Meet John Tanner

by Hartwell Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, January 1957

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

In 1789 the Rev. John Tanner of Virginia moved with his family to the dangerous Indian country on the Ohio River in Kentucky. Not long after this, his eight year old son John was stolen by an Ottawa Indian. When the white settlers of the district tried to pursue, the Indian escaped to the west side of Lake Huron, where young John Tanner spent two miserable years with his captors in the Indian village of Sau-ge-nong. His life as a captive improved somewhat when he was purchased by an aging Indian princess of the Ottawa tribe whose name was Net-No-Kwa. Net-No-Kwa had great influence with her people and with the fur traders of the country. She was allowed a flag in her canoe and on visits to Michilimackinac she was saluted by the firing of a gun from the fort.

The young captive was taken on many hunting expeditions and became familiar with the country as far west as the Little Saskatchewan river, which empties into the Assiniboine just beyond the present site of Brandon. On one return trip from the west the Indians planned to camp at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Net-No-Kwa heard the cry of an owl from one side of the river, then an answer from the other. Then there was a third cry. These were the signals of the war-like Sioux. Young John was learning the dangerous life of hunting and living with the Indians. To escape the Sioux, the Indians did not camp at the forks but turned into the middle of the Red River, passed the dangerous ambush, and reached the mouth of the Winnipeg river. There they harvested wild rice in safety.

By 1800 John was married to an Indian maiden called Mis-Kwa-Bun-O-Kwa which means, Red Sky of the Morning. He was now completely used to the Indian way of life and had become a noted hunter and had taken part in war expeditions against the Sioux. In 1801 the fur trader Daniel Harmon met him and noted in his diary that John spoke only Saulteaux, was looked upon as a chief by his people, and was like an Indian in every way except colour.

Soon after the Selkirk settlers established themselves on the Red River John visited the settlement and became known to Lord Selkirk. These were the days of great rivalry between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company for control of the fur trade in the West. During the winter of 1816-17 the Nor’Westers were in control of Selkirk’s establishment at Fort Douglas. Lord Selkirk held Fort William and was determined to regain his fort in the Settlement. He sent out a military expedition early in the spring of 1817 and as a guide employed John Tanner. After helping Selkirk capture Fort Douglas from the Nor’ Westers John was paid £20.

When Selkirk was told that Tanner deserved much more he became Interested in John, investigated his story, heard the story of his capture, and determined to find John’s parents. John’s memory of his childhood was nearly gone, but he thought his name was Taylor. Selkirk issued ,irculars through the newspapers in the United States and was successful in finding John’s family. It turned out that Taylor was the name of close friends of the Tanner family.

During the years 1818 to 1822 he spent most of his time with his rother and sisters in Kentucky and on the Mississippi. The early part of this period must have been difficult for him as he was unable to speak English. He returned to Mackinac in 1822 where he left his children in school. He was now qualified to act as an Interpreter, but as no job of this kind was available he went to work as a trader for the American Fur Company at Rainy Lake.

Later he went back to Red River to find his older children. When he was returning to Mackinac with his wife and daughters he was shot by a renegade Indian. He was deserted by his family and carried back to Rainy Lake by two men from Red River, Mr. Grant and Mr. Stewart. He remained there for a year and a half while he was unable to work. After his recovery he was engaged as an Interpreter at Mackinac. In 1828 he left for New York to see about the publication of his narrative.

On his return he went as an interpreter to Saulte Ste. Marie where he remained until 1846. In that year he was accused of the murder of James Schoolcroft and disappeared completely. Years later a skeleton believed to be that of John Tanner was found, and later still a dying man confessed to the murder of which he had been accused.

John Tanner, guide and interpreter, was educated by the woods and its people. His life was always restless and dangerous. Living in the wilds with the Indians he had great influence with them for he knew their language and their habits. Such men as John Tanner helped the white man in all his dealings with the Indian, and made the fur trade, and later the settlement of the country an easier task.

If you would like to read more about John Tanner you will find that his story is told in a book called Black Falcon by Olive Knox. In the 1870s a grandson of John Tanner homesteaded on the little Saskatchewan River where the town of Minnedosa now stands. In the early years he ran a ferry on this river, from which the settlement took its original name, “Tanner’s Crossing”.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Tanner's Crossing (Minnedosa)

Page revised: 16 July 2011