A White Boy Among The Indians

By John Tanner

Note: This story is more difficult to read than the others because it contains several Indian names.

The earliest event of my life which I distinctly remember (says John Tanner) is the death of my mother. This happened when I was two years old, and many of the attending circumstances made so deep an impression that they are still fresh in my memory. I cannot recollect the name of the settlement at which we lived, but I have since learned it was on the Kentucky River, at a considerable distance from the Ohio.

My father, whose name was John Tanner, was an emigrant from Virginia, and had been a clergyman.

When about to start one morning to a village at some distance, he gave, as it appeared, a strict charge to my sisters, Agatha and Lucy, to send me to school; but this they neglected to do until afternoon, and then, as the weather was rainy and unpleasant, I insisted on remaining at home. When my father returned at night, and found that I had been at home all day, he sent me for a parcel of small canes, and flogged me much more severely than I could suppose the offence merited. I was displeased with my sisters for attributing all the blame to me, when they had neglected even to tell me to go to school in the forenoon. From that time, my father's house was less like home to me, and I often thought and said, "I wish I could go and live among the Indians."

One day we went from Cincinnati to the mouth of the Big Miami, opposite which we were to settle. Here was some cleared land, and one or two log cabins, but they had been deserted on account of the Indians. My father rebuilt the cabins, and inclosed them with a strong picket. It was early in the spring when we arrived at the mouth of the Big Miami, and we were soon engaged in preparing a field to plant corn. I think it was not more than ten days after our arrival, when my father told us in the morning, that, from the actions of the horses, he perceived there were Indians lurking about in the woods, and he said to me, "John, you must not go out of the house to-day." After giving strict charge to my stepmother to let none of the little children go out, he went to the field, with the negroes, and my elder brother, to sow corn.

Three little children, besides myself, were left in the house with my stepmother. To prevent me from going out, my stepmother required me to take care of the little child, then not more than a few months old; but as I soon became impatient of confinement I began to pinch my little brother, to make him cry. My mother, perceiving his uneasiness, told me to take him in my arms and walk about the house; I did so, but continued to pinch him. My mother at length took him from me to nurse him.

I patched my opportunity and escaped into the yard; thence through a small door in the large gate of the wall into the open field. There was a walnut-tree at some distance from the house, and near the side of the field where I had been in the habit of finding some of last year's nuts. To gain this tree without being seen by my father and those in the field, I had to use some precaution. I remember perfectly well having seen my father as I skulked toward the tree; he stood in the middle of the field, with his gun in his hand, to watch for Indians, while the others were sowing corn. As I came near the tree, I thought to myself, "I wish I could see these Indians." I had partly filled with nuts a straw hat which I wore, when I heard a crackling noise behind me; I looked round, and saw the Indians; almost at the same instant, I was seized by both hands, and dragged off between two. One of them took my straw hat, emptied the nuts on the ground, and put it on my head. The Indians who seized me were an old and a young one; these, as I learned subsequently, were Manito-o-geezhik, and his son Kish-kau-ko.

After I saw myself firmly seized by both wrists by the two Indians, I was not conscious of anything that passed for a considerable time. I must have fainted, as I did not cry out, and I can remember nothing that happened to me until they threw me over a large log, which must have been at a considerable distance from the house. The old man I did not now see; I was, dragged along between Kish-kau-ko and a very short thick man. I had probably made some resistance, or done something to irritate this latter, for he took me a little to one side, and drawing his tomahawk, motioned to me to look up. This I plainly understood, from the expression of his face, and his manner, to be a direction for me to look up for the last time, as he was about to kill me. I did as he directed, but Kish-kau-ko caught his hand as the tomahawk was descending, and prevented him from burying it in my brains. Loud talking ensued between the two. Kish-kau-ko presently raised a yell: the old man and four others answered it by a similar yell, and came running up. I have since understood that Kish-kau-ko complained to his father that the short man had made an attempt to kill his little brother, as he called me. The old chief, after reproving the short man, took me by one hand, and Kish-kau-ko took me by the other and thus they dragged me between them, the man who threatened to kill me, and who was now an object of terror to me, being kept at some distance. I could perceive, as I retarded them somewhat in their retreat, that they were apprehensive of being overtaken; some of them were always at some distance from us.

It was about one mile from my father's house to the place where they threw me into a hickory-bark canoe, which was concealed under the bushes, on the bank of the river. Into this they all seven jumped, and immediately crossed the Ohio, landing at the mouth of the Big Miami, and on the south side of that river. Here they abandoned their canoe, and stuck their paddles in the ground, so that they could be seen from the river. At a little distance in the woods they had some blankets and provisions concealed; they offered me some dry venison and bear's grease, but I could not eat. My father's house was plainly to be seen from the place where we stood; they pointed at it, looked at me, and laughed, but I have never known what they said.

