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An Anecdote from Early America: A Practical Joke Among the Indians in 1794

At the moment I am currently working on a new book, American Indian: The Life, Times, and Memoirs of John Tanner, which will hopefully shed some light on a fairly obscure but brilliant source.  The process of editing a document always gives new insight into the text.  Often, those insights are technical or of little interest to third parties but certain stories and anecdotes rise to the surface, not because they contain tantalising or paradigm-shifting insights into past societies, but because they provide a glimpse of an experience with which modern audiences can easily relate.  Buried in Tanner’s exhaustive narrative is the following anecdote – it is unlikely to provide any deep or meaningful insights, but it may very well raise a smile.  This event took place in 1794 when John Tanner (who was telling the story) was about fourteen years old.  At that point in his life, Tanner had lived among the Indians for approximately five years following his capture in Kentucky in 1789.  By 1794, Tanner no longer lived with the family of his captors but with a woman called Net-no-kwa, an Ottowa, and her family.  This incident occurred during a difficult winter for the family.  Game was scarce and the family had few supplies left them when Tanner attempted to catch a rabbit…


“Our suffering from hunger now compelled us to move; and after we had eaten our small portion of the bear, we started on snow shoes to go to Red River; hoping either to meet some Indians, or to find some game on the way. I had now become acquainted with the method of taking rabbits in snares; and when we arrived at our first camp, I ran forward on the route I knew we should take on the following day, and placed several snares, intending to look at them, and take them up as we went on our journey. After we had supped, for when we were in want of provisions we commonly ate only at evening, all the food we had remaining, was a quart or more of bear’s grease in the kettle. It was now frozen hard, and the kettle had a piece of skin tied over it as a cover. In the morning, this, among other articles, was put on my sled, and I went forward to look at my snares. Finding one rabbit, I thought I would surprise my mother, to make a laugh; so I took the rabbit, and put him alive under the cover of the kettle of bear’s grease. At night, after we had encamped, I watched her when she went to open the kettle to get us something to eat, expecting the rabbit would jump out; but was much disappointed to find, that notwithstanding the extreme cold weather, the grease was dissolved, and the little animal nearly drowned. The old woman [Net-no-kwa] scolded me very severely at the time; but for many years afterwards, she used to talk and laugh of this rabbit, and his appearance when she opened the kettle.”


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A Practical Joke in 1794

A Practical Joke in 1794

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