For most, the frontier period of American history likely conjures images including bearded mountain men bravely setting off willy-nilly into the wilderness, pitting wits and muscle against not just the elements, but crafty Natives and dangerous predators in quest of riches in furs. The reality was akin to that, but there also were lingering political struggles centered on multinational imperialism bent westward.
The clash of Euro-centric white cultures struggling for control over a vast landscape overflowing with resources, as well as American desire to subjugate Indian tribes and claim their land, resulted in a continental interaction far more complex than most people realize. Post-Revolutionary War, a kind of cold war ensued in which the new American government still needed to wrest control of much of the west — land they supposedly “owned” — not only from the Native peoples who were there first, but also the French and English fur companies who were far more deeply entrenched in power positions over frontier economics.
Theodore “Ted” Catton, an associate research professor of history at the University of Montana, captures a slice of this struggle wonderfully in his new book, “Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier.”
Catton uses a single encounter involving three men to construct his narrative. Action begins in September 1823, at a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post near the present day Boundary Waters of Minnesota, called Rainy Lake House. Dr. John McLoughlin, a French-Canadian, is in charge of wild country west of Lake Superior, including Rainy Lake House. Major Stephen H. Long, an officer in the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers, is on an exploratory mission in the area. Finally, John Tanner, a "white Indian" living among the Ojibwa, rounds out our trio of main characters. Tanner, recovering from a murderous attempt on his life, is searching for his missing daughters, and believes they are being held nearby by traders bent on rape.
Catton incorporates the biographies of these three men to expand the story, and outcome, of their unlikely meeting. Their diverse upbringings and resulting views of the world juxtapose perfectly with the wider-view interactions of the cultural landscape in the early 19th century. Each man is allowed to report on the events through their own stew of moral impressions and prejudices, making for a fascinating look into how individual perceptions influence the clash of cultures.
The star of the show is Tanner. Tanner was kidnapped by Indians from his family farm in Ohio in 1789, at the age of 9. Later he was sold to an Ottawa woman and lived among the Ojibwa people of the Great Lakes region for most of his life. His life story, dictated to a scientist/explorer named Edwin James, was released in 1830 as a book titled, “A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner.” The book — available today with the main title of “The Falcon” by John Tanner — is one of the most important documents of life in a changing culture on the fringes of the American frontier. What we know of Tanner’s life is also what we know of Native life at the time, knowledge crucial not only to the story Catton is telling in Rainy Lake House, but also to our understanding of what Native life really was like.
Catton has produced a remarkable work of narrative nonfiction. "Rainy Lake House" deserves a place on any history buff’s bookshelf alongside other excellent examples of frontier history narratives, including “Undaunted Courage” (Stephen E. Ambrose), “Astoria” (Peter Stark), “Boone” (Robert Morgan) and “Blood and Thunder” (Hampton Sides).