John Tanner – Falcon of the Fur Trade

john tanner, fur trade, history, north america, biography
John Tanner gives us a glimpse into the age of the great Fur Trade.

The era of the fur trade in America was a time rich with classic stories, vivid adventures, and colorful characters. It was a time of hardships, accomplishment in the face of adversity, change, and immortal legends. Romanticism mixed with harsh reality. Revolutionary freedom was earned with the best of our human potentials, and paid for with the worst. It was a time that has, in many ways, come to exemplify the very spirit of this nation: individualism, grit, and the ambition to build a better life. Woven into this tapestry of epic history are the tales of the people who lived it, and one of those tales is the true-life story of John Tanner.

John Tanner’s story comes to us by the careful chronicles of Dr. Edwin James from the city of Sault Ste. Marie. There Tanner sat and relayed to the doctor the details of a life of survival, loneliness, and adventure. Dr. James listened, and scrolled with his pen the words that plainly and boldly described life among the Indians as had never before been noted. He told of dealings with the North West and the Hudson Bay companies, and he spoke of a man trapped between two worlds. Published in 1830, Dr. James’ written works have given us a rare glimpse into this age of the Fur Trade.

He had earned for himself a new name: Shaw-shaw-wabe-nase, known in the English tongue as ‘The Falcon’.

John Tanner was born the son of a respected clergyman in 1780 in the territory of Kentucky, twelve years before its statehood. There he lived with his family on the outskirts of a still new and growing America and there at the age of nine his life would change forever. Fear among the settlers of the Indians was rampant. To most white settlers an encounter with marauding Native bands was a daily fear. The thought of capture was considered to be a fate worse than death. For some this fear would prove to be true, but for others, who would become fully integrated into tribal society, the transition was relatively seamless. Young John Tanner faced this fear one morning when a party of Ojibwa kidnapped him from his family’s cabin and took him to their village along the shore of the Great Lakes. Soon after his arrival he was then sold to an old Ottawa woman named Net-no-kwa who brought him to the Red River. For eleven years Net-no-kwa taught him the skills of hunting and trapping, tracking and fishing, and the arts of Ottawa survival. So accomplished did John become at these skills that he had grown to become leader amongst the people. He had earned for himself a new name: Shaw-shaw-wabe-nase, known in the English tongue as ‘The Falcon’.

Life was hard, but his endurance and his will were strong, and they would see him successfully through the long lonely winters each season.

As a young adult ‘The Falcon’ chose to set-off and make his living in the world of the whites. He became a guide for traders crossing the vast wilderness, and a trapper who traded his peltries for the ammunition and woolens offered by the clerks. In time he came to identify with the people of his birth, but being considered a Native he found few who would fully accept him in return. His life, like many others of that time, straddled two realms. Persistent poverty, distance from his home in the Ottawa village, and the difficulties of frontier life accentuated the necessity of his self-reliance. Life was hard, but his endurance and his will were strong, and they would see him successfully through the long lonely winters each season.

There are several recorded stories of the events within John Tanner’s Life, and many of them are quite demonstrative of the fierce rivalries between the North West and Hudson Bay companies. He tells of a Mr. McDonald of the Hudson Bay who was waylaid, then murdered, by Frenchmen and Metis under payment of a North West clerk named Mr. Herschel. He recounted an attack upon a trade establishment near his tribal home along the Red River, and the bribes paid to Indian mercenaries. Although ‘The Falcon’ was considered a North West man for many years, he had long thought these rivalries between the two companies as ‘unnatural’. It is perhaps easy to understand why his thoughts and loyalties might have changed when a clerk named Mr. Wells, or Gah-se-moan by the Indians (meaning ‘a sail’, descriptive of the man’s fullness of stature), attempted to rob him at gunpoint. This in turn brings us to the story that Tanner is probably most famous for: guiding the Des Meurons over the ‘warroad’ to Pembina, and down the Red, for the re-taking of Fort Douglas from the NWC.

An excerpt from the book “A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner”, as recorded by Dr. James, reads as such:
“I started with twenty men in advance, and went to Be-gwi-o-nus-ko Sah-gie-gun, or Rush Lake, whence the horses were sent back, and the captain, with the remaining fifty men, came up. At Rush Lake we had snow shoes made, and engaged She-gwaw-koo-sink, Me-zhuk-ko-nong, and other Indians, to accompany us, as hunters, and as we had great quantities of wild rice, we were pretty well supplied with food. We had, however, a long distance to travel over the prairie, and the snow was deep.

