For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors were hunter-gathers. For most of us, these kinfolk are long forgotten in family memory. Quite a bit has been written about wild societies by visiting outsiders from civilization, strangers who could not fully understand the cultures of their subjects. The Falcon is the autobiography of John Tanner, a fascinating book that gives readers a ringside seat at a wild society, prior to conquest, from the viewpoint of an insider.
Tanner was a white lad born about 1780, in frontier Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio. At the age of 9, he was captured by the Shawnee and taken to Saginaw, Michigan, where he was treated harshly for two years. Then, up at Mackinaw, an Ottawa woman, who had lost her son, bought him for 20 gallons of whiskey, blankets, tobacco, and other treasures. He was given a name that meant “the falcon.”
Tanner was a rough, tough, honest man who endured an incredibly difficult life. He lived among the Ottawa and Ojibwa people from roughly 1790 to 1820, and spent this period hunting, trapping, fishing, and defending himself from a variety of angry and violent folks. He traveled thousands of miles by foot, canoe, and horseback through a vast wilderness. His saga mentions visits to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Pembina, North Dakota; Lake of the Woods, Ontario; and Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.
This story takes place in an era of bloody helter-skelter, when the traditional way of life was seriously assaulted, and beginning to disintegrate. Disease ridden, pale faced terrorists had landed on the east coast, and their infectious pathogens spread to distant regions of the interior, killing enormous numbers of natives. Terrorists were beginning to settle on the frontier. Tanner’s parents had moved west from Virginia, stupidly planning to acquire prime real estate in an extremely dangerous wilderness.
In that era, many New England tribes had become heavily dependent on agriculture. Corn produced far more food per acre than forest, leading to increased population density and conflict. Diana Muir described how corn quickly depleted the soil, requiring ongoing deforestation to clear new fields. When the devastating epidemics arrived, tribes had been on an unsustainable trajectory to run out of forest that was suitable for cropland. Corn helped the Iroquois become a dominant power, and their aggressive expansion forced other Algonquin tribes to flee westward.
At the same time, the fur trade was a booming, and there was intense competition for pelts. Many traders were lying, cheating, racist creeps. Industrial scale trapping drove the beavers close to extinction in eastern regions, so traders and trappers had to keep moving westward.
As eastern tribes were forced westward by warfare, settlers, and the quest for pelts, they put growing pressure on the fierce Sioux tribes of the prairies, who were not amused. Tanner spent a lot of time in hot zones close to Sioux country, where he was in constant danger of losing his scalp.
The Sioux hated Tanner and his tribe for trespassing. Because Tanner was the offspring of terrorists, many of his Indian companions and family were wary of him — terrorists were often whirlwinds of evil spirits. Several times, they tried to kill him. Finally, the terrorists hated him because he looked like a savage, thought like a savage, and spoke a savage tongue. He once made an effort to return to his kinfolk in Christian society, but he didn’t belong in that bizarre world, and kept catching fevers.
Indians were tolerant of gender-benders. On a visit to Leech Lake, Minnesota, Tanner met the son of a chief who was an A-go-kwa — “one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians. There are several of this sort among most, if not all the Indian tribes.” The A-go-kwa was about 50-years old, and had lived with many husbands.
The central theme of the book is the endless struggle to survive. Starvation was a primary threat, and getting food was job #1. Mike Culpepper wrote an essay on Tanner’s life, including a description of his diet: “Tanner hunts bear, buffalo, moose, but also eats muskrat, rabbit, beaver, porcupine, otter and other animals trapped for their fur, and, when game is not available, his dogs, horses, and scraps of leather. He eats ducks, geese, blackbirds, and swan. He fishes for sturgeon, dory, and unnamed small fish that are eaten by the handful. He consumes corn, wild rice, and berries.” Yum!
Throughout the book, Tanner and those around him suffer from infections and fevers. He lived in an era where diseases were common and largely incurable, for both wild folks and the civilized. Howard Simpson described the situation after 1812, as settlement of the Midwest began: “The most lethal dangers the pioneers had to face were neither savages nor wild animals. They were typhoid, malaria, dysentery, malignant scarlet fever, pneumonia, erysipelas in epidemic form, spotted fever, or what would now be called meningococcal meningitis, and diphtheria.”
Homo sapiens is a bipedal species — we move on two legs, not four. This evolutionary trait enabled long distance running, chasing game until they collapsed from exhaustion, a practice often mentioned in discussions of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Tanner also mentioned this. “There are among the Indians some, but not many, men who can run down an elk on the smooth prairie, when there is neither snow nor ice. The moose and the buffalo surpass the elk in fleetness, and can rarely be taken by fair running by a man on foot.”
