Quetico Provincial Park’s story of John Tanner is one of the most unique stories of the north ever told. It's about the day he was shot and left for dead along the Maligne River.

John Tanner was kidnapped by a Shawnee Tribe at the age of nine, then later sold to an Ojibwe woman near Lac la Croix for a keg of rum. For the next 30 years, Tanner lived alongside Indigenous Peoples, married an Indigenous woman and raised a family in an Indigenous community. Later in life, he made the decision to integrate his children into white society. It was this decision that nearly cost him his life at Tanner Rapids along Quetico’s Maligne River.

photoKevin Callan

In 1823, Tanner and his family travelled up the Maligne River on the beginning of their journey to Sault Ste. Marie, where the children would attend a “white” school. His wife was opposed to Tanner’s intentions and secretly planned to have her brother shoot him along the way. Tanner wrote:

I had taken off my coat, and I was with great effort pushing up my canoe against the current [now called Tanner Rapids] which compelled me to keep very near the shore, when the discharge of a gun at my side arrested my progress. I heard a bullet whistle past my head, and felt my side touched, at the same instant that the paddle fell from my right hand, and the hand itself dropped powerless to my side.

Of course, this is where the story gets interesting. Poor John Tanner knew nothing of his wife’s intentions, or that after the encounter she and her brother had headed back toward Lac la Croix with the children, leaving him for dead. Tanner was more concerned about what would happen to his wife and children than about his own wound. The bullet had shattered his right arm and nearly reached the lung, lodging itself under the breastbone. Making it worse, a strand of poisoned deer sinew was attached to the ball.

Tanner suffered for two nights before being rescued by a group of Hudson’s Bay Company voyageurs who happened to be paddling downstream on their way to the Red River. The voyageurs took Tanner to the fort at Rainy Lake, where he was cared for; that is, until one of the agents kicked him out of the fort and forced him to take care of his own wounds.

It took him well over a year to gain back his strength, and it was a few years more before Tanner made it to Sault Ste. Marie. There, he worked as an interpreter for Henry Schoolcraft, an ethnologist who took an interest in the Indigenous Peoples language. Tanner was soon after accused of murdering Schoolcraft’s youngest brother, James. Again, poor Tanner found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn’t the murderer. The man responsible was Bryand Tilden Jr., the officer in charge of the soldiers ordered to hunt down Tanner for the murder. Tanner escaped and disappeared, never to be seen again, and lived the life of a hermit. A skeleton later discovered in a swamp near Sault Ste. Marie was thought to be that of John Tanner. The bones were those of a man who had possibly committed suicide.

photoKevin Callan

What a bizarre twist of fate. After being kidnapped, living in an Indigenous community for over 30 years, being shot, rescued and then harshly dismissed by his rescuers, Tanner returned to white society, only to be banished once again. He was labelled an outcast. Because he was accused of murder and escaped into the woods, the name “John Tanner” became synonymous with the bogeyman; parents used it to keep their children from wandering off. “Don’t go into the woods,” they would say, “or John Tanner the hermit will get you!”

At the same time, Tanner’s story took on legendary status. His troubled life became one of the greatest fascinations of the nineteenth century, especially after Edwin James recorded it in the book A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventurers of John Tanner, published in 1827. It became a minor classic and was used by educators as a depiction of Indigenous life. The story was also published as a children’s book, Grey Hawk: Life and Adventures Among the Red Indians, and later as a Canadian school reader, John Tanner: Captive Boy Wanderer of the Border Lands. These stories were read by everyone, except poor John Tanner—he couldn’t read.