When we were out of meat, there was occasionally something of a mutinous disposition manifest among the soldiers, but little serious difficulty occurred. In forty days after we left Rainy Lake, we arrived at Red River, and took the fort at the mouth of the Pembinah, without any difficulty, there being few or no persons there, except squaws and children, and a few old Frenchmen.


From Pembinah, where I left my children, we went, in four days, to the Assinneboin, ten miles above the mouth, having crossed Red River a short time before. Here Be-gwais, a principal man of the Ojibbeways, met us, with twelve young men. Our captain and governor, who was with us, though they understood there were no more than twelve men in the North West Company’s fort, at the mouth of the Assinneboin, seemed at a loss to know in what manner to attempt its reduction.


They counseled with Be-gwais, and he advised them to march immediately up to the fort, and show their force before it, which he thought would be sufficient to insure immediate surrender. When Capt. Tussenon had engaged me at Rainy Lake, I had told him I could make a road from that place to the door of Mr. Harshield’s bed room, and considering myself able to do so, I was dissatisfied that they took no notice of me in these consultations; and at night, we at that time having approached very near, I communicated my dissatisfaction to Loueson Nowlan, an interpreter, who was well acquainted with the country, and who had a half-brother in the fort, a clerk for Mr. Harshield.

We talked together, as we left the place where they had been counseling, and after we had lain down by our own fire, and Nowlan agreed with me that it would be in the power of us two to go forward, and surprise, and take the fort, and we determined to attempt it; but we communicated our intention to some soldiers, who followed us. There were no hills, bushes, or other objects, to cover our approach; but the night was dark, and so extremely cold, that we did not suppose the people within could be very vigilant.


We made a ladder in the way the Indians make them, by cutting the trunk of a tree, with the limbs, trimmed long enough to serve to step on, and placing it against the wall, we went over and got down on the inside, on the top of the blacksmith’s shop, whence we descended silently, one after another, to the ground. When a sufficient number of the men had got in, we went to find the people, first cautiously placing two or three armed men at the doors of the occupied rooms, to prevent them from getting together, or concerting any means of resistance.


We did not discover the bed room of Harshield until day light. When he found we were in the fort, he came out, strongly armed, and attempted to make resistance, but we easily overpowered him. He was at first bound, and as he was loud and abusive, the governor, who, with the captain, had now arrived, directed us to throw him out into the snow; but the weather being too cold for him to remain there without much danger of being frozen, they allowed him to come in, and he was placed by the fire. When he recognized me among his captors, he knew at once that I must have guided the party, and he reproached me loudly with my ingratitude, and he pretended formerly to have done me many favors. I told him, in reply, of the murders he had committed on his own friends, and the people of his own color, and that it was on account of them, and his numerous crimes, that I had joined against him.”


Tanner received only 20 or 30 pounds for the dangerous and grueling effort of guiding the expedition and bravely storming Fort Douglas.  He had also further alienated himself, and  gained new enemies who were displeased with his ‘betrayal’ of the NWC. Although this famous event, in the end, never served him well it remains as a significant part of the Fur Trade Wars.

In the year of 1846 ‘The Falcon’ disappeared, having never benefited from his story as recorded by Dr. Edwin James. A few years later a wandering hunter had discovered a skeleton in a swamp just outside of Sault Ste. Marie. Although there can be no certainty, it is believed these were his remains. It is thought that he had become the victim of his own despair, and had committed suicide. The man once captured by Indians, who voyaged the vast frontier, and was caught in the bitterness of the warring fur trade was no more. Although the life of John Tanner ended sadly and alone, it will in another sense live on, for few have given us such a fine portrait of this amazing era as he did.

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One thought on “John Tanner – Falcon of the Fur Trade

  1. I dedicated my latest novel The Jugheads( Seven Stories Press, New York, 2014) to John Tanner the Falcon with admiration and respect for his honesty and stoic strength. The artist Robert Crumb painted a cover for The Jugheads and it was R Crumb who first told me of Tanner as well.

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