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John Tanner: Growing up a Captive, Part I

John Tanner was born in 1780 on the Kentucky River; He was a man who lived as a white boy only nine years, he was captured and spent thirty years among the Indians. He lived as an Indian for so long that he forgot his own name and could no longer speak the English language.

John’s mother died when he was two years old, afterwards his father moved to a place called Elk Horn. The settlement was occasionally visited by hostile parties of Shawneese Indians who killed some white people and sometimes killed or drove away cattle and horses. In one instance, his uncle went with a few men at night and fired upon a camp of these Indians killing one whose scalp he brought home. His father was a very stern disciplinarian, his father’s house was less like a home to John and he often thought “I wish I could go and live among the Indians.” John’s father later moved them to Ohio, he remembered they traveled for two days with horses and wagons, when they came to the Ohio River his dad bought three flat boats, the sides of the boats had bullet holes in them and had blood on them which John was led to understand was that of the people who had been killed by Indians. In one of the boats they put the horses and cattle and another beds, furniture and other property and in the third were slaves. The cattle boat and the family boat were lashed together, the slaves followed behind. In two or three days they descended the Ohio and came to Cincinnati, here the cattle boat sank in the middle of the river, his father jumped on board and cut loose all the cattle and they swam ashore on the Kentucky side and were all saved.

In one day, they went from Cincinnati in the early spring to the mouth of the Big Miami opposite which they were to settle, there was some cleared land and one or two log cabins but they had been deserted on account of the Indians. His dad rebuilt the cabins and enclosed them with a strong picket, and they were soon engaged in preparing a field to plant corn. One morning, about ten days after their arrival, his father told him that from the actions of the horses he perceived there were Indians lurking in the woods and he said to John, “you must not leave the house today,” later his dad with the slaves went into the field to drop corn. John disobeyed and went out into the yard and through a gate into the open field using some precaution so his father couldn’t see him. There was a walnut tree at some distance from the house and near the side of the field where he had been in the habit of finding last year’s nuts. He skulked towards the tree and spied his father standing in the middle of the field with a gun in his hand to watch for Indians while the others were planting the corn. As he came near the tree, he thought to himself “I wish I could see these Indians.” He was filling his straw hat with nuts when he heard a cracking noise behind him, as he turned around he saw the Indians at almost the same instant. He was seized by both hands and dragged off betwixt two, one of them took his straw hat emptied it and put it on his head, one Indian was an older man and a younger one which was his son.

It appears that he was taken because the old man’s wife had recently lost their youngest son and she had complained to her husband that unless he should bring back her son she could not live. John saw himself firmly seized by both wrists by the two Indians and was not conscious of anything that passed for a considerable time and did not cry out, later he felt that they were apprehensive of being overtaken and some of them were always at some distance from them. It was about a mile from his father’s house when they threw him into a hickory bark canoe and immediately crossed the Ohio where they abandoned the canoe and retrieved some blankets and provisions that they had concealed. They offered him some dried venison and bear grease, but he could not eat, he could plainly see his father’s house, the Indians pointed at it, looked at John and laughed, he hoped to find a way to escape.


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