Memorable Manitobans: John Tanner (c1780-1846)

Indigenous captive, interpreter.

Born in Kentucky about 1780, son of Reverend John Tanner, his father had taken the family to settle in Ohio, and it was there, in 1789, that Shawnee Indians kidnapped the young boy. He was cruelly treated by all but one old woman. After two years he was sold to an Indian woman of the Ottawa tribe who treated him well. His memoirs of his captivity were some of the most interesting published in the nineteenth century and were translated into several languages. He lost command of English and wrote that he could not speak it “so as to be at all understood.” He was able to observe the Saulteaux society during a time of great transition, and his account is extremely ambivalent about his attitudes toward his situation.

Tanner was present at Red River when the first Selkirk settlers arrived, and he assisted them without at first joining them. By 1816 he was guiding Lord Selkirk’s hired soldiers from Fort William to Fort Douglas. Selkirk himself was fascinated with Tanner’s story, and he assisted Tanner in trying to establish contact with his family. Tanner met with his brother in 1817 but eventually returned to the Northwest. Like most children taken captive by Indians in their early years, Tanner was able to assimilate to Native ways. He never managed to be comfortable with his own people again.

Tanner was first married in 1800 to an Indian woman and they had several children. A second Indian wife bore him three children. In 1840 he married a white woman from Detroit and they had one child. Tanner stayed in Kentucky for some time and tried to gather his children to settle them with his relatives. In 1823 while on his way to Kentucky with three of his children, he was shot and badly wounded by an Indian. Indians, aided by North West Company enemies, took the children from him. For a short time he was a trader with the American Fur Company, and then employed as an interpreter by the Indian agent in Mackinac.

In 1828 he became an interpreter for Mr. Schoolcraft, the Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1846 two days after the murder of James Schoolcraft, the agent’s brother, he disappeared. It was assumed he was the murderer. Many years later a Lieutenant Tilden is reported to have confessed to the deed.

In 1830 Edwin James, an army surgeon, recorded the former captive’s recollections at Sault Ste. Marie and published them.

See also:

Meet John Tanner by Hartwell Bowsfield
Manitoba Pageant, January 1957

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 edited by Edwin James (1830).

“Strange Eloquence: Another Look at The Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner” by John T. Fierst in Reading Beyond Words: Contexts in Native History, edited by Jennifer Brown and Elizabeth Vibert (1996), pages 220-41.

John Tanner, Dictionary of Canadian Biography VII, 844-45.


Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 24 September 2017

Memorable Manitobans

Memorable Manitobans

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