John Tanner (captive)

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For other men with the same name, see John Tanner (disambiguation).

John Tanner (c. 1780 – d. in or after 1846) was captured by Shawnee American Indians as a child of ten (Tocqueville reported six), after his family had moved to territory on the Ohio River in present-day Kentucky. He grew up with the Ojibwa nation, becoming fully acculturated and learning the Saulteaux language. He married an Indian woman, guided Europeans in the Northwest, and worked as an interpreter at fur trading posts. In 1830 his book about his many years with the American Indians was published in New York. Its title was A narrative of the captivity and adventures of John Tanner, (U.S. interpreter at the Sault de Ste. Marie,) during thirty years residence among the Indians in the interior of North America.

Portrait in A Narrative of the captivity and adventures of John Tanner, by Edwin James, London, 1830

Early life[edit]

John Tanner was the son of the Rev. John Tanner and his wife of Virginia. He was born about 1780. As part of the post-Revolutionary War westward migrations, his family moved to country on the Ohio River in Kentucky in 1789. It was considered dangerous as settlers competed for territory with Native Americans who tried to defend their lands.

In 1790 at age 10, Tanner was captured by a Shawnee warrior. He became thoroughly assimilated into Native American culture after he was sold to an Ojibwa tribe. He traveled with them as far west as the Little Saskatchewan River, near its confluence with the Assiniboine and the present site of Brandon, Manitoba.

Marriage and family[edit]

By 1800, when he was 20, Tanner had taken an Indian wife, the niece of Michigan fur trader, Madeleine LaFramboise,[1] and become a renowned hunter and warrior. He spoke only the Saulteaux language and was thoroughly acculturated. In 1801 he met a fur trader named Daniel Harmon, who wrote about Tanner in his diary.

Life as guide[edit]

In 1817, Lord Selkirk employed John Tanner as a guide and they set out to recapture Fort Douglas from the American fur trading North West Company. After their success, Lord Selkirk took an interest in Tanner. Using Tanner's vague memories of his childhood, Selkirk reunited him with his mother and sisters living in Kentucky and on the Mississippi. Tanner spent the years 1818-1822 in pursuit of his family, during which he re-acquired a good knowledge of English.

Tanner returned to the Canadian territories, where he worked for a time as a trader for the American Fur Company on Rainy Lake. Later, he returned to the Red River settlement and reunited with his wife and children. They were heading for Mackinac when he was shot and seriously injured. His wife and daughters left him while he was carried to Rainy Lake by two men. After a lengthy recovery, he went to Mackinac, where he worked as an interpreter.

Mnemonic figures for an Indian song, in Narrative

In Mackinac, with assistance from Dr. Edwin James, Tanner wrote his Narrative, an account of 30 years with Indians. This document provided the first detailed descriptions of the Saulteaux and Cree peoples. It was one of a series of captivity narratives by people who had been held by Native Americans. Tanner traveled to New York City to promote publication of his Narrative.

On his return to the west, he worked as an interpreter in Sault Ste. Marie, a major fur trading post. He lived there until 1846, when he disappeared under mysterious circumstances.[2]

A grandson of his, also named John Tanner, homesteaded on the Little Saskatchewan River where he ran a ferry. The settlement became known as "Tanner's Crossing". It is the present-day site of Minnedosa, Manitoba.


  1. ^ LaFramboise' Journals
  2. ^ Drimmer, Frederick (1985, reprint). Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870, pp. 143-44. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-24901-8.


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