JOHN AND SETH TANNER: MORMON LEGEND & THE MYSTERIOUS BEAR MAN
By Ernie Bulow
John Tanner, wealthy landholder and Baptist lay preacher, was told by several doctors that he would soon die of a hideous infection in his leg because he refused to cut it off. The year was 1832 and the place was upstate New York. The Mormon Church had just been established by a young man named Joseph Smith.
Tanner, partly as a prominent Baptist, partly out of curiosity, attended a Latter-day Saints gathering. He was instantly caught up with the new religion, but he didn’t feel he could be baptized because of his infected leg. John hadn’t been able to put weight on the foot for six months and had rigged a mobile chair for himself. John’s disease sounds like gangrene, but must have been something else.
He took the Mormons up on an offer to make his leg whole again, which they did on the spot. He walked several miles to a lake where he officially joined the church. He soon liquidated his extensive holding, including a hotel, a sawmill, an island, some forest land and other property that made him a multi-millionaire by modern standards.
He moved his large family to Kirtland, Ohio, and gave Joseph Smith a large amount of money – and a huge loan, which he later gifted the church – to save the Kirtland temple. Smith called him “Father Tanner” and mentions him several times in his personal journal. John was already fifty years old when his son Seth – destined to be known as Hosteen Shush, Mister Bear – was born. He had several older brothers.
When John and his boys moved on to Missouri, he had given the church his entire fortune and they were reduced to begging for food along the way. The several Tanner boys were high profile in the Mormon skirmishes with Missouri slave holders. Joseph Smith formed a Mormon militia (called the Armies of Israel) at this time, and several of the Tanner boys were part of it.
According to well-documented legend, the Mormon militia later turned into a group of enforcers known as the Danites, from the Book of Daniel in the Bible. The most famous of these was the gunfighter Orrin Porter Rockwell. The Tanner family believes that Seth may have been one of them. It is a matter of record that he was well known to, and trusted by, Brigham.
While the church members were gathering in 1846 for the exodus to Utah, the two brothers just older than Seth – Albert and Myron – were conscripted into the army in what went down in history as the “Mormon Battalion.”
That group of men would march from the Mississippi River all the way to California, on foot, with disintegrating clothes and shoes and inadequate food. It was an incredible journey with a great deal of heroic suffering. They were cheated out of any active role in the great Mexican War that netted the United States with about a third of its total territory.
While the boys were gone, the rest of the family made the move with Brigham Young to the promised land of Utah. Seth was the oldest unmarried boy at the time, so care for his aging father and the rest of the family fell to him. He became invaluable to Prophet Young as his father had been to Joseph Smith.
Joe Tanner believes that it was on the grueling trip west that Seth picked up the idea of having the bear as his totem animal. He knew how the Indians felt about animal helpers and used it to his advantage. He loved to wrestle and had the physique to be rather good at it – some say he was a hefty six-foot-two by then.
The family settled south of Salt Lake City near the mouth of a canyon called Little Cottonwood. The city butts up on the spectacular Wasatch Mountains, one of the most beautiful places in the country. They homesteaded a farm and built a store – called a trading store by the family.
John was sent back east on a church mission, which was primarily a scouting venture to test the water for Joseph Smith’s bid for the presidency of the country. Seth was supposed to take care of the family farm.
Seth was an indifferent farmer, preferring travel and excitement. Brother Albert stayed in California. The Mormons reached Zion in 1847 and gold was discovered on the West Coast two years later. Albert got a serious bite from the gold bug.
Myron went back to the family, which freed Seth up to join his brother in the gold fields. They did moderately well and had enough money to buy a nice farm near present San Bernadino. There was soon a successful Mormon colony in the area. Albert and Seth accumulated a large herd of horses, which they trailed all the way to Salt Lake where they were badly needed and fetched a good price.
They made several such trips, establishing a new trail, known as the California short cut, or the Horsethief Trail. Herding horses is much harder than cattle or sheep, so theirs was a true accomplishment, trailing through a thousand miles of wilderness. From time to time Seth would take off by himself, apparently to prospect.
In his sister’s journal she notes that in 1856 he was somewhere in Mexico building carts or wagons. There are many gaps in his story.
Family tradition has it that Seth mined coal somewhere near San Diego, but there is no coal in the area. Seth was mining something. Patriarch John passed away in 1850, before he had time to enjoy his golden years in the Promised Land.
For unknown reasons, in 1858 Brigham Young recalled the pioneers from the land of milk and honey and had them return to Utah Territory – Deseret. Albert stayed in southern California and did well for himself. Seth settled in Ogden, Utah, married and had seven children. In 1872 he was widowed.
There is a family tradition that Seth had some unexplained absences from home during these years. He loved adventure and he had visions of striking it rich somewhere. There was no gold in Ogden.
In 1875 Prophet Young sent an exploring party to Arizona. The infamous John Doyle Lee (of Mountain Meadow Massacre fame) had already established his remote ferry on the Colorado River and the “Buckskin Apostle,” Jacob Hamlin, had explored northern Arizona and the Hopi country.
Seth Tanner was part of this party, partly because he was already familiar with the Grand Canyon country. The scouting party left part of their group in Moencopi (Tuba City, AZ) to build a small fort. The party established several locations along the Little Colorado River, but the colonies planted there did not thrive in the arid soil. Joseph City was soon the only Mormon colony left, and it remains stunted to this day.
