JAMES TANNER - SAINT OR SINNER?
Or a Little of Both?
By Louis Lehmann, Ph.D
Exploring the life of my great-grandfather, Samuel Spates, I became interested in how he and those around him were affected by James Tanner, the controversial son of the similarly controversial John Tanner, the notorious "White Indian." Samuel Spates, a pioneer Methodist missionary, labored among the Ojibway Indians for about sixteen years. Most of that time was in Minnesota at the Sandy Lake mission (1840-43, 1846-55). He was driven out of that mission in 1855 by Indians whom he claimed were .incited by James Tanner Spates was probably well aware of John Tanner since he had served in the mission at Sault St. Marie, Michigan in 1845-46 at or near the time that John Tanner was wrongly accused of having murdered James Schoolcraft, the brother of Henry Schoolcraft. (Henry was the explorer who was famous for his discovery of the headwaters of the Mississippi River.) .(1) (2)
Much has been written about how John Tanner was kidnapped in 1789 at age nine by a marauding band of Indians and then raised as an Indian (1790-1820), how he was discovered by Lord Selkirk who restored him to his family in Kentucky, how he failed to adjust to that change, how he gained notoriety in 1828 when he published his life story, how he became embittered as a man unable to adjust to the Indian culture in which he had been raised nor to the white culture to which he had been restored, and how he disappeared under a cloud of suspicion linking him to the murder of James Schoolcraft in 1846. (3) (4)
John Fierst has explored the later years of John Tanner's life to show that Tanner was ill used by Henry Schoolcraft, who was then the Indian Agent at Sault Ste. Marie; and that Schoolcraft vilified Tanner, mixing "cultural assumptions about American Indians with a private need to protect his own image against the unflattering reality of his behavior toward Tanner in the late 1820s and early 1830s." Tanner was caught in the middle of conflicts between Schoolcraft's Indian agency and Rev. Abel Bingham's Baptist mission. The disputes included struggles for control of the mission school finances, arguments about whether Bingham was to employ Tanner or Schoolcraft's sister-in-law as an interpreter, and perhaps about "who had claim to Tanner's services. Was Tanner to help Bingham to spread - and James to translate - the Gospels? Or was he to aid in advancing Schoolcraft's scholarship?" Eventually Tanner was in the touchy position of serving as interpreter to both men. (5)
Fierst has suggested that Schoolcraft, angry over what he perceived as Tanner's disloyalty, manipulated the legal system to remove Tanner's daughter and subsequently dismissed him "for conduct & language grossly disrespectful, followed by an immediate & continued withdrawal from the office, and all its duties, for a space of three days, during the height of the business season.." Tanner may indeed have been angry over the removal of his daughter ( especially if he suspected Schoolcraft's part in it) and may well have absented himself to search for her. And as Schoolcraft delayed payments of his past due wages, Tanner probably became more embittered, especially if he perceived a conspiracy between Henry Schoolcraft and his brother, James, to defraud him as they linked the payment of his past due wages to debts owed to James. Next Tanner was scapegoated in a hearing generated by Schoolcraft who angrily felt that his character had been blackened by statements that the referees, "all Schoolcraft supporters," finally attributed to Tanner. Then Tanner was further aggravated by repeated delays by the Baptists in confirming his salary as interpreter.
Suffering all those grievances, Tanner's anger and aggressiveness impaired his relationships with family and church. Fierst noted that in 1832 John Tanner was arrested for beating his runaway son but does not identify him. Researching the life of James Tanner, P.G. Downes found that in 1828 John Tanner moved his family to Sault Ste. Marie where "James was probably enrolled in the Mission school of Rev. Abel Bingham (Baptist)" and that "No notice of James occurs until 1830/6 when he probably left his family and sometime thereafter moved west." This raises the question of whether James was the "runaway son" who was beaten by John in 1832. But regardless of which son was beaten, John Tanner's behaviors eventually led his new wife to leave him and the Baptist church to exclude him. Many accounts of these events emphasized Tanner's cruelty. However Fierst pointed out that for John Tanner the issues were "the breaking up of his world, the loss of his integrity, his powerlessness and displacement, and the suffering caused him by white authorities." (6) (7)
During his older years John Tanner became more isolated, morose, lonely and bitter as his health was failing. In 1837-38 he was twice suspected of killing mission livestock. He was arrested for threats against Bingham. While confined, his house was burglarized and a hundred dollars taken. In 1846 he was again threatening Bingham, Schoolcraft, and Rev. William Brockway, the Methodist missionary, as well as others. When James Schoolcraft was shot, local citizens immediately suspected Tanner. However a deathbed confession to the murder was made years later by Lieutenant Tilden, an army officer who had been stationed at nearby Fort Brady at the time of the murder. Some suspected that Tilden, who had led a search for John Tanner when Tanner was suspected, had also murdered Tanner.(8) (9)
As Samuel Spates was assigned to the Methodist mission at Sault Ste. Marie during 1846, he must have been well aware of the furor over James Schoolcraft's murder in July, especially since a fellow Methodist missionary had been among those threatened by John Tanner. Later in the same year Spates may also have learned that John Tanner's son, James, rescued another fellow Methodist missionary, Rev. John Pitezel, who had become lost in the upper Michigan Wilderness in November..........."Rain fell most of the night. He had only a few biscuits and slept little, as he had to keep the fire going. In the morning, he found the bank of Portage River about three miles from its entrance into Keweenaw Bay. James and Mrs. Tanner and their children, rowing upon the river as they searched for wood, rescued him; and he spent a night in their bark-covered cabin while a new storm raged. After breakfast next day, Tanner put Pitezel on the trail leading to the Catholic mission on the west side of Keweenaw Bay."(10) (11)
