Historical Biography: The Life Of John Tanner

The tale of John Tanner, a white man taken captive by the Shawnee in 1789. Information on his experiences.

Encounters with marauding Indian bands was the daily fear of settlers of the Canadian frontier in the eighteenth century. Worse still was the thought of capture by the natives - a fate that to many seemed worse than death. For some Indian captives, however, the integration into Indian life was a relatively seamless one and they excelled in their new way of life. One such person was a man by the name of John Tanner.

John Tanner was in what was to become Kentucky in 1780. Nine years later a band of marauding Shawnees captured the boy from the family's cabin. They marched him to the area of the Great Lakes where they had their village. Tanner was then adopted by an aged Indian woman. The old woman's name was Net-no-kwa and she was of the Ottawa people. Under her tutelage, Tanner grew into a strong hunter and trapper. In fact, by the time he had reached the age of twenty, John Tanner was regarded as a leader among the Ottawa people.

Tanner soon became a guide for white fur traders. As he began to mix with white people, he instinctively started to identify with them. He became involved in the fierce competition between the North West and the Hudson's Bay Company. This further distanced him from his native brothers. However, neither was he fully accepted by the white trappers, who still viewed him as an Indian. He felt as an outcast, and eventually left the area he had called home since his kidnapping and travelled to Saulte Ste. Marie. There he met a doctor who he revealed the story of his life to. The doctor carefully chronicled the story of Tanner's capture and subsequent life among the Ottawas. The account was published in 1830.

Sadly, it appears that Tanner did not benefit from the chronicle of his exploits among the Indians. Although back in civilization he was unable to fit back into the white way of life. He became extremely isolated and lonely. In 1846 he disappeared completely. A few years later a hunter found a skeleton in a swamp just outside of Sault Ste. Marie. It was believed to be that of John Tanner, the apparent victim of a suicide. However, the body was never positively identified. No one knows for sure what became of the sad and lonely man who was captured by the Indians.

Despite the sadness of his life, Tanner left a valuable chronicle of his life to history. Particularly revealing is the insight given to Indian culture and ways. The Indians that Tanner knew and lived with were plagued by poverty, starvation, drunkenness, disease and excessive exposure to the elements. Often, the people would go for days without food. According to Tanner, "suicide is not very unfrequent among the Indians." Sometimes an Indian would be driven to take his own life by "the alienation of the mind produced by liquor."

The people of the tribe Tanner grew up in were excessively attached to the effects produced by alcohol. He recorded that drinking bouts often lasted for days at a time. During such sessions, the participants - both men and women - could be found "lying by the fire in a state of absolute insensibility." Tanner lamented to see the results for the people he had grown to view as his own. As he related, " In the course of a single day, Net-no-kwa (his adopted mother) sold one hundred and twenty beaver skins, with a large quantity of buffalo robes, dressed and smoked skins, and other articles, for rum . . . Of all our large load of peltries, the produce of so many days of toil, of so many long and difficult journeys, one blanket, and three kegs of rum, only remained, besides the poor and almost worn - out cloathing on our bodies."

Such first hand descriptions went a long way to dispel the myths associated with the Noble savage as epitomised by the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. The reality, as shown by Tanner's chronicle was far less glamorous. Life among the Indians was a harsh, unrelenting reality.

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