John Tanner Between Two Worlds

In 1790, the Tanner family left Virginia and headed west to farm on the Kentucky frontier. They took three flatboats down the Ohio River, one with the family and household effects, one with the livestock, and one with two slaves and farming tools. This was a perilous journey into country that was contested by Shawnee Indians. One of the flatboats purchased by the Tanners was marked with bullet holes and stained by blood from an attack on the previous owner. The Tanner family set up farming on the Kentucky shore of the Ohio, across from the confluence of the Big Miami River, just west of present-day Cincinatti. The farm was smack in the middle of the Shawnee trail to the south. Place names today on the Ohio side include Indian Look-Out and Shawnee State Park.

John Tanner in 1828, forty-seven years of age.

The Tanners were well aware that they were in danger of Indian attack. Rev.Tanner stood guard as his slaves and eldest son planted the first corn crop on their new farm. Nine-year-old John had been told to stay in the house and help look after his baby sister but he became bored and sneaked out through a window. He was playing in the woods when two Shawnee men seized him and carried him away.

The Indians took John across the Ohio and made their way north. At first the boy tried to memorize landmarks so that he could find his way back but there was no chance to escape. After they crossed the Mad River, young John realized that he could never make his way back to Kentucky by himself.

The Shawnee were father and son. The older man kicked and hit John and once started to kill him with a tomahawk but was stopped by his son. Eventually they reached the Indian camp near Saginaw, Michigan where John was turned over to the older man’s wife who had asked him to bring her a child to replace her own son who had been killed. A year after his capture, John’s foster father set out south to re-visit the Tanner farm. He returned with a hat that had belonged to John’s brother and told the boy that he had killed his family. John gave up any hope of rescue. For two years John Tanner lived with this family, enduring beatings from his foster father that included being struck in the head by a tomahawk. Only the kindness of his foster mother saved him from starvation.

The family travelled north and met with a group of other Indians from various bands. An Ottawa Ojibway woman, Netnokwa, took a liking to John. She, too, had lost a child and wished a replacement. She bartered with the Shawnee and manged to buy John for a price that included two casks of rum.

Netnokwa was a prominent person among the Ottawa and some authorities call her a chief, though it is not at all clear what exactly they mean by that. At any rate, when Netnokwa paddled past the fur forts, she flew her own flag that was recognized by the traders. The Ottawa were split up into small hunting bands at this point in their history. Netnokwa led a group of ten or a dozen people that included her husband, seventeen years her junior, and his other two wives.

Ojibway woman painted by George Catlin, 1832

Life with Netnokwa was very different than that among the Shawnee. John met with kindness from his new mother (his birth mother had died when he was two) and his new foster-father taught him to hunt. After he had been with the group for a year he received a new name, Shawshawnebase, the Falcon, and was adopted into the Rattlesnake clan.

The Ojibway, like the Shawnee, had been displaced from their traditional lands by the Iroquois in the 17th Century. But now the Iroquois expansion had ceased and the Shawnee were attempting to regain their territory in the Ohio. The Ojibway had broken up into several groups. The Ottawa were also called Saulteaux after Sault Ste. Marie, where they lived on both sides of the Soo. Some of this band had crossed the Grand Portage into the Red River country of Manitoba where the Assiniboine, decimated by disease, had offered them land. These two tribes allied with the Cree, also moving west to escape European settlement, and made a common cause against the Sioux whose own journey west included a complete transition from woodland hunter and fur trapper to plains horseman and buffalo chasing.

Ojibway wigwams along the Red River, photo by H.L. Hime, 1858

Netnokwa decided to take her family to the Red River country. This was to be John Tanner’s home for the next quarter-century. Along the way, at the annual Rendezvous at Grand Portage, Netnokwa’s husband suffered a mortal injury in a drunken brawl. One of his sons was hurt in an accident and died before the family could pass over the Grand Portage. An outbreak of measles added to Netnokwa’s misfortunes. Much of the responsibility for looking after the group now fell to thirteen-year-old John.