After they had eaten a little, they began to ascend the Miami, dragging me along as before.

It must have been early in the spring when we arrived at Sau-ge-nong, for I can remember that at this time the leaves were small, and the Indians were about planting their corn. They managed to make me assist at their labors, partly by signs, and partly by the few words of English old Manito-o-geezhik could speak. After planting, they all left the village, and went out to hunt and dry meat. When they came to their hunting-grounds, they chose a place where many deer resorted, and here they began to build a long screen like a fence; this they made of green boughs and small trees. When they had built a part of it, they showed me how to remove the leaves and dry brush from that side of it to which the Indians were to come to shoot the deer. In this labor I was sometimes assisted by the squaws and children, but at other times I was left alone. It now began to be warm weather, and it happened one day that, having been left alone, as I was tired and thirsty, I fell asleep. I cannot tell how long I slept, but when I began to awake, I thought I heard someone crying a great way off. Then I tried to raise up my head, but could not. Being now more awake, I saw my Indian mother and sister standing by me, and perceived that my face and head were wet. The old woman and her daughter were crying bitterly, but it was some time before I perceived that my head was badly cut and bruised. It appears that, after I had fallen asleep, Manito-o-geezhik, passing that way, had perceived me, had tomahawked me, and thrown me in the bushes; and that when he came to his camp he had said to his wife, "Old woman, the boy I brought you is good for nothing; I have killed him; you will find him in such a place." The old woman and her daughter having found me, discovered still some signs of life, and had stood over me a long time, crying, and pouring cold water on my head, when I waked.

In a few days I recovered in some measure from this hurt, and was again set to work at the screen, but I was more careful not to fall asleep; I endeavored to assist them at their labors, and to comply in all instances with their directions, but I was notwithstanding treated with great harshness, particularly by the old man and his two sons She-mung and Kwo-tash-e. While we remained at the hunting camp, one of them put a bridle in my hand, and pointing in a certain direction motioned me to go. I went accordingly, supposing he wished me to bring a horse: I went and caught the first I could find, and in this way I learned to discharge such services as they required of me.

I had been about two years at Sau-ge-nong, when a great council was called by the British agents at Mackinac. This council was attended by the Sioux, the Winnebagoes, the Menomonees, and many remote tribes, as well as by the Ojibbeways, Ottawwaws, etc. When old Manito-o-geezhik returned from this council, I soon learned that he had met there his kinswoman, Net-no-kwa, who, notwithstanding that she was a woman, was then regarded as principal chief of the Ottawwaws. This woman had lost her son, of about my age, by death; and, having heard of me, she wished to purchase me to supply his place. My old Indian mother, the Otter woman, when she heard of this, protested vehemently against it. I heard her say, "My son has been dead once, and has been restored to me; I cannot lose him again." But these remonstrances had little influence when Net-no-kwa arrived with plenty of presents. She brought to the lodge first blankets, tobacco, and other articles of great value. She was perfectly acquainted with the dispositions of those with whom she had to negotiate. Objections were made to the exchange until a few more presents completed the bargain, and I was transferred to Net-no-kwa.

This woman, who was then advanced in years, was of a more pleasing aspect than my former mother. She took me by the hand, after she had completed the negotiation with my former possessors, and led me to her own lodge, which stood near. Here I soon found I was to be treated more indulgently than I had been. She gave me plenty of food, put good clothes upon me, and told me to go and play with her own sons. We remained but a short time at Sau-ge-nong. She would not stop with me at Mackinac, which we passed in the night, but ran along to Point St. Ignace, where she hired some Indians to take care of me, while she returned to Mackinac by herself, or with one or two of her young men. After finishing her business at Mackinac, she returned, and, continuing on our journey, we arrived in a few days at Shab-a-wy-wy-a-gun.

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The husband of Net-no-kwa was an Ojibbeway of Red River, called Taw-ga-we-ninne, the hunter. He was always indulgent and kind to me, treating me like an equal, rather than as a dependent. When speaking to me, he always called me his son. Indeed, he himself was but of secondary importance in the family, as everything belonged to Net-no-kwa and she had the direction in all affairs of any moment. She imposed on me, for the first year, some tasks. She made me cut wood, bring home game, bring water, and perform other services not commonly required of boys of my age; but she treated me invariably with so much kindness that I was far more happy and content than I had been in the family of Manito-o-geezhik. She sometimes whipped me, as she did her own children: but I was not so severely and frequently beaten as I had been before.