Spates may have next learned that James Tanner, previously a Catholic, was baptized as a Methodist at the Anse (Michigan) mission in 1847. And whatever impressions Spates may have then formulated about James and John Tanner, he found himself employing James as an interpreter at Sandy Lake in 1848, perhaps due to Pitezel's influence. There a visiting missionary (Mr. Barnard) seemed favorably impressed by Tanner.........."I was here introduced ".... (presumably by Spates) ... to the interpreter, James Tanner, a half-breed, whose father was stolen in childhood from his home in Kentucky.... he became famous throughout the northwest as a hunter and scout. His youngest son, James, was converted at the Anse Mission about a year ago; and has since then devoted himself to the work of a missionary among his own people in his position as interpreter here."(12)
But a year later James Tanner was no longer with Spates at Sandy Lake. In 1849 he was reported to be at Cass Lake, and working with the Presbyterian mission at Lake Winnibigoshish.(13) The reason for the sudden change in religious affiliation is unknown but it may indicate that Tanner's service at Sandy Lake in 1848 was problematic. One version of another event in 1849 suggests that some saw Tanner as a problem. The event concerned Samuel Spates' former classmate and life long friend, Enmegahbowh (whose Christian name was John Johnson) who had worked with him at Sandy Lake. The Methodist church had assigned Enmegahbowh to their Fond-du-Lac mission but then expelled him in 1849 when he and his wife castigated a white man who had insulted her. Enmegahbowh then affiliated with the Episcopal church as a missionary and was later credited by many with preventing the entry of the Chippewas into the 1862 Indian uprisings in Minnesota. For reasons that are not clear, Spates' friend, Chauncey Hobart, blamed James Tanner for disturbances connected with Enmegahbowh's expulsion in 1849.........."John Johnson was expelled; but the propriety of that action under the circumstances was very doubtful. For the trouble and disturbance, which resulted in the loss of confidence in the missionaries, James Tanner, a desperate and worthless, as well as designing half-breed, was largely responsible."(14)
Despite Hobart's accusation there is no evidence that James Tanner had anything to do with Enmegahbowh's expulsion. Nor is there any evidence that he was even then in the area of Fond-du-Lac. However it would not have been impossible as there is ample evidence that James Tanner was often a restless traveler. A year after he was at Cass Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish , Tanner went to Pembina (July, 1850). (15) Then on September 22 of that year, he was apparently back at Sandy Lake as he and Samuel Spates were listed as two of the ten heads of household enumerated that day in Itasca County. Evidently they were neighbors. Tanner was listed as a laborer and Spates as a missionary.(16) . But if Spates shared Hobart's perception of Tanner's character and suspected Tanner of contributing to the Enmegahbowh's expulsion, it may have been a very tense neighborhood. If so, Spates may well have been relieved in 1851 when James Tanner departed, again to Pembina. But he probably would have been shocked to learn that a year later Tanner had recruited a young Baptist, Elijah Terry, from St. Paul to help him establish a mission at St. Joseph in the Pembina area, and that Terry had been murdered soon after starting work on the project.(17)
Although a few suspected Tanner of the murder , most of the accounts reported that Terry was killed and scalped by some Sioux Indians. A detailed report in James Schell's In the Ojibwa Country. was attributed to Elijah Terry's "associate" and it is not clear whether this refers to James Tanner or to a Frenchman who was reportedly with Terry when he was attacked. If the account is true, then it would exonerate James Tanner as a suspect......."Taking up his ax one fine morning (June 28, 1852), and accompanied by a neighborly Frenchman, Terry proceeded into the woods a short distance away, in order to get out some timbers for their new school building. He was in advance of his companion, singing some strains of a familiar hymn, when, from a clump of bushes close by, they were suddenly fired upon by a party of Sioux Indians concealed there. Terry turning to his comrade with an exclamation of pain, fell upon his face to the ground. Instantly the savages brandishing their hatchets and scalping knives, rushed upon their fallen victim 'like a pack of hungry wolves upon a lamb."......The Frenchman succeeded in making his escape and gave the alarm to his associates in the village a couple of miles away. Hurrying to the scene of the tragedy with a company of armed half-breeds, Tanner found his fallen comrade lying upon his face with his left arm under his forehead. Two arrows were sunken deep in his body, while a third was lying on the ground close by. A bullet hole was in his left arm, breaking it near the should; and a deep cut appeared just back of his left ear. Hatchet marks and bruises were also found upon his back; while a large piece of his scalp had been hastily removed and carried away - a trophy of savage hate.......Taking up the poor mangled form, Tanner and his party conveyed it in a cart to the house; after which it was prepared for burial. The following morning the body of the young martyr was borne to the grave in a corner of the Catholic cemetery, followed by a sorrowful company. At the grave Mr. Tanner conducted a brief but solemn service over the mortal remains of his departed friend, before committing to its native earth the lifeless clay(18)
Another report of the murder claims that Terry's scalp was wrenched from his head, and was afterwards seen among Sisseton Dahkotahs near Big Stone Lake. (19) If accurate, that would also indicate that James Tanner was unjustly suspected of the murder.
