Flashback to July 4, 1842: The day Charlie Smith was born, in West Africa. What’s so special about Charlie? Aside from his very eventful life, Charlie is believed to be “America’s Oldest Man,” as he lived until Oct. 5, 1979, before being buried right here in Polk County.
That means he presumably died at 137 years old, lived in two different centuries, witnessed 25+ US presidents come and go, and was around during the first moon landing, and when the dishwasher, the safety pin, the zipper, the car radio, the first computer, zip codes, and lava lamps were all invented.
But how exactly did Charlie end up in Bartow? At the age of 12, Charlie (then, named Mitchell Watkins) was taken from his home in Liberia + brought to the US, with the promise of seeing “fritter trees.” Later, he was sold into slavery to a rancher, named “Charlie Smith,” whose name he eventually took on as his own, after the farmer died. On Jan. 1, 1863, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Charlie, in his 20s, became a free man.
Throughout Charlie’s long life, he was part of the Union Army, an expert gambler, a bounty hunter with the Jesse James Gang (where he chased Billy the Kid), a father and husband, and even part of the circus. When he reached the golden years of his time, he negotiated with nursing home staff to allow him to take his vitamins with a shot of rum, despite his health conditions.
And though Charlie’s age + story hasn’t ever been completely “confirmed,” researchers believe he lived to be at least, 100+ years old. After his death, Bartow residents chipped in to pay for a tombstone, which was engraved with the phrase “America’s Oldest Man.”