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

Readers who are familiar with early 19th century Ojibwe history are likely to recognize the name of John Tanner, the white child who was captured and raised by Indians and who became an adult within communities of Ojibwe of the Lake Superior and American-British borderlands. His personal story was recorded by scientific scholar and army surgeon at Ft. Brady Dr. Edwin James and published in the early 1830s as the autobiography of John Tanner; in your lifetime, this saga is available under the title The Falcon.

You probably also know that based on Henry Schoolcraft’s claims, Tanner was considered the most likely suspect in the murder of James Schoolcraft, brother of Henry Schoolcraft. This claim later proved groundless—a soldier confessed sometime later—but Tanner was treated terribly in the meantime. You may not be aware that Tanner worked at times as Ojibwe language interpreter for Schoolcraft and for Dr. James and that James had used Tanner’s insights and translations as the basis for an Ojibwe grammar book as well as the material for a lecture to scholars in the Eastern states. James’s effort in producing the biography was probably the last straw for the competitive Henry R. Schoolcraft, who coveted an intellectual and artistic reputation himself and who in time plundered his wife’s Ojibwe cultural heritage for material for his many “Algic”-oriented publications, many of them containing folk material.

The Falcon is an invaluable piece of Americana and a wonderful source of Ojibwe material. My husband Steve used it for his presentation to La Compagnie HSP regarding Ojibwe hunting practices. It is also invaluable for its insights into the Ojibwe-Dakota blood feud and the preparations taken by Ojibwe war parties.

There were Tanner children in the Mackinaw Mission school in the 1820s, according to records transcribed by Keith Witter for his book Battle for the Soul. The school was been closed in 1836.

Here, in an 1837 piece that you probably never knew existed, John Tanner tells the President of the U.S. how his family was taken from him with Henry Schoolcraft’s complicity. I found this letter within the Sault Ste Marie Sub Agency microfilm set at Minnesota Historical Society. The piece occurs at #0292 of the film.

— Linda Bryan, member of La Compagnie HSP and a despiser of Henry R. Schoolcraft


Sault Marie’s Michigan, November 10, 1837
Father Mr. Van Buran [Pres. Van Buren]
President of the United States

I take opertunity this day to reach my words to you with tears calling upon you for help. Because of my long Sufferings by the hand of Mr. Henry Schoolcraft [Sault Ste, Marie Indian Agent within the Indian Agency’s Michigan Superintendency]. it is 7 years past since he lays his hands upon me. Governor Cass [Michigan Territory governor and head of the Michigan Indian Superintendency, which extended west to the Missouri River] placed me hear to be a Iterprater [sic] for Goverment. And Mr. Henry Schoolcraft took the office away from me on purpose to give it to his brother-in-law George Johnson And He took my Daughter away from me also which was keeping house for me and stript me alone and thow [sic] me down to the dust and it is 5 years now and I was agoing right down to Washington to make Complaint to the President but Governor Cass stopt me there in Detroit.

And it is 5 years now since my Wife was taken out of my hands by force by two Soldiers [followed by blank space  on page] Fort Brady Major Wilcocks Company. I was walking along in the street leading my Wife along in love on visiting with my Daughter and a young Child in my arms which was only 3 Months old and which was very dear to me.  and 2 Soldiers came running in the street and one went betwen [sic] me and my wife and took her out of my hands by force and and [sic] the Soldiers run of with her. And I saw them Carrying her in the baptist Mission house and I went up to the house and lookt [p2] for my wife but I could not find her Mr. Elder Bingham minister [Rev. Able Bingham, headmaster of the Baptist mission school at the Sault] shut her up in upstairs room and next day Mr. Bingham and Mrs. Bingham & Mrs. Davis & Miss Rice all the Baptist Missionary family walkt down with my wife to the shore and sent her on board the vessel in the hand of Mr. Schoolcraft and sent her away. Mr. Bingham and mr. John Hulburt setler [sutler] fort Brady [a Schoolcraft brothr-in-law] and Mr. Ashman [an AFCo. Trader] and several Soldiers and they all gave money to my wife sending her away and after 8 or 9 months past I went down to Detroit to look for my family and fifty miles back in the country to Detroit I find her the name of the village was Dexter but I couldent find the young Child and they said to me we heard you was comeing yesterday and we kill it and we buryd it yesterday evening and I stopt two days there and I beged to see the grave but no one wouldn’t show it to me and they said to me if you want your Child we will go and dig it out the ground and give it to you & you Could take it home and raise it so I dont know now what is become of my Child if it is dead or living I know not.

they wrote to me to do such thing and she said to me I’ve got nothing against you I done Just what the peopele made me do.  and I was empoyd as a Interpreter for the bapttist Mission and so I could not remain any longer I must Come back to attend to my duty and I had only 15 Dollars [p3]  with me and I gave 10 Dollars to my wife and kisst her and she kisst me and so I started on my way hoe and I had only five Doll’r to pay for my Stage passage to get to Detroit. and then I was suffered a great deal at Detroit 3 days without eating because I had no money When a methidist Mission at black river on Canada side heard of my Situation they sent fo rme and board me Comfortable 3 days till I got passage to get back but when I got home Mr. Bingham said to me two or three simes a strong word your wife is in my hands you shall never see her again as long as you live. and moreover Mr. Bingham & Mr. Hulburt they Cast me in pri[tear in page] last year without any Cause and they kept me [tear] prison forty 8 days and my windows was broke op[tear] and my house was robed every bale [?] a hundred an[tear] Doll’rs worth of my property was destroyed.

Now Father if you plase to get my family out of those mens hands  and restore them up to me so I may love if not I am sure it will be my end my family is Dear to me more than my own life I lost three of my Daughters by the hands of man one was killd by Ojipiway Indians she was shot with a gun She was 20 years of age and I lost another one on Meackanaw iland She was 16 years old and I dont  know what is become of her and all this brings my heart down weal [weak?] Since my wife was taken awy from me my tears never Stop running one day nor one night yet. And I call upon you to do something for me for my living I cant do any kind hevy work because I am cripple by Ojibjuay Indians when I was a prisoner among them oly Interpreting thats all only one thing I could do. if you please to excus our bad hand writing this is my little Daughters handwriting She is only 18 years of age. that’s all I say to you Father

John Tanner

Notation on back of folded paper, for filing system:
OIA Saut Ste M.  Y204
John Tanner
Sault Ste Marie Nov 10 1857
Asks redress for grievances infliected on him by H.R. Schoolcraft by taking away from him his wife & child & removing him from his situation as Interpreter &c.
Rec’d 28 Nov 1837

Second notation on another panel of folded letter:
Ref’d to the Sec’y of War MOB [?]
R977 Nov 27 1857 Indian Office

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