In an account of an earlier event , Tanner's friend, the Hon. Charles Cavaleer, said that Tanner saved Elijah Terry's life when they were traveling to their destination near the St. Joseph mission. But since Cavaleer was not there, he presumably got his information from Tanner......."They traveled with dogs and sledges. The winter of that year ran well into April; the whole month of March was a terror, with the mercury going to the bottom of the tube nearly every night. The snow was also very deep, and the roads unbroken. Young Terry gave out; then the dogs; and death from cold and starvation stared them in the face. This was several miles before reaching the timber where they intended to camp for the night. ........The dogs could not draw him further; nor could his companion carry him. So wrapping him in a buffalo robe, Tanner left him lying in the snow, while he hurried on to make the encampment and return for his burden. In reaching the river, making the encampment and caring for the dogs, fully four hours were consumed. It was already dark when he returned to find his companion quietly sleeping in the snow. He had great difficulty in awaking him. Talking to him and shaking him appeared to do no good. Terry begged to be let alone; protesting in his delirium that he 'was already beside a good warm fire, was entirely comfortable, and did not wish to go out again in the cold........Seeing that milder means were unavailing, Tanner quickly decided upon a method of treatment more heroic. Accordingly a few vigorous applications of his moccasin to his back, with a series of smart cuffs about his head and ears began to bring him to his senses. A continuance of the same a little longer finally brought him to his feet indignant; and with the blood now thoroughly warmed and freely circulating through his body, he was soon restored both physically and mentally.........But how to get him to the camp was still a perplexing problem, as he was yet too weak to walk. But Tanner was a giant in strength; and quietly wrapping the vanquished hero in his robes; as a mother her child, he flung him over his shoulder and strode with his burden into the camp. Having laid him safely down before the fire, and administered a few cups of strong tea, he soon had his patient comfortably revived and put snugly to bed. If his dreams that night were not more pleasant than those he had enjoyed on the prairie they were more sane; and when he awoke the next morning his appetite would have reflected honor upon a starving Indian."(20)
If James Tanner did what Cavaleer says he did, it was truly an act of strength and character. But the account raises questions. How much time did Tanner spend caring for the dogs before returning for Terry? Did the "continuance" of "a series of smart cuffs about the head and ears" really meant that Tanner was angrily beating Terry. If the story was concocted or distorted, was it an attempt by Tanner to explain injuries that Terry suffered at his hands? And although Tanner probably regained some strength in camp before returning for Terry, it is puzzling that he could later so easily fling Terry over his shoulder and stride into camp when he was earlier unable to carry him in any way.