Early in the spring, Net-no-kwa and her husband, with their family, started to go to Mackinac. They left me, as they had done before, at Point St. Ignace, as they would not run the risk of losing me by suffering me to be seen at Mackinac. On our return, after we had gone twenty-five or thirty miles from Point St. Ignace, we were detained by contrary winds at a place called Me-nau-ko-king, a point running out into the lake. Here we encamped with some other Indians, and a party of traders. Pigeons were very numerous in the woods, and the boys of my age, and the traders, were busy shooting them. I had never killed any game, and, indeed, had never in my life discharged a gun. My mother had purchased at Mackinac a keg of powder, which, as they thought it a little damp, was here spread out to dry. Taw-ga-we-ninne had a large horseman's pistol; and, finding myself somewhat emboldened by his indulgent manner toward me, I requested permission to go and try to kill some pigeons with the pistol. My request was seconded by Net-no-kwa, who said, "It is time for our son to begin to learn to be a hunter." Accordingly, my father, as I called Taw-ga-we-ninne, loaded the pistol and gave it to me, saying, "Go, my son, and if you kill anything with this, you shall immediately have a gun and learn to hunt."

Since I have been a man, I have been placed in difficult stations; but my anxiety for success was never greater than in this, my first essay as a hunter. I had not gone far from the camp before I met with pigeons, and some of them alighted in the bushes very near me. I cocked my pistol, and raised it to my face, bringing the breech almost in contact with my nose. Having brought the sight to bear upon the pigeon, I pulled trigger, and was in the next instant sensible of a humming noise, like that of a stone sent swiftly through the air. I found the pistol at the distance of some paces behind me, and the pigeon under the tree on which he had been sitting. My face was much bruised, and covered with blood. I ran home, carrying my pigeon in triumph. My face was speedily bound up; my pistol exchanged for a fowling-piece; I was accoutred with a powder-horn, and furnished with shot, and allowed to go out after birds. One of the young Indians went with me, to observe my manner of shooting. I killed three more pigeons in the course of the afternoon, and did not discharge my gun once without killing. Henceforth I began to be treated with more consideration, and was allowed to hunt often, that I might become expert.

Game began to be scarce, and we all suffered from hunger. The chief man of our band was called As-sin-ne-boi-nainse (the Little Assinneboin), and he now proposed to us all to move, as the country where we were was exhausted. The day on which we were to commence our removal was fixed upon, but before it arrived our necessities became extreme. The evening before the day on which we intended to move my mother talked much of all our misfortunes and losses, as well as of the urgent distress under which we were then laboring. At the usual hour I went to sleep, as did all the younger part of the family; but I was wakened again by the loud praying and singing of the old woman, who continued her devotions through a great part of the night.

Very early on the following morning she called us all to get up, and put on our moccasins, and be ready to move. She then called Wa-me-gon-a-biew to her, and said to him in rather a low voice: "My son, last night I sung and prayed to the Great Spirit, and when I slept there come to me one like a man, and said to me, 'Net-no-kwa, to-morrow you shall eat a bear. There is, at a distance from the path you are to travel to-morrow, and in such a direction' (which she described to him), 'a small round meadow, with something like a path leading from it; in that path there is a bear.' Now, my son, I wish you to go to that place, without mentioning to any one what I have said, and you will certainly find the bear, as I have described to you." But the young man, who was not particularly dutiful, or apt to regard what his mother said, going out of the lodge, spoke sneeringly to the other Indians of the dream. "The old woman," said he, "tells me we are to eat a bear to-day; but I do not know who is to kill it." The old woman, hearing him, called him in, and reproved him; but she could not prevail upon him to go to hunt.

I had my gun with me, and I continued to think of the conversation I had heard between my mother and Wa-me-gon-a-biew respecting her dream. At length I resolved to go in search of the place she had spoken of, and without mentioning to any one my design, I loaded my gun as for a bear, and set off on our back track. I soon met a woman belonging to one of the brothers of Taw-ga-we-ninne, and of course my aunt. This woman had shown little friendship for us, considering us as a burden upon her husband, who sometimes gave something for our support; she had also often ridiculed me. She asked me immediately what I was doing on the path, and whether I expected to kill Indians, that I came there with my gun. I made her no answer; and thinking I must be not far from the place where my mother had told Wa-me-gon-a-biew to leave the path, I turned off, continuing carefully to regard all the directions she had given.

