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John Tanner: Growing up a Captive, Part XVI

John Tanners family was still suffering from hunger, and it compelled them to move and after they had eaten their portion of a bear they had killed they started on snowshoes for the Red River hoping either to meet some Indians or to find game on the way. John had become acquainted with the method of taking rabbits by snare and when they arrived at their first camp site he ran forward on the route and placed several snares intending to check them as they moved on. In the times they were low on provisions they commonly ate only at evening, all the food they had was a quart or more of bear grease in a kettle now frozen hard with a piece of skin tied over it as a cover. In the morning John went forward checking his snares finding one rabbit still alive, he decided to surprise his mother by putting the live rabbit under the cover of the kettle that held the bear grease. After they had encamped for the night he watched his mother open the kettle expecting the rabbit would jump out but was much disappointed to find that notwithstanding the extreme cold the grease was dissolved and the little animal nearly drowned. The old woman was upset and severely scolded him but for many years afterwards she used to talk and laugh and repeated the story of what his face looked like when she opened the kettle. After traveling for several days they discovered traces of hunters and were at length very lucky and fortunate to find the head of a buffalo which they had left. This relieved them from the distress of hunger and they followed on their trail until they came to their encampment, friends from the Red River.

It was a considerable band of Crees under a chief called Assin-ne-boi-nainse (the Little Assinneboin) and his son-in-law who received them in a very cordial and friendly manner, gave them plenty to eat and supplied all their urgent wants. After they had remained with them for two months buffalo and other game became scarce and the entire encampment was suffering from hunger. John and the Chiefs son-in-law started across the prairie a days journey to a stream called Pond River and they found an old bull so poor and old that hair would not grow upon him, they could only eat the tongue. They had traveled very far in the course of the day and were very fatigued, the wind was high and the snow driving violently, they could see no wood but some small oak bushes only as high as a mans shoulders but were compelled to camp. The small oak stalks were green and it was with the utmost difficulty it kindled, after it had heated and dried the earth beneath it they removed the coals and laid upon the warm ashes. They spent the night without sleep and the next morning the weather became more severe the wind stronger, they started to return to the camp. It was a stern challenge, a hard days trek, they were weak with hunger and it was late when they neared the lodges, as they approached home John lagged behind and as they looked at each other they both perceived that their faces were frozen and when they got in sight of the lodges John was not able to walk much farther, he was left and soon some of the women came to help him. Their hands and faces were much frozen but by the quality of their moccasins their feet were not injured. Hunger continued and they found it necessary and go in separate directions, Johns family determined to go to the trading house of Mr. Henry (who as a side note later drowned in the Columbia River when his boat was upset) his place was near a settlement now called Pembina, with the help of fur traders they hunted with some success all the remainder of the winter.

In the spring Johns family returned to the lake where they had left their canoes, found all their property safe and combined with what they had brought from the Red River had eleven packs of beaver which held forty skins each and ten packs of other skins. It was their intention to return to Lake Huron and dispose of their peltries at Mackinac and they still had their cache at Rainy Lake that together was enough to, according to John, make them wealthy.


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