Both Schell and Cavaleer praised James Tanner lavishly. "He possessed a magnificent figure, was a fluent speaker, and manifested considerable intellectual ability. He was especially gifted in prayer.... a better Bible scholar I never knew.... At Pembina he lived neighbor to me all one winter (1850-51); and often at his time for family prayer during those long winter evenings, I used to join them in their family devotions. He would read a chapter of the Bible and comment upon it in the most beautiful; simple and sensible language I ever listened to; and a more forcible prayer than his I am sure I never heard."(21)
In a letter to his wife, Thomas Barland also wrote favorably about James Tanner.".... at St. Paul I found Mr. Tanner, nearly a full blooded Indian missionary, the same who was in the company of the missionary who was murdered & scalped a year ago, but was providentially absent at the moment of the transaction. His wife was also with the murdered man at the time but escaped almost by miracle. He, his wife & child started from Selkirk's settlement 700 miles north of St. Paul but like myself too late in the season to continue navigation far. They traveled 500 miles on foot, he bearing 200 lbs weight of bedding, cooking utensils axe & sometimes his child when sick. ....I felt very much interested in the man . There seems in him such a combination of intelligence, prudence, & piety."(22)
More testimonials to James Tanner are found in the "Home Mission Record" where he was described as "a zealous and devout Christian" and as one of the most "self-sacrificing" missionaries in America. He was quoted in the publication as saying ........."When will the poor red men be converted to God? But I am resolved not to give up this cause while I live. I will spend my time, my property, and my life for my red brethren. And I care not whether I die by the tomahawk or the scalping-knife -- I care not how freely my blood flows, if I can only be the means of their conversion." (23)
Those writings make James Tanner out to a saint. But even those who praised James Tanner acknowledged that there was a dark side of his character. James Schell stated that "Tho gentle and kind when sober, he would terrorize an entire village when frenzied with rum."(24) And the "Home Mission Record's" articles noted that James Tanner "until the age of 29, pursued a wild, wicked, and desperate career."(25)
Others saw largely the dark side. Edward Neil often included some unflattering comments about James Tanner in two publications, following a description of John Tanner, and probably contributed similar remarks to a biography of Samuel Spates......"His son, James, was kindly treated by the missionaries to the Ojibwas of Minnesota; but he walked in the footsteps of his father. In the year 1851, he attempted to impose upon the Presbyterian minister in Saint Paul, and when detected, called upon the Baptist minister, who, believing him a penitent, cut a hole in the ice, and receive him into the church by immersion. In time, the Baptists found him out, when he became an Unitarian missionary, and, at last, it is said, met a death by violence."........."His son, James, walked in the footsteps of his father. He was without principle and cunning, though treated kindly by the Missionaries, he never showed any appreciation. He affiliated at different times with different churches. In the latter part of his life, it is said, he became a Unitarian Missionary, and that he met a violent death some years after the Sandy Lake affair." (26) (27) (28)
Although Neil was critical, a more scathing indictment was expressed by Chauncey Hobart who suggested in his Methodism in Minnesota that James Tanner was a repeat murderer.... ".... There is little doubt that he murdered young Terry, some years before, at Pembina, and also shot Mrs. Spencer, near Red Lake. (29)
Hobart obviously suspected that James Tanner had murdered Mrs. Spencer as well as Elijah Terry. But no evidence supports his allegations. Mrs. Spencer's and her husband, Rev. David Spencer, joined James Tanner at the Pembina mission in May, 1853.(30) (31) There, on August 30, she was shot just as she was retiring. Her grief-stricken husband wrote a detailed account of her murder........"... We were preparing to retire; Cornelia being in the act of lying down, while I was about to blow out the light, when the fatal shot came.... two balls passed through the same pane of glass and curtain ... my dear wife was shot and was falling on the bed.... At a glance I perceived that the wound was fatal; and ran for a gun, as the only means at hand, to call for help. I fired several shots from the door, which, however, failed of their intended effect......."Our nearest neighbor, Mr. Tanner, lived about twenty-five rods away; the Indian boys were all asleep upstairs; and the risk was too great to venture outside. What a scene was that for a husband and father - his beloved companion weltering in her blood; and his children screaming with terror - one of them an infant at her breast, covered with the warm life-blood of its mother..... "As soon as the day was sufficiently advanced to render safe to venture out, I locked the door and went for assistance. The neighbors soon collected and were very kind in their attentions - doing everything necessary to be done for the beloved dead. Toward the close of the day, all things being in readiness, with appropriate services conducted by Mr. Tanner, we committed the dear remains to their final resting place..." (32)
Hobarts accusations were effectively discredited twenty years after the murder when the wife of an Indian trader related that when she was present at a war dance in 1874 - " a Sioux Indian, named Chu-I-has-ka, or 'long-rib', took a prominent part in the dance. And among other exploits in which he had proudly figured, he narrated boastfully, in pantomime, how on one occasion at the trader's village on the Pembina, he and his two companions 'stole into the place at midnight; and seeing a light in one of the lonely cabins, they crept stealthily up and tapped (thus) with the muzzles of their guns against the window. Then when a woman, holding a babe in her arm, came and drew the curtain aside to look forth, they all discharged their guns at her heart and saw her turn and go reeling toward her bed. They thought to take her scalp; but when her husband came to the door and fired to alarm the neighbors, they preferred to seek safety in flight."(33)
Soon after Terry's murder, Tanner went to St. Paul where he was baptized as a Baptist after telling his new church that he and his family had walked seven hundred miles, mostly on snow shoes, just so that he could be baptized as a Baptist.(34) He announced that he was going to Washington to plead with the Government to help the education of the Indians and to exhort the churches to aid in the diffusion of the gospel.(35) He told the Baptists that he had traveled fifteen hundred miles in ninety-five days, and that during those three months he also made extensive repairs upon a house, moved his family into it, cut most of his winter's woods; preached many times; held a protracted council with the Indians and made arrangements to help twenty family prepare for cultivation of the soil in the spring.(36)