In the narrative that John Tanner later dictated, he described many hunts in great detail, so much so that Dr. James, who was taking the dictation, edited out a great deal of these accounts. Even so, we can grasp that obtaining food was a primary concern for these people. When Tanner speaks of starvation, he means it literally; people do not just go hungry, they starve to death. Tanner hunts bear, buffalo, moose, but also eats muskrat, rabbit, beaver, porcupine, otter and other animals trapped for their fur, and, when game is not available, his dogs, horses, and scraps of leather. He eats ducks, geese, blackbirds, and swan. He fishes for sturgeon, dory, and unnamed small fish that are eaten by the handful. He consumes corn, wild rice, and berries.  As Louise Erdich remarks in the forward to her edition of Tanner’s Narrative, this book is about Food.

Ojibway woman and children

Tanner learned to be an effective hunter and trapper. He was fond of Netnokwa but had a somewhat troubled relationship with his foster-brother. He married, around the age of twenty, a woman named Red Sky At Dawn and they had children. In Manitoba, the Ottawa avoided the conflict when the Shawnee and other tribes joined the English against the Americans in the War of 1812. Tecumseh’s brother, the Shawnee Prophet, sent to all the outlying tribes for assistance. He sent an effigy, supposedly his own body or some other vessel for his spirit, under a blanket to the Red River Indians. Strings of grain were laid on the blanket and those who touched them were said to have shaken hands with the prophet. Tanner was disdainful of the Shawnee Prophet, as he was later of those that sprang up among the Ojibway. He refused to follow the dictates that included giving up certain foods and not lighting fires even though doing so made him uneasy. A few years later, after the Prophet’s injunctions had caused a great deal of hunger and misery, most of the Indians who had followed his way rejected him.

The Fur Wars between the Hudson Bay Company and rival groups began to heat up during this period and, in 1812, erupted in the Pemmican War. The Hudson’s Bay Company supported an attempt by Lord Selkirk to start a farm colony in the Red River area. The North West Company paid Métis in the country to burn it down. Attempts were made to enlist the Indians in this struggle but most were disturbed by the conflict and remained aloof. Tanner, who had been trading pretty much exclusively with the Nor’Westers, was drawn in and helped guide an HBC force that took several North West Company forts. Together with the Métis Louison Nolin, he himself captured one of the forts from the Company. For this deed, Lord Selkirk gave him a small pension and wrote to authorities in the States seeking word of John Tanner’s family.

By 1817 the Fur Wars quieted a bit — most of the action now taking place in the courts of Canada and the boardrooms of London — and Tanner found himself in a difficult situation. He had alienated the North West Company, his first wife had left him when their marriage turned sour, and he had incurred the enmity of a local prophet that he disdained. Tanner had travelled on several expeditions south against the Sioux but these were unsuccessful and left him feeling that these ventures were futile. But during these invasions he had also made enemies among among the Assiniboine and also his own people, including one man who tried to kill him by hitting him on the head with a hatchet. This was only one of several injuries sustained by Tanner over the years — broken ribs in a fall, damage from a horse stepping on his chest, and the general wear and tear of a hard life. Now in his thirties, Tanner felt his body’s strength leaving him.

Meanwhile, Lord Selkirk’s inquiries had discovered that the Shawnee had lied about killing the Tanner family. They did capture John’s brother who managed to escape, leaving behind the hat used to bolster the Shawnee story. The people in Kentucky expressed a desire to see John, so he undertook to hunt enough food to last his family a year, then headed south. It was his intent to make contact with his family, then bring down his Indian wife and the children of his two marriages. Tanner had nine children by two Indian wives; one of these died in childhood and some had taken up adult life as Indians but six remained.

