During the early 19th century, one of the most respected members of the Chippewa Indian tribe in what is now northeastern North Dakota was a white man.
In 1790, at the age of 9, John Tanner was abducted by Shawnee Indians and lived in captivity for two years before he was ransomed by Netnokwa, an Ottawa Indian woman who adopted him. In 1794, 13-year-old Tanner, his adoptive mother and his two step-siblings arrived at their new home near Pembina.
Later, in respect for his bravery and prowess as a hunter, Tanner was given the name Shawshawwabenase (The Falcon) by the Chippewa. Since Tanner was the family's oldest surviving male, a large part of providing food rested on his shoulders. Fortunately, even though his adoptive father only had a couple of years to teach him the fundamentals of hunting and trapping, Tanner was an excellent student.
In 1800, Tanner married Miskwabunokwa (Red Sky At Dawn), the niece of Joseph and Madeleine LaFramboise, who were very successful traders in the Grand River Valley of western Michigan. Tanner and Red Sky had three children, but the marriage became rocky and Red Sky left him in 1807 to return to her relatives in Michigan.
In 1801, Alexander Henry, a partner in the North West Company (NWC), established a trading post at what is now Pembina, and Tanner became one of his best suppliers of beaver pelts and bison hides. Tanner also became a good friend of Little Clam (known today as Little Shell), the tribal chief of the Pembina Chippewa.
Since the Indians and Métis in the area were able to get desired items in exchange for their pelts and hides at Henry's post, the beaver and bison in the area were aggressively harvested, and the number of them remaining was greatly reduced. Because of the relative scarcity of these animals, Tanner expanded his hunting parameter further east to the Great Lakes and further west to the Missouri and Mouse Rivers, and other members of the Chippewa Ojibwa joined him on these extended hunting trips.
The expansion of the Ojibwa's hunting territory put them in direct competition with the Sioux, who claimed much of the northern Plains as their own. The Chippewa, along with the Ottawa and Potawatomi Indians, had established an alliance known as the Council of Three Wars. The Council was a member of a larger alliance known as the Western Indian Confederacy, of which the Shawnee tribe was a member.
Tecumseh, the chief of the Shawnee, had formed an alliance with Great Britain against the U.S. in the War of 1812. He expected the other members of the Confederacy to join ranks with him, but "Tanner was disdainful of the Shawnee," largely because of his years of captivity with them, and he helped convince Little Clam not to get involved. Since many of the Chippewa were being killed in skirmishes with the Sioux, I suspect that Little Clam had no interest in going to war against the U.S.
If that was Little Clam's reasoning, it was prophetic, because in 1813, he and a group of his followers were killed by a Sioux war party near Devils Lake. To Tanner, this was a call to war, and he gathered a group of about 40 men, made up of Chippewa, "Cree and Assiniboine, to go against the Sioux."
On their way to Devils Lake, he reported, "We were surprised when we were joined by 1,000 Assiniboine, Cree, and Ojibwa warriors." No large-scale battle occurred, but the Sioux hit-and-run raids continued.
During the early years of the 19th century, the NWC did not have any competition in their business with Indians in what is now northeastern North Dakota. However, in 1812, "Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, founded a colony of Scots and Irish at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers." Originally, this was viewed favorably by the NWC because the Selkirk colony had an abundant supply of pemmican that they sold to the NWC.
Since Douglas was a major stockholder in the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), he was also able to trade his settlers' goods directly to the HBC. In 1814, the governor of the Red River Colony issued a proclamation that prohibited the export of pemmican from the Selkirk colony to the NWC. This "was viewed by the NWC as a ploy by Douglas to monopolize a food product that was important to the NWC."
In 1815, when Fort Douglas was built at what is now Winnipeg, Canada, the hunters and trappers associated with the NWC felt threatened because of the impending militarism that a fort symbolized. On June 19, 1816, 65 Métis from the NWC attacked Fort Douglas in what became known as the Battle of Seven Oaks, and 21 of the 28 men at the fort were killed, which marked the onset of the Fur Trade War.
To try to regain his fort, Douglas turned to Tanner for help. With 20 men at his side, Tanner approached the walls of the fort, where they made Indian rope ladders and scaled the walls. Once they got inside, the defenders were surprised, and after only a minor skirmish, the Métis surrendered.
For his heroic action in capturing Fort Douglas, Tanner received a small payment, but Douglas did promise to try and locate Tanner's white family and also provided him with a lifetime pension. However, because of his action, Tanner paid a very dear price.
His former friends at the NWC now hated him and his former wife and in-laws, the influential LaFramboise family, despised him. In 1818, after Douglas learned of the location of Tanner's family, Tanner began his long odyssey to rejoin his white family, people he had not seen in nearly 30 years.
We will conclude the story of John Tanner next week.
"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.