The Baptists in Boston were greatly moved by Tanner's words when he visited them in 1864. In their publication, "Christian Watchman & Reflector," the author of a piece entitled "A Self-Sacrificing Missionary" quoted his comments at their prayer meeting............"I seriously doubt whether we have a more self-sacrificing missionary in America, or upon any portion of our foreign field than James Tanner. It was all but heart-rending to hear him talk in our prayer-meeting the last time before he left. 'If,' said he, 'an army of soldiers were called for, to unsheathe the sword and exterminate my countrymen, thousands would be rushing to Pembina eager for the fight. But now when two or three men are called for, to go and teach them the way of eternal life, to tell them of Jesus, not one is found after months of travel and entreaty to enter with me upon this. And now I must return upon my long journey, in the dead of winter, all alone, a poor, weary, disconsolate traveler. Oh, when will the churches feel their obligations to my poor countrymen? And oh, when will the poor red men be converted to God? But I am resolved not to give up this cause while I live. I will spend my time, my property, and my life for my red brethren. And I care not whether I die by the tomahawk or the scalping-knife- I care not how freely my blood flows, if I can only be the means of their conversion.'..."(37)
Whatever the Methodists may have thought about James Tanner in 1864, the Baptists were certainly impressed. None of the Baptist accounts hint at any thought that Tanner might have had anything to do with the murder of Elijah Terry. In fact there appears to be no evidence to support any of Hobart's accusations that James Tanner was implicated in Enmegahbowh's expulsion or in the murders of Elijah Terry or Cornelia Spencer. Nor is there any proof of the allegations that he later incited the Indians to drive Samuel Spates and his family away from Sandy Lake. Nevertheless Hobart suspected Tanner of doing just that.
It would not have been difficult for Tanner or anybody else to stir up the Indians at Sandy Lake. They had suffered grievously in 1850 and 1851 from famine, disease, and delayed annuity payments.(38) And through his letters to Elder Brooks in 1854 and 1855, Spates was voicing his growing frustration and discouragement. His interpreter forged a note on him. Fewer Indians were responding to his missionary efforts. One old man told Spates that the other Indians hated him because he came to the mission so much and because he talked about how he intended to leave the Indian way. Some of the Indians were trying Spates' patience as they indulged in drunkenness, gambling, and knife fights. A competing church had entered the Sandy Lake area, and baptized some of the same Indians whom Spates had baptized years earlier. As Spates contended with these problems as well as with a desperate shortage of provisions, one of his letters (July 28, 1855) reveals how worried he was that the Methodists might close the Sandy Lake Mission............"Very many of the Indians are unwilling for us to leave. It is hard to give them up to certain destruction. And it looks hard to remain unless we could accomplish more than we have been doing. These Indians are, as you know, very poor. They will be much worse if we should leave them." (39)
Despite Spates' claim that many of the Indians wanted him to remain, it was the Indians rather than the Methodists who closed the mission when they drove him and his family away. And according to a biographical sketch of his life (based largely upon information provided by his children), James Tanner was blamed for the disturbance that caused Spates and his family to flee from Sandy Lake.................. "At Sandy Lake, the station of his greatest work, a disturbance occurred in the Autumn of 1855, brought on by some lawless Indians, which was precipitated by one James Tanner, a half-breed. At the opening of the disturbance Tanner gave out that he was going to drive all the missionaries out of the country and he succeeding in actually breaking up this mission.".(40)
Chauncey Hobart, never a fan of James Tanner, suggested that Tanner resolved to drive out all the missionaries because they would no longer employ him............"The prosperous condition of the mission continued until 1856" (Hobart errs in the date. It was actually 1855) when a noted half-breed, James Tanner, because he could not be employed by any of the missionaries as interpreter, resolved to drive them all from the upper Mississippi. There is little doubt that he murdered young Terry, some years before, at Pembina, and also shot Mrs. Spencer, near Red Lake. He then came down to Sandy Lake and in every way, by lying and threats, so aroused the Indians that the lives of our missionaries were endangered and they were barely able to escape." (41)
In the letters that are preserved in the "Samuel Spates Papers," Spates himself does not accuse Tanner. But in a letter to Elder Brooks he does speak movingly about how the Indians forced him and his family to leave Sandy Lake........Belle Prairie, Oct. 30th 1855......Brother Brooks...........You see I date my letter at Belle Prairie. We came here on yesterday. Left Sandy Lake on yesterday one week ago. We had trouble with the Indians such as we never had before and found it impossible to remain longer in safety. The Indians were drunk some days and nights without intermission, and while drunk, without any cause or provocation on our part, came to the mission, broke the door open twice, threatened to kill me, two men struck me, one or two days after poisoned our little boy. Yet, thank God, their diabolical design was not accomplished. We still have our precious babe with us. We came down in a canoe of course and therefore could bring but little with us. Left what we could not bring with the Government blacksmith. I sent the cattle out before I left. They are at Mr. Olmsteads. .. We should have tried to come down to St. Paul but my wife's health is so poor we thought it not best t o proceed. We are now at the house of Dr. Lewis. Please to say what we had better do. For the present I can not leave my wife or I would bring this intelligence instead of writing. At present we feel very much worn out. Still hope after a little rest and quiet to rally again.... We do feel thankful to God that it is as well with us as it is. Our family is still unbroken - none are buried in heathen ground.... Most respectfully, Samuel Spates."(42)
If James Tanner had indeed riled up the Sandy Point Indians in the autumn of 1855 he apparently was acting far differently in 1856 when he was said to have been with a party of five Chippewas from White Oak Point, giving a series of lectures in Boston and identifying himself as a Unitarian(43) after his earlier attachments to the Catholics, to the Methodists, to the Presbyterians, and to the Baptists. Whatever else James Tanner was, he was not a man of lasting church loyalties.
