke in a strong voice as he was interviewed and “his eyes (had) all the sparkle of youth.”

But Joe Wells wasn’t 55; he was “more than double that age.”

At 114, he was believed to be “the oldest person alive” at the time.

Was it true? Hard to tell.

Joe, a slave much of his life and (at the time of the 1921 interview) an inmate at Missoula’s “poor house,” said he was born in 1807. But he was also very good at telling yarns and back then there was no easy way to corroborate such a story.

One of those yarns was about the day he rode the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby. It was 1818, only a decade or so after the Lewis and Clark Expedition. That would make it more than half a century before the modern Kentucky Derby (with which we’re familiar) held its inaugural run in 1875.

Still, it’s possible. Horse racing in America dates back as far as 1665.

There were newspaper accounts in the Louisville Advertiseras far back as October 1836 of “The Great Western Race, at which “considerable sums changed hands.” Three years later, theLouisville Journalreported that thousands attended the “Great Race,” calling it “one of the most splendid races ever held in rural America!”

But I’ve been unable to find specific reports of Kentucky horse racing in 1818.

Uncle Joe Wells told the newspaper reporter, “I was eleven years old when we run the big race at Loueyville (sic) – derby, they calls it.”

He continued, “We all lined up at the pole. I remember what grandma say: Just lay right down on him, whup him on the left shoulder and the right flank. The big drum go ‘BOOM’ and the horses jump. We run 800 yards … we won by just three feet.”

The reporter asked, “What horse was it?” John replied, “The Frye colt, that’s all the name I knowed. I won that race ‘cause I done just what grandma said.”

According to Wells, the owner, John Frye, collected a $30,000 purse in that race.

Joe and his dog Shep had been “familiar figures on the streets of Missoula” for years. Once freed from slavery, he had come to Montana in search of gold at Alder Gulch. He found some – but squandered it on gambling and drink.

In his old age, crippling rheumatism had forced him into the poor house. But his mind was still active, especially with recollections of his grandmother, “who had an uncanny knowledge of the future.”

The newspaper article said “planters from all over the South used to come to her for advice, and bring her money. When she died, she had more than $25,000.”

Wells liked to tell the story of Joe Shaughn, “Marse Joe, I calls him,” who was planning to buy 1,000 slaves and ship them south. Shaughn came to his grandma for advice.

She told him, “Marse Joe, don’ do it. I ain’t never tell you nuthin’ ‘at ain’ so. If you buys dem black folks, they goin’ lay down ‘an die in less’n a year.”

The slave owner ignored the advice, and as Wells told it, “he goes an’ buys dem slaves, and whot you think? De colery, hit come, an’ he don’ save but one outa 10.”

That led to the reporter’s predictable final question, “And did your grandma tell you what to do to live a long time?”

Uncle Joe Wells replied, “Jus’ do the bes’ you know how, an’ pray the bes’ you kin – ‘at’s what she tell me.” She also told him to avoid fights, but Joe admitted that didn’t always pan out. “I’ve had some awful ruckuses sometimes.”

Joe presumably became one of the hundreds of paupers buried on the grounds of Missoula’s poor house and pest house in the 19th and 20th centuries – now the location of Rattlesnake School.

The squalor and wretchedness at the pest house was infamous – and is the subject of next week’s story.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.