Tanner, armed with a low tech, single shot musket, killed lots of animals. One winter, he was hired by a fur company to provide meat for Scottish settlers. In four months, he killed about 100 buffalo. Another winter, he hunted with a buddy. “O-ke-mah-we-ninne, as he was called, killed nineteen moose, one beaver, and one bear. I killed seventeen moose, one hundred beavers, and seven bears, but he was considered the better hunter, moose being the most difficult of all animals to kill.”
Nomadic people found some trade goods useful: muskets, ammo, gunpowder, knives, axes, pots, blankets, corn, etc. They gained no prestige by hoarding valuable trade goods, because it was dumb. The stuff they owned had to be hauled along, every time they moved to a new camp. So, one pot was enough. Consequently, they trapped just enough to secure the necessities, and no more. Traders learned a toxic secret — offering booze seriously motivated the trappers to produce far more pelts.
Oblivion drinking is a regular celebration in this saga. After a long, harsh winter of trapping, pelts would be taken to the trading post. Necessities would be acquired, and the leftover income would be invested in 10 gallon (38 l) kegs of booze. Over the course of the book, at least 100 gallons of rum and whiskey were guzzled. Multi-day drunks often resulted in impolite comments, bloody fights, and murders. Their lives were harsh, and a lovely drunk provided a vacation from the daily routine, a spirit journey. Booze destroyed many lives.
In Tanner’s day, in roadless woodlands, dogs were their beasts of burden. On the wide-open prairie, there was a new beast of burden, the horse. The Spanish had brought horses to America, and some escaped. They rapidly grew in numbers. By 1700 or 1750, plains Indians had horses — lots of horses. Horses greatly increased their ability to hunt, feed more people, and zoom across the plains at superhuman velocity.
Each horse was the private property of an individual. Only fools hoarded 100 iron pots, but owning 100 horses provided immense social status. Horses fed themselves, moved themselves to new camps, and hauled people and stuff. Stealing them from neighbors was an exciting way to demonstrate your bravery and get rich quick, or die trying. Raiding was a popular pastime. Naturally, it was a good way to make enemies, and ignite long-term feuds. In the horse age, living in a remote location was no longer safe and secure.
Tanner described the bloody side of raiding: “I had four horses, one of which was a very fleet and beautiful one, being considered the best out of one hundred and eighty which a war-party of Crees, Assinneboins, and Ojibbeways, had recently brought from the Fall Indians. In this excursion they had been absent seven months. They had fallen upon and destroyed one village, and taken one hundred and fifty scalps, besides prisoners.”
Tanner spent most of his life in the Great White North, a region known for long and extremely harsh winters. On chilly nights, they huddled around fires inside drafty lodges. Tanner mentioned several close calls with death. Once, after breaking through the ice, “we were no sooner out of the water than our moccasins and clothes were frozen so stiff that we could not travel. I began also to think that we must die. But I was not like my Indian brother, willing to sit down and wait patiently for death to come.”
Homo sapiens evolved on the warm tropical savannahs of Africa, where a year round supply of organic food was generally available. They didn’t need clothing or shelter. Hypothermia was never a risk. Life was so much easier in an ecosystem for which evolution had fine-tuned our bodies. Remember that. The status quo is zooming toward sharp limits, and our soft lifestyles are a temporary high-impact luxury.
Tanner, John, The Falcon, Penguin Books, New York, 1994. Free PDF download.
Culpepper, Mike, John Tanner Between Two Worlds. This 10-page essay fills in many helpful details missing in Tanner’s words, and better describes the big picture dramas that affected his life. It discusses his controversial end.
Fierst, John T., Return to Civilization, Minnesota History, Minnesota Historical Society, 1986. This 15-page essay describes Tanner’s troubled life in Sault Ste. Marie, in the years after his story had been published.
Dr. Edwin James transcribed Tanner’s story, in 1828, at Sault Ste. Marie. He edited out lots of excessive details, to make the story more readable. The 1830 edition, published by Baldwin & Craddock in London, includes an 18-page introduction by James (HERE).
Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond — Economy and Ecosystem in New England, University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2000. Chapter one describes the ecological and social turbulence generated by the adaptation of agriculture by the Native Americans.
Simpson, Howard N., “The Impact of Disease on American History,” The New England Journal of Medicine CCL (1954):680.