However he may have served briefly as a soldier during the Sioux Indian uprising of 1862. James Tanner is listed as a private in Captain Ambrose Freeman's company of mounted men, the Northern Rangers organized for the relief of the siege of Fort Abercrombie. During the siege the company captured a Sioux camp.(44) One source credited James Tanner with killing a Sioux.(45) .(46)
Soon after the uprising (November, 1862) James Tanner was described in a St. Cloud newspaper as a man who had "....long been a Chippewa interpreter and has lectured on Indian affairs through our eastern cities." (47) He apparently made at least one such trip east in 1863, identifying himself as a preacher and a trapper, and lecturing on the Sioux uprising, according to an 1864 news item............"James Tanner, the Chippewa Indian preacher and trapper who started East last fall to lecture on Minnesota and the Massacres, writes that many families will leave for St. Cloud.... He also says that he has more calls for lectures than he can fill."(48)
After that news item, little is known about James Tanner's movement until 1870 when he is listed on the census in Poplar Point, Manitoba, as a 65 years old head of household.(49) Schell related that James Tanner was killed when he was accidentally thrown from a wagon by a frightened team. A little more detail is provided by Dr. Peter Lorenz Neufeld who cites the coroner's jury ruling that ."the late James Tanner died from a fracture of the skull caused by his being thrown out of a wagon while the horse of said wagon was running away, and that said horse was caused to run away willfully and maliciously by two persons unknown to this jury." Nixon notes that the death was said to have occurred on Nov. 30, 1870 but no source is given for this information.(50) (51) (52)
Was James Tanner much like his father? In some ways he was. Both were complex men who sometimes appeared as romantic figures and on other occasions as unsavory and suspicious characters. In his narrative of his captivity, John Tanner is an adventurous character. But in his later years others saw him as an angry, embittered and dangerous man who may have been a murderer. Allegations of domestic violence and child abuse suggest that he was capable of threatening and inflicting violence. In contrast James Tanner spoke of himself as a pious Christian who had dedicated himself to helping his red brethren. Yet even some of his admirers noted that although he was a gentle man, he could become threatening and violent when drunk. It is possible that he may have incited the Sandy Lake Indians while drinking. It would also not be surprising if some of John Tanner's threats and violence were connected with drinking. Some of James Tanner's contemporaries, especially the Methodists, regarded James as a cunning and untrustworthy man who incited the Ojibways to drive Samuel Spates and his family away from the Sandy Lake mission. At least one prominent Methodist suspected that he was a murderer. But there is clear evidence that both James and John Tanner were unjustly suspected of murder
In his later years John Tanner suffered many problems, including much trouble being satisfactorily employed as an interpreter. Hobart says that James Tanner wanted to drive all the missionaries away because nobody would any longer employ him as an interpreter. John Tanner perceived himself as being badly mistreated by white society, including the missionaries. James Tanner, at least on some occasions, may have seen himself mistreated by missionaries.
Both James and his father were itinerant travelers during their earlier years. Both apparently had a number of marriages. Both were probably misperceived and misunderstood by others. Fierst clearly shows that such was the case for John Tanner . And there were sharp differences in how James Tanner was perceived. John Tanner had many difficulties adjusting to changes in his life - cultural differences, failing health, employment problems, and loss of family members. James Tanner may have had some adjustment problems in his relationships with the Methodists but appears to have adjusted more successfully than his father, at least according to reports of his activities as a speaker.
Beyond these similarities and difference, there are aspects of men's lives that remain cloaked in mystery. Despite some rumors, nobody has ever determined exactly how, when, or where John Tanner died. The circumstances in the vague reports of James Tanner's death are sketchy at best. Very little is known about how the two men spent the last few years of their lives.
