Manitoba Historical Society
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John ‘Falcon’ Tanner’s Death

by Dr. Peter Lorenz Neufeld

Manitoba Pageant, Volume 20, Number 3, Spring 1975

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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As a columnist writing historical articles revolving around the Minnedosa area, I became deeply intrigued with ancestors of the one-armed Métis American Civil War veteran, John Tanner (1839-1932) who founded Tanner’s Crossing (now Minnedosa) serving as first postmaster, contributions recently commemorated by naming a multi-million dollar school and beautiful centennial park after him. I’ve thoroughly researched the Tanners and written a series of articles about this remarkable family. That involved much correspondence with Tanner descendants and genealogists scattered across North America, searching documents, interviewing people.

Wilson F. Green’s fascinating Red River Revelations deals with the famous grandfather of Minnedosa’s founder. Several other books and articles have been written about John ‘Falcon’ Tanner (1781-1846), son of Baptist Rev. John Tanner (1732-1812), who was kidnapped by Indians in Ohio in 1789 and lived as tribe member in various parts of Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba for 30 years. Green’s description of events surrounding this “white Indian’s” tragic death, though historically accurate according to general consensus in 1846, is unfortunately incomplete. Nevertheless, he does recognize there’s conflicting evidence concerning that event.

True, John Falcon Tanner was, as Green indicates, blamed for the 6 July 1846 murder of wild but influential James Schoolcraft, younger brother of John’s employer—Indian agent/historian Henry Schoolcraft. The Tanner cabin on the outskirts of Sault Ste. Marie had burned down two days before the murder and John was last seen heading into woods nearby with rifle that day, not the day of the murder. His youngest son John J., who built a new home on the same site, was living there with mother Theresa two years later.

Tanner’s skeleton was discovered in adjacent woods one year later, not years later, and identified. How he died isn’t known. The meeting near Rainy River of the 1823 United States’ Long expedition with John in wounded condition occurred 23 years before the murder and was obviously not, as Green quoting Minnesota historian Niell suggests, connected with the homicide. Actually, an Indian shot him that particular time. And he was taking two daughters to a private school—St. Vincent’s Academy in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

For many years after his own death John was blamed for the Schoolcraft murder. Fortunately he was eventually vindicated when a Lieutenant Tilden confessed to having committed that crime because of jealousy over a girl.

John Tanner’s return to white society brought much heartache. In 1810 his first Indian wife Sky Dawn left him taking their two daughters and son. When he did finally with help of Lord Selkirk (whom he’d greatly assisted with negotiating Indian treaties permitting Selkirk Settlement to establish and with recapturing forts Daer and Douglas) locate his 16 white siblings he found his father, who’d married thrice and become rich, had just died at Cape Girardeau disinheriting him believing him dead. Two children from his second Indian wife Theresa died in epidemics. The Sault Ste. Marie whites shunned him and took legal action in 1830 to remove a daughter to a private school because of his hot temper. Because the pension Selkirk awarded him for his services was too small to allow retirement he was forced to work to the end as interpreter for Henry Schoolcraft. His translation of parts of the New Testament and hymns into Saulteaux brought recognition but no remuneration. Theresa became Catholic and refused to live with him on strength of their Indian marriage and they quarreled bitterly over this.

John Tanner had nine children. Of these two died young and two presumably married Indian men and were lost to history. Several of the other five are better known.

His oldest son Picheito Tanner (called Little Pheasant when young) became a major chief of a large Saulteaux tribe in the Portage la Prairie - White Horse Plains region. He became wealthy in later years retiring to Portage; he died in Qu’Appelle Valley in 1872. His log cabin was the first shingled house west of Winnipeg. A son John Tanner (1842-1936) was of Gambler Band living on Silver Creek Reserve No. 63 near Binscarth which entered Treaty 4 on 21 September 1874 under Chief Way-wa-se-capow. When most of this band moved to Valley River (Dauphin) and No. 63 was thrown open to homesteaders, the Tanner family kept 860 acres (today, Gambler Reserve) which descendants still farm.

Not much is known about John Falcon Tanner’s youngest son John J. besides what’s already mentioned other than he was divorced and re-married in 1848.

Martha Ann Tanner studied teaching at Catholic St. Vincent’s Academy and as a member of The Sisters of Loretto Order taught there many years herself and later in Mackinac, Michigan but never married. Highly popular, and deeply respected, she was buried on Mackinac Island where a tombstone commemorates her passing.

Mary Elizabeth married a LaVogue. Their sons Joe and George became prominent Duluth business men. Next she married Joseph Tall and had a son Joseph, late in life who married a Hoffman. As last living child of John’s she developed cancer and died about 1883.

Best known of Falcon’s children was Rev. James Tanner, father of the founder of Tanner’s Crossing. During his last 20 years he was a deeply loved Presbyterian and Baptist missionary among his Saulteaux people in Pembina, St. Joseph, Winnipeg, and Portage la Prairie regions. Despite a lengthy inquest, his untimely death about mid-way between Portage and Winnipeg in late fall during the 1870 Red River Resistance aftermath is still shrouded in mystery. Kildonan’s Rev. John Black, first Presbyterian minister to Canada’s Prairies and close friend of Tanner’s, in letters to family members attributes James’ fatal fall from a lurching wagon drawn by runaway horse to deliberate action of Wolseley’s soldiers. The coroner’s jury ruled “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.”

Rev. Tanner’s wife (Saulteaux name ‘Poopie’) soon thereafter moved to Minnedosa, in about 1883 to the Prince Albert region, about 1906 to Binscarth, and several years prior to her death in 1914 at 108 to Kinosota on Lake Manitoba’s west shore. I believe she was the 104-year-old Indian lady whose 1910 photo was featured in Winter 1972 Manitoba Pageant with caption “Mrs. John Tanner of Binscarth,” a slight error having been made for Mrs. James Tanner was exactly that age in 1910 while at Binscarth. Rev. and Mrs. Tanner had two children, Mrs. Maggie Sinclair and John; the latter though married had no children except an adopted son. John Falcon Tanner’s wife Theresa was still alive in Sault Ste. Marie in 1860.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Tanner’s Crossing (Minnedosa)

Page revised: 21 July 2015

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