John Tanner: Growing Up a Captive, Part VIII
The winter weather became severe and they began to grow poor, John was thirteen and his brother seventeen, game was not plentiful, they moved their lodge to the woods where firewood was more plentiful. The brothers exerted themselves to the utmost to prevent starvation, they often hunted two and three days distance from home and often returned with little meat. On one of their hunting paths they built a camp of cedar boughs which at length became very dry and a fire they kindled caught the cedar afire when they were lying in it, it was so dry that it flashed up like a powder fire but as fortune would have it they escaped with only small injury. As they were returning and still a great distance from home, they attempted to cross a river that was so rapid it never did freeze very sound, the weather was so cold the trees were constantly cracking. They broke through, John first thenn his brother, it was awhile with benumbed hands before they could extricate themselves from their snowshoes and they were no sooner out of the water than their moccasins and clothes were frozen so stiff that they could not travel, John began to think that they must die, but John was not like his Indian brother willing to sit down and wait patiently for death to come. John kept moving about to the best of his power while his brother lay in a dry place where the wind had blown away the snow. At last John found some very rotten wood to which he finally raised a fire, they then applied themselves to thaw and dry out the moccasins and when partly dry they put then on and collected more firewood and while they had nothing to eat suffering from the cold was worse. They left at dawn and didn’t go far before they met their mother who knew that they were due home the previous evening and knew the river crossing was difficult, she walked all night bringing dry clothes and a little food.
They lived for some time in a suffering and almost starving condition when who they described as a “Swamp Indian” called the “Smoker” came by and learning that they were so poor he invited them home with him to his own country saying he would hunt for them and bring them back in the spring. They set out on a two day journey towards the west and came to a place called Burnt Wood River where his lodge was, he took them in and while they remained with him they wanted for nothing and he escorted them back to the Portage. They had only been at Portage for a few days when another man of the same band invited them to go with him to a large island on Lake Superior where he said there were plenty of Caribou and Sturgeon where he professed no doubt that they could provide all necessary for their support. They accordingly accompanied him starting at dawn reaching the island just before night, it wasn’t long before they found more gulls’ eggs than they were able to take away. They also took with spears some Sturgeon immediately upon their arrival, so their want of food was supplied, the next day their escort went to hunt and returned at evening having killed two Caribou. On the island there was a large lake which took them about a day to reach, it was fed by a river and there they found beaver, otter and other game, the island had abundant provisions.
They met their escort’s family who were in eight canoes with whom they returned to Portage crossing the big lake, at this point John had pretty much forgotten his mother tongue, they rowed and paddled silently and diligently and arrived safely at the Grand Portage. John was now given free rein and at any point could have made his escape but he believed that his father and all his friends had been murdered and also believed that if he returned to the whites not knowing anyone he would be destitute and have no means of property. Among the Indians he saw that those who were young or too weak to hunt for themselves were sure to find someone who would provide for them. John was also rising in the estimation of the Indians and becoming one of them, he chose to stay but silently intended at some future time to return and live among the whites.
John’s mother at length made up her mind to continue to the Red River as originally planned.