Even less is known about James Tanner's early life and his relationship with his parents. His birth date is uncertain. He was listed as 65 years old on the 1870 census in Poplar Point. Nixon says that he was said to have been born about 1812. In his research of the descendants of John Tanner, Downes says that James was born between 1813 and 1817; that his mother was Theresa, a Saulteaux; and that his father took him to Mackinac Island, Michigan, in 1820, then to Cape Girardeau County, Missouri , returning to Mackinac Island in 1822 where James was probably enrolled in the mission school and bound over to a blacksmith. (53) (54)
A review of the lives of John Tanner and his son, James Tanner raises more questions than answers. First, John Tanner moved his family to Sault Ste. Marie in 1828 where James was probably enrolled in the Mission school of Rev. Abel Bingham while his father took a job as interpreter for the U.S. Indian Agent, Henry Schoolcraft, after writing the narrative of his captivity. Did this set the stage for James to witness how his father reacted to his experiences with Schoolcraft, the missionaries, and others, perhaps influencing how James himself would later relate? Second, the "runaway son" who was beaten by John Tanner in 1832 may have been James Tanner. If so, how might that experience have contributed to James' reputed capacity for violence? Third, James Tanner's first reported contact with a Methodist missionary was in November, 1846, when he rescued Rev. John Pitezel, who could have been instrumental in getting James employed as an interpreter for Samuel Spates in 1848. At the time he rescued Pitezel, James presumably would have heard that his father had disappeared only several months earlier, and that he was suspected of murdering Schoolcraft's brother, after threatening Schoolcraft and others, including a Methodist missionary. (55) (56) How might those experiences have affected James' attitudes toward and relationships with the Methodists? Fourth, some years after John Tanner's disappearance, Lieutenant Tilden reportedly confessed to murdering James Schoolcraft. Some suspected that he had also murdered John Tanner(57) Assuming that James Tanner heard of the confession and the suspicions concerning Tilden, he may then have perceived his father as a man who had been unjustly accused of murdering a white man.. How might that have influenced James' attitudes and behavior?
These questions invite speculation and fantasy but are not likely to be answered in any definitive way. Thus, despite the similarities between James and John Tanner, much of their lives remains a mystery
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. "Rev. Samuel Spates - A Sketch Prepared for the Historical Society of North Dakota to be used in a Volume Being Gotten Off to Preserve the Doings of Early Indian Missions in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Oct. 29, 1908." Informants were Samuel Pope Spates and Anna Spates,children of Samuel Spates. This biographical draft is preserved in the Minnesota Historical Society.
2. Service Record of Samuel Spates. Minnesota Annual Conference. United Methodist Church. Dept. Of Archives.
3. Nixon, George. "John Tanner, the 'White Indian'..." Heritage Quest March/Apr 1991. 75-79
4. Tanner, John. (Ed by Edwin James - 1830). An Indian Captivity (1789-1822): John Tanner's Narrative of his Captivity Among the Ottawa and Ojibwa Indians WPA reprint sponsored by the California State Library. San Francisco, 1940
5. Fierst, John T. "Return to 'Civilization': John Tanner's Troubled Years at Saint Ste. Marie." Minnesota History. Spring, 1986. P.23-36.
6. Ibid 34-35
7. Downes, P.G. "Memo "Descendants of John Tanner" from P.G. Downes to Hartwell Bowsfield. Sept. 10, 1958. Minnesota Historical Society.
9. O'Meara, Walter. In the Country of the Walking Dead Award Books. N.Y. 1912. 236-238.
10. Thurber, Arthur. Strangers and Sojurner. A History of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. Detroit. 1994. Pp. 57-58.
11. Pitezel, John. Lights and Shades of Missionary Life. Cincinnati. 1859 (141, 146)
13. Downes, P.G. "Memo "Descendants of John Tanner" from P.G. Downes to Hartwell Bowsfield. Sept. 10, 1958. Minnesota Historical Society.
14. Hobart, C. Methodism in Minnesota. 1887. P 27-28.
15. Downes, P.G. "Memo "Descendants of John Tanner" from P.G. Downes to Hartwell Bowsfield. Sept. 10, 1958. Minnesota Historical Society.
16. Minnesota Territorial Census. 1850. Itasca County.
17. Downes, P.G. "Memo "Descendants of John Tanner" from P.G. Downes to Hartwell Bowsfield. Sept. 10, 1958. Minnesota Historical Society.
18. Schell, James. In the Ojibwa Country. 129
19. Neil, Edward. "Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota" In History of Dakota County. North Star Publishing. Minneapolis. 1881. P. 124.
20. Schell, James. In the Ojibwa Country. 126-127
21. Neil, Edward. "Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota" In History of Dakota County. North Star Publishing. Minneapolis. 1881. P. 131
22. Letter from Thomas Barland to his wife, January 27, 1853. Minnesota History Center
23. "Sketch of James Tanner, March, 1853" in "Home Mission Record" 4:26. "A Self-Sacrificing Missionary" in "Christian Watchman & Reflector" March 23, 1854. Letter by Miss Harriet Bishop to Home Mission Record" Jan. 9, 1853.