When the group returned to Utah, Seth remarried and took his family to a remote post he built on the Little Colorado, near the present location of Cameron. Sadly, there isn’t much documentation for the mysterious Seth, but several Mormon leaders mentioned staying over with him as they were coming and going from settlements in Arizona.
Seth continued his prospecting and eventually dug a mine shaft in the Grand Canyon, known as the Tanner Mine. The gold seekers in the Canyon were never well rewarded for their work. When Seth went wandering his wife apparently kept up the family businesses. She was also the first postmistress at Tuba City.
In 1902-1903 the US Government kicked the Mormons out of the area, paying them for their homes and improvements. In Seth’s case, he was paid for both his homesteads.
Seth stayed in Arizona. Joseph Baldwin (later known as J. B. or Joe) moved to Kirtland, New Mexico, on the San Juan River and founded a trading dynasty. According to the family, the Arizona descendents did very well for themselves.
Seth was known far and wide as the “Bear Man” and there are a dozen different stories about how he got the name. The most often repeated version has him riding a mule along the Kiabab, north of Grand Canyon, when he came upon a group of mounted Navajos. He knew he might be in serious trouble. On impulse Seth rode his mule under a large pinon, grabbed ahold of the saddle horn with one hand and a thick limb with the other. He spurred the mule to no avail. After a couple of tries he ripped the thick limb from the tree. The Navajos dismounted and walked over to him.
“Hosteen Shush,” the leader said. “You are strong as a bear. Only a bear could do that.” He was known as Mr. Bear ever after, and his son, as well, and all his descendents are “Little Bears.” Shush Yazz can be translated as little bear, but Shush Yazzie also means “Bear’s son” – son of the bear.
To further illustrate Bear Man’s great strength there is a story about him riding a burro under a convenient limb, which he grabbed with both hands. He wrapped his powerful legs around the donkey and did a chin-up, lifting the animal off the ground.
The Navajos tell a story about a monster rattlesnake large enough to swallow a lamb – I have heard several monster rattlesnake stories over the years but they only managed to down chickens. The Navajos are prohibited from killing snakes by a powerful taboo, but this giant fellow had to go. They got Seth to do the deed and he later carried the huge viper to the Two Story Trading Post, near present-day St. Michaels. The story goes that when the serpent was dangled off the upper story balcony it reached all the way to the ground. Nobody seems to know what happened to the skin.
Seth Tanner left his name all over northern Arizona. Grand Canyon has a Tanner Mine and a Tanner Trail. There is a Tanner Wash, Tanner Crossing, and Tanner Spring. Bits of the legend are attached to every one of them.
After leaving Tuba, Seth stayed a short time in Joseph City, then homesteaded a spring, named for him, west of Wide Ruins, due south from Ganado. It is barren country on the edge of the Painted Desert, but the excellent spring there maintains a small reservoir surrounded by ancient cottonwood trees. There is a stone building there.
He died in the nearby community of Taylor, Arizona, near Snowflake, another Mormon settlement. The famous Navajo leader Henry Chee Dodge then owned the Tanner Springs property and left it to his daughter Annie Wauneka, telling her it was a prized possession and very dear to his heart.
Now the story gets really interesting. The Tanner family wondered why Joe Tanner and Chee Dodge were such close friends. Dodge would come and stay with the Tanners, according to Matriarch Stella Tanner, for a week at a time. When Joe got turquoise from his mine near Bisbee he always gave Chee first pick.
The final evidence was when Chee and Joe would talk together in a language nobody else in the family knew – which turned out to be Tewa. They both spoke Navajo, Spanish and English as well, but Tewa seemed to be their private joke.
Some years ago the current Joe Tanner had the opportunity to talk with Annie Wauneka alone, and to speak candidly. He told her his theory – that Chee Dodge was the son of Seth Tanner. Annie confirmed this and said it was now her favorite theory.
Fifty years ago I first heard the story of Chee Dodge’s paternity. I had heard Annie state that her father “probably” had no Navajo blood at all, which seemed rather startling. The story was that Chee’s father was either the Mexican blacksmith at Fort Defiance or Henry Dodge, the Indian agent who was killed by the Apaches.
The story was that Dodge’s mother was a Pueblo and when the Long Walk took place she took refuge with the Hopis, later joining her own people at Acoma. Annie told a different story.
Many years ago the Navajos were raiding all up and down the Rio Grande. Two Jemez girls were out in the cornfield, harvesting melons. A Navajo raiding party captured them and took them back to Arizona. Later the two girls escaped and headed for the Grand Canyon. I don’t know why they went in that direction, but it was the stomping ground of Seth Tanner at the time.
Somehow the two Jemez girls, sisters, were back with the Navajos when Kit Carson rounded them up. Chee’s mother had a second child, a girl. Not far into the walk the mother and sister died, as so many did on the Walk. Chee was around seven years old, not an infant as previously stated. His aunt took over his care and while they were at Fort Sumner, young Chee, who already spoke several languages, became the “boy interpreter.”
It was his skill with languages and his rapport with many Navajo headmen that helped him become the first Chairman of the Navajo Tribe. A well-spoken man has high status in that culture. The family believes that Chee and J. B. always knew they were half-brothers and behaved accordingly. It certainly makes a good story.
Joe Tanner has been trying to get one of Dodge’s descendents to have a DNA test to settle the matter one way or another.