At length I found what appeared at some former time to have been a pond. It was a small, round, open place in the woods, now grown up with grass and small bushes. This I thought must be the meadow my mother had spoken of; and examining around it, I came to an open space in the bushes, where, it is probable, a small brook ran from the meadow; but the snow was now so deep that I could see nothing of it. My mother had mentioned that, when she saw the bear in her dream, she had, at the same time, seen a smoke rising from the ground. I was confident this was the place she had indicated, and I watched long, expecting to see the smoke; but, wearied at length with waiting, I walked a few paces into the open place, resembling a path, when I unexpectedly fell up to my middle in the snow, I extricated myself without difficulty, and walked on; but, remembering that I had heard the Indians speak of killing bears in their holes, it occurred to me that it might be a bear's hole into which I had fallen and, looking down into it, I saw the head of a bear lying close to the bottom of the hole. I placed the muzzle of my gun nearly between his eyes and discharged it. As soon as the smoke cleared away, I took a piece of stick and thrust it into the eyes and into the wound in the head of the bear, and, being satisfied that he was dead, I endeavored to lift him out of the hole; but being unable to do this, I returned home, following the track I had made in coming out.

As I came near the camp, where the squaws had by this time set up the lodges, I met the same woman I had seen in going out, and she immediately began again to ridicule me. "Have you killed a bear, that you come back so soon, and walk so fast?" I thought to myself, "How does she know that I have killed a bear?" But I passed by her without saying anything, and went into my mother's lodge. After a few minutes, the old woman said, "My son, look in that kettle, and you will find a mouthful of beaver meat, which a man gave me since you left us in the morning. You must leave half of it for Wa-me-gon-a-biew, who has not yet returned from hunting, and has eaten nothing to-day. "I accordingly ate the beaver meat, and when I had finished it, observing an opportunity when she stood by herself, I stepped up to her, and whispered in her ear, "My mother, I have killed a bear."

"What do you say, my son?" said she.

"I have killed a bear."

"Are you sure you have killed him?"


"Is he quite dead?"


She watched my face for a moment, and then caught me in her arms, hugging and kissing me with great earnestness, and for a long time. I then told her what my aunt had said to me, both going and returning, and this being told to her husband when he returned, he not only reproved her for it, but gave her a severe flogging. The bear was sent for, and, as being the first I had killed, was cooked all together, and the hunters of the whole band invited to feast with us, according to the custom of the Indians. The same day one of the Crees killed a bear and a moose, and gave a large share of the meat to my mother.

One winter I hunted for a trader called by the Indians Aneeb, which means an elm tree. As the winter advanced, and the weather became more and more cold, I found it difficult to procure as much game as I had been in the habit of supplying, and as was wanted by the trader. Early one morning, about mid-winter, I started an elk. I pursued until night, and had almost overtaken him; but hope and strength failed me at the same time. What clothing I had on me, notwithstanding the extreme coldness of the weather, was drenched with sweat. It was not long after I turned toward home that I felt it stiffening about me. My leggings were of cloth, and were torn in pieces in running through the bush. I was conscious I was somewhat frozen before I arrived at the place where I had left our lodge standing in the morning, and it was now midnight. I knew it had been the old woman's intention to move, and I knew where she would go; but I had not been informed she would go on that day.

As I followed on their path, I soon ceased to suffer from cold, and felt that sleepy sensation which I knew preceded the last stage of weakness in such as die of cold. I redoubled my efforts, but with an entire consciousness of the danger of my situation; it was with no small difficulty that I could prevent myself from lying down. At length I lost all consciousness for some time, how long I cannot tell, and, awaking as from a dream, I found I had been walking round and round in a small circle not more than twenty or twenty-five yards over. After the return of my senses, I looked about to try to discover my path, as I had missed it; but, while I was looking, I discovered a light at a distance, by which I directed my course.

Once more, before I reached the lodge, I lost my senses; but I did not fall down; if I had, I should never have gotten up again; but I ran round and round in a circle as before. When I at last came into the lodge, I immediately fell down, but I did not lose myself as before. I can remember seeing the thick and sparkling coat of frost on the inside of the pukkwi lodge, and hearing my mother say that she had kept a large fire in expectation of my arrival; and that she had not thought I should have been so long gone in the morning, but that I should have known long before night of her having moved. It was a month before I was able to go out again, my face, hands, and legs having been much frozen.

After many dangerous and disagreeable experiences, John Tanner, when almost an old man, came back to the whites to tell his history, which, as he could not write, was taken down at his dictation.

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