Ojibway woman with child painted by Charles Bird King, circa 1836

But almost immediately Tanner fell ill. He traveled on, aided by letters written for him by Lord Selkirk, Lewis Cass, Governor of Michigan Territory, William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark expedition that had passed just south of Tanner and Netnokwa at one point), now governor of the Missouri Territory, and other notables. Finally, he reached his relatives in Kentucky, but he was in a bad way; his body could no longer stand up to the harsh rigors of travel. His family was happy to see John though he had forgotten most of his English and found it difficult to communicate with them. John’s father had died a few years before and, believing John to be dead, had left him nothing in his will. His relatives resolved to help John: they cut off his long hair, strung with silver ornaments, gave him the clothes of a white man, and raised $500 for his use. John found the clothes uncomfortable and developed the idea that sleeping indoors made him sick, nevertheless he headed back north to fetch his children.

John’s second wife (never named) and his three children by her travelled with him back toward Kentucky, but his wife deserted at Makinac and went back north. One of the children died. John was still suffering bouts of illness and found his family not so eager to welcome him this time. He quarrelled with his step-mother over part of the price of the two slaves, who had been sold to Cuba after his father’s death. Finally, in 1822, John gave up on Kentucky and headed north. His new plan was to settle in Mackinac, a white community where Indians were numerous, and try to live between the two worlds.

Tanner could find no work in Mackinac but heard that there was a need for a translator at Sault Ste.Marie where Henry Schoolcraft was setting up as Indian agent. Tanner thought that he had the job, but it fell through. He returned the furniture and household goods that he had bought, put his daughters in school, and hired on as a trader with the American Fur Company. His first season wenr poorly. Tanner refused to trade rum for furs; he had seen too much of its evil effect on the Indians. He was told to increase his trade or lose his job. The second season, John Tanner traded rum and doubled the furs he took in. Disgusted with himself, he gave up trading.

Tanner returned to the Red River to find the three children still with Red Sky At Morning. Tanner’s son refused to go with him; the boy had become old enough to take a man’s estate among the Ojibway. By now, Tanner knew enough of the difficulties of adjusting to white society that he understood that his son was right and left him. Red Sky At Morning and two teen-age daughters accompanied Tanner south.

There were things about the journey that disturbed Tanner. For one thing, a man had attached himself to the party. This man had secretive talks with Red Sky At Morning and one of Tanner’s daughters was clearly upset at his presence. Tanner came across the man as he was making a magic, possibly poisoned, bullet and understood that the man meant to murder him. It was a plot engineered by Red Sky At Morning, who had offered this man one of her daughters to kill Tanner.

Although Tanner was on his guard, one day he was shot from behind. The bullet passed through his arm and lodged against his breast bone. Red Sky At Morning paddled off, leaving him to die. Tanner pushed bone fragments back into his arm and stopped the bleeding. Eventually he managed to  make his way to assistance. These people were afraid to remove the bullet from his chest, though, so John Tanner himself cut the lead ball from his body with a razor. A thread that had been strung through the bullet remained lodged in his arm and Tanner had to dig it out. Now he went in pursuit of his daughters.

Tanner located the two girls and got them as far south as Rainy Lake when they either ran off or were abducted. Tanner lacked strength to follow them. Cold weather was approaching. He had the two younger daughters back in Michigan who needed him. John Tanner knew that he had to give up on returning with the girls. Defeated, he sat down and wept.

Back in Michigan, Tanner managed to hire on with Henry Schoolcraft as a translator. Schoolcraft was making a name for himself as an expert on the Ojibway and their language and customs — his writings formed the basis for Longfellow’s Hiawatha. But Schoolcraft was a pompous and imperious man. He and Tanner fell out and John was soon out of work again. John Tanner made one last attempt to join white society: he travelled to Detroit and there married a hotel chambermaid. He brought her back to Sault Ste. Marie and thereby scandalized the good women of the town who decided that Tanner was trying to raise his social station by bringing in a white woman to raise “his coarse and ignorant half-breed children”.  After Mrs. Tanner gave birth to her own child, the proper ladies managed to spirit her and the baby out of town, then congratulated themselves on their good deed.

