Manitoba History: Book Review: Theodore Catton, Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier.

by Francis M. Carroll
St. John’s College, University of Manitoba

Number 87, Summer 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Theodore Catton, Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017, 406 pages. ISBN: 9781421422923, $37.95 (hard cover)

The subtitle to Theodore Catton’s book Rainy Lake House is Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier. In fact, the book is more than that. Indeed, Catton has written three books in one, or at least he has told several historical narratives based on the lives of three key figures: Dr. John McLoughlin, Major Stephen H, Long, and John Tanner. The author begins the book in the classical style of in medias res, at the precise moment on the first of September 1823, when Dr. McLoughlin and his Rainy Lake House fur post assistants along with Major Long and his staff are confronted by the wounded John Tanner, who was demanding help in the recovery of his two daughters. All of the participants eventually produce different accounts of this event and, throughout the book, of the different worlds that they inhabit. Catton refers to the 1950 Japanese film Rashômon, wherein the viewers are presented with four different accounts of a murder, and, as in the film, the readers must pull things together. However, these narratives do have some important elements in common: the larger issues of European penetration into the center of the American continent, the workings of the fur trade, and the complex aboriginal-white cultural relations, all of which come together around the incredible life of John Tanner.

Dr. John McLoughlin had a long and successful career in the fur trade, first as a Chief Factor and physician for the North West Company and then for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he is best remembered today as the “Father” of Oregon, where he later ran the major Fort Vancouver post on the Columbia River for twenty years. McLoughlin’s work at Rainy Lake and Fort William is well covered in this book, as is his role in fighting the Hudson’s Bay settlement at Red River. Although charged and brought to trial by Lord Selkirk for his part in attempting to destroy the settlement, McLoughlin was acquitted, and he subsequently worked to bring about the merger of the two great fur companies. His life story provides an insight into the problems of the fur companies working with the Native people and the Métis to produce a steady supply of furs, while first battling each other and then, after the merger, battling the American Fur Company across the border.

Major Long was a topographical engineer in the US Army who, in the tradition of Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike, had led several expeditions in the trans-Mississippi United States. In 1817, he ascended the Mississippi as far as St. Anthony Falls (the present day Minneapolis) and recommended the site for what became Fort Snelling. In 1820, he led an expedition up the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers and marched great distances over land as well, although dismissing much of the region as the “Great Desert.” In 1823 Long was exploring the Red River Valley, taking sightings to determine the location of the new 49thparallel boundary line and navigating the borderlands between Lake of the Woods and Lake Superior. Over a military career reaching into the 1860s, Long was also active in the development of steamboats and railroads, and was part of the practical scientific and engineering elite in the United States.

But who was John Tanner? In 1790, Tanner’s family migrated to a farmstead in Kentucky along the Ohio River, where as a boy of nine he was abducted by a party of Shawnee, taken north into what became the Michigan territory, and eventually sold to an Ottawa woman, Net-no-kwa. This strong woman took him into her family as her son. By the time Tanner was thirteen years old she took her family west to join her husband’s Ojibwe people at Grand Portage and Red River. Thus, Tanner grew to manhood as an Anishinaabe person, speaking only Ojibwe and learning to provide for his new mother and her family. He hunted and trapped in the region from Rainy River and Lake of the Woods to Brandon House and the Saskatchewan River, and he became a warrior by joining expeditions against the Sioux. Eventually he married a Native woman and started a family. But it was a difficult life: animals for food and furs were becoming increasingly scarce through over-hunting, and the North West Company often swindled the Native people with the use of whiskey. When conflict broke out between the Selkirk settlers and the North West Company traders, Tanner (who had no love for the Nor’Westers) guided Lord Selkirk’s forces into the Forks and led the re-capture of Fort Douglas in 1817. Selkirk himself was impressed with this “white Indian,” who knew no English but who vaguely remembered his Kentucky family. On his return east, Selkirk put notices about this young captive survivor in local newspapers, which led eventually to Tanner’s reunion with his family, by then in Missouri and western Kentucky.

In 1818, Tanner made the first of several trips into the United States to re-connect with his family, which in complicated circumstances he eventually did. By this time, Tanner was almost forty years old, and although he was able to re-learn English sufficiently well enough to work as an interpreter, he was not able to shrug off the Native culture in which he had grown up. His American brother and sisters attempted to assimilate him into their communities, and prominent people such as Governor Lewis Cass of the Michigan Territory and Governor William Clark of the Missouri Territory were helpful and encouraging. But Tanner had become a man caught between two cultures. Alternatively, as Catton put it, “The tragedy for Tanner was that he had known one world and then the other, yet he had become estranged from both” (p. 257). Tanner made several trips back to Rainy River and Lake of the Woods to bring his wives and children to settle at Michilimackinac or Sault Ste. Marie.

It was in 1823 during the last of these trips that Tanner was shot, after which he, McLoughlin, and Long came together at Rainy Lake House. Tanner survived this ordeal and did return to Michigan (although without his daughters) where he worked for a number of years as an interpreter, sometimes for the US Indian Agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and sometimes for the Baptist missionary Rev. Abel Bingham. In 1828 he dictated his life story to Dr. Edwin James (who coincidentally had been Major Long’s medical officer on the 1819 expedition), which was published in New York in 1830 as A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (U.S. Interpreter at the Saut de Ste. Marie) During Thirty Years Residence among the Indians in the Interior of North America, and for which he had a striking portrait painted by the celebrated American artist Henry Inman. Tanner’s Narrative still provides a unique insight into the culture of Great Lakes Native people.

From this moment of national prominence, Tanner’s life became increasingly troubled. His personal relations became strained, and Schoolcraft became his enemy. In fact, Tanner was accused of the murder of Schoolcraft’s brother in 1846, although that incident remains ambiguous. Tanner’s simultaneous disappearance seemed to incriminate him. Of the three principals of Catton’s book, this was the sad end to Tanner’s incredible life of adversity, struggle, and survival; McLoughlin and Long went on to further success.

Catton’s achievement, quite apart from the focus on the life of John Tanner, has been to assess the decline of “empire” along the Canadian-American frontier. The great themes of European expansion into North America, the struggles of the fur trade, and the clash of Native-white relations are examined through the prism of these three remarkable figures. Certainly, the “twilight” of the fur trade can be observed in the world of Dr. McLoughlin: the over-hunting of fur-bearing animals coincided with the dramatic change in fashion—from broad-brimmed felt hats to tall silk hats. The colonial empires of European expansion across North America, by contrast, continued unabated for the next two hundred years. Major Long’s misgivings about the value of the “Great Desert” of the prairies were proved entirely wrong, as the population of western Canada and the western United States demonstrates. The complex relations between Native people and Europeans, as poignantly typified and as dramatically explained by John Tanner, remain with us today, however. The “tragedy” that Catton identifies with Tanner—the aboriginal estrangements from either traditional Native or modern European culture—remains a problem that has not been solved.

Catton has written a stimulating and provocative book, which is all the more important because of its ambitious scope. He does pull these strangely linked worlds together. It is fascinating to see all of these events going on in this part of the world—from Fort William to Brandon House —but with far wider ramifications. The book is extensively researched with elaborate endnotes to encourage further exploration, although some readers will lament an absence of a bibliography. Surprisingly, images of the three protagonists, including the Inman portrait of Tanner, are reduced to miniatures on the back of the dust jacket. The text of the book and its complex stories are compelling and deserve a serious reading.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 8 April 2021