24. Schell, James. In the Ojibwa Country. P. 131.
25. "Sketch of James Tanner, March, 1853" in "Home Mission Record" 4:26
26. Neil, Edward. "Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota." In History of Dakota County. North Star Publishing. Mpls. 1881. P. 88.
27. "Rev. Samuel Spates - A Sketch Prepared for the Historical Society of North Dakota to be used in a Volume Being Gotten Off to Preserve the Doings of Early Indian Missions in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Oct. 29, 1908." Informants were Samuel Pope Spates and Anna Spates, children of Samuel Spates. This biographical draft is preserved in the Minnesota Historical Society. (The language in this draft suggests that Edward Neil's words are used to implicate James Tanner in the Sandy Lake incident.)
28. Neil, Edward. "Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota." In History of the Upper Mississippi Valley. Minnesota Historical Company. Mpls. 1881. Pp. 194-195
29. Hobart, Chauncey. Methodism in Minnesota. Pp. 369-370.
30. Schell, James. In the Ojibwa Country. xiv, 381
31. Ackerman, G. George Northrup, Frontier Scout. Minnesota Historical Society. 1938.
32. Schell, James. In the Ojibwa Country. Pp. 149-157.
34. Letter from Miss Harriet E. Bishop in the Home Mission Record. Jan. 9, 1853. Minnesota Historical Society.
35. Letter from Thomas Barland to his wife. Jan. 27, 1853. Minnesota Historical Society.
36. "A Self-Sacrificing Missionary." Christian Watchman and Reflector. Boston. Thursday. March 23, 1854. Minnesota Historical Society.
38. Pitezel, John. Lights and Shades of Missionary Life Walden and Stowe. Cincinnati. 1882. P. 298-302
39. Letters from Samuel Spates to Elder Brooks from Chippewa Agency - Dec. 18 and Dec. 19, 1854; and from Sandy Lake - Feb. 5 , July 13, and July 28, 1855 In the "Samuel Spates Papers." Minnesota History Center.
40. "Rev. Samuel Spate - A Sketch Prepared for the Historical Society of North Dakota to be used in a Volume Being Gotten Off to Preserve the Doings of Early Indian Missions in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Oct. 29, 1908." Informants were Samuel Pope Spates and Anna Spates, children of Samuel Spates. This biographical draft is preserved in the Minnesota Historical Society.
41. Hobart, Chauncey. Methodism in Minnesota. Pp. 369-370.
42. The account of how Samuel Spates was driven away from Sandy Lake is drawn from the following from Samuel Spates to "Brother Brooks", Oct. 30, 1855, in "The Samuel Spates Papers" at the Minnesota Historical Society.
43. Downes, P.G. "Memo "Descendants of John Tanner" from P.G. Downes to Hartwell Bowsfield. Sept. 10, 1958. Minnesota Historical Society.
44. Minnesota in the Civil War and Indian War: 1861-1865, Board of Commissioners. Pioneer Press Co. St. Paul, Minnesota. 1890. 745, 762
45. Downes, P.G. "Memo "Descendants of John Tanner" from P.G. Downes to Hartwell Bowsfield. Sept. 10, 1958. Minnesota Historical Society.
46. Carley, Kenneth. The Sioux Uprising of 1862. The Minnesota Historical Society. 1976. 58
47. St. Cloud Democrat. Nov. 20, 1862
48. Ibid Jan. 7, 1864
49. Nixon, George J. "John Tanner, The 'White Indian'...Part II". Heritage Quest. July/August, 1992. 68.
50. Nixon, George J. "John Tanner, The 'White Indian'...Part II". Heritage Quest. July/August, 1992. 67
51. Schell, James. In the Ojibway Country 150
52. Neufeld, Peter. "John 'Falcon' Tanner's Death" Manitoba Historial Society. "Manitoba Pageant", Spring 1975, Volume 20, Number 3
54. Downes, P.G. "Memo "Descendants of John Tanner" from P.G. Downes to Hartwell Bowsfield. Sept. 10, 1958. Minnesota Historical Society.
55. Fierst, John T. "Return to 'Civilization': John Tanner's Troubled Years at Saint Ste. Marie." Minnesota History. Spring, 1986. P.23-36.
56. Pitezel, John. Lights and Shades of Missionary Life. Cincinnati. 1859 (141, 146)
57. O'Meara, Walter. In the Country of the Walking Dead Award Books. N.Y. 1912. 236-238.
Census Records | Vital Records | Family Trees & Communities | Immigration Records | Military Records Directories & Member Lists | Family & Local Histories | Newspapers & Periodicals | Court, Land & Probate | Finding Aids