Dr. Edwin James

Tanner had one bit of good fortune when he ran into Dr. Edwin James, a man who wished to learn the Ojibway language. James got Tanner to dictate his life story and arranged to have it published. In 1828, John Tanner travelled to New York, manuscript in hand. His publishers bought him a suit and had him sit for a portrait, the only picture we have of John Tanner.

James’ motive for underwriting Tanner’s story was to raise consciousness of the American Indian’s plight and to lobby against the notion of transporting all natives to lands west of the Mississippi. In this he failed. John Tanner’s Narrative was printed in 1830, later that year Congress passed legislation to remove all of the eastern tribes across the Mississippi. The Cherokee were the first to go on the Trail of Tears, other southern tribes followed. By 1838 the time of the northern tribes had come and, except one or two small enclaves, no Indian population remained in the eastern United States.

 Tanner had troubles with his older daughter, Martha, probably because she had become Catholic and no longer wished to remain with her father. An order of the Michigan legislature removed her from her father’s custody. Later, she joined a religious order. And Tanner quarreled with the local Baptist missionary, Abel Bingham. Bingham claimed that he had been threatened by Tanner. One day, while Bingham was at his desk, Tanner crept up behind him, reached around, and… tweaked his nose! The people of the Sault were not amused.

Now Tanner was estranged from all society, white or Indian. He lived in a small shack outside the town and scraped by, hunting and fishing. He was used to hunger, after all. He was called the White Indian, “more Indian than white… and a damned mean Indian at that!” There is no doubt that Tanner had become a difficult, isolated man — he had come too late to the pale of civilization to learn proper white manners, to paraphrase Dr. James. So, Henry Schoolcraft and others write of him with distaste. Then, in 1846, matters came to a head.

A series of fires broke out in Sault Ste.Marie, some fierce enough that they carried across the river and set alight houses on the Canadian side. People muttered that the White Indian was responsible. Then James Schoolcraft, brother to Henry, was found shot to death. Immediately Tanner was the main suspect. Tanner’s cabin had burned and a great search party led by US Army Lieutenant Tilden set out to find him. The search was unsuccessful. Tanner had disappeared and the people of the Sault locked their doors at night. A year later, a man’s body was discovered in the forest. The rifle he had carried was identified as that of John Tanner. There is no record of a funeral.

Several years later, on his deathbed, Lieutenant Tilden confessed that he was the murderer of James Schoolcraft — they had quarrelled over a woman. There is no record that he mentioned also killing John Tanner, but many thought that was the case.

John Tanner’s children pop up in frontier history from time to time. One son became a major chief of the Saulteaux. Another, recorded in a Canadian treaty, wound up with a large land holding where his descendants farm today. James, a Presbyterian minister, was killed in 1870 during the Red River Rebellion — whether accidently or by deliberate action of some Of Wolseley’s troops is not clear. That man’s son, John Tanner’s grandson, fought in the Civil War and is remembered as the founder of Minnedosa, Manitoba. Martha joined the Order of the Sisters of Loretto and earned a teacher’s certificate. She was remembered fondly by her students. The other daughter that accompanied Tanner to the States married and had children who became prominent businessmen in Duluth.

A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner edited by Dr. James is available free on line. The book includes a foreword that discusses Tanner himself and a lengthy set of addenda that talk about the language and customs of the Ojibway. Dr. James also sets out his preferred Indian policy: Let them alone! There are any number of reprints of this volume that you can buy for various prices that add nothing to the original except paper.
Two reprints that do add other material are:
The Falcon, edited by Louise Erdich. This Penguin is the most readilly available but at the cost of James’ material which has been removed.
The Narrative of John Tanner, the Falcon, edited by Charles Daudert has extra material on Tanner and James along with some maps and photos.
In the Country of the Walking Dead, by Walter O’Meara, a paperback re-issue of his book The Last Portage is well worth seeking out in used bookstores. O’Meara incorporates other historic materials directly into an account of Tanner’s Narrative and has some very valuable background on the frontier at that time.
The Manitoba, Michigan, and Minnesota historical organizations all have material which can be googled up. It is interesting to see how views of Tanner differ as the distance from him grows.

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