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. Continue reading