West by Southwest – May 2011


by Ernie Bulow

Though Seth Tanner, the Bear Man, left a huge footprint in Territorial Arizona, his son Joseph Baldwin strode right alongside him.  Of Seth’s seven children, J.B. was most like his legendary sire.  Joseph was born in Ogden, Utah, in 1868, but grew up in the isolated Hopi community of Moenkopi.


Joseph Baldwin Tanner

Joseph Baldwin Tanner was known by at least four names, which is confusing because two of his famous grandsons were named for him: JB and Joe.  The original J.B. was also known as The Bear Man, like his father, and by his Navajo name, Shush Yazz, Bear’s Son.  (Generally translated as Little Bear.)

It has been recorded in print that Tanner was called The Bear Man because of the many animals he had slain.  The truth is no Tanner would kill a bear because of their emotional kinship with the great beasts, Seth Tanner’s totem animal.

Joseph was a chip off the old block in many ways and one of the most significant was his independence and his hunger for travel and adventure.  As a young boy he would disappear from Tuba City for long periods of time and he would stay with Chee Dodge’s family.

Joseph already spoke several languages.  More importantly, he had a rapport with the Indians that was unusual, even for the place and time.  Though many traders learned to speak good Navajo, J.B.’s command of the tongue was better than good.

He also grew up with a number of unusual skills he would use throughout his lifetime.  He and Seth are credited with the irrigation system at Tuba City.  There was a good spring there, but the soil is almost pure sand (the Hopi are excellent sand farmers) and too much water was lost getting it to the corn.  The Tanners lined the ditches with slabs of sandstone, putting the precious water on the crops instead into the ground.  J.B. developed the extensive irrigation system in the Farmington, Kirtland, Fruitland, Hogback area of the San Juan basin.

He must have already been traveling with his notorious father as a boy, because there is reference to his famous turquoise mine by 1910, and the family had owned it for some time.  The Turquoise Mountain Diggings in Southern Arizona was one of many that had been worked in prehistoric times.  Joseph had caught Seth’s prospecting “bug.”

One of Joseph Baldwin’s sisters, Charlotte Ann, known as Annie, was a character in her own right.  She said later she never wanted to go to Arizona, and was deathly afraid of Indians because of the stories she had heard.  She spent a lot of time with the Hopi girls at Moenkopi and they used to put her hair up in the maiden whorls.  She learned to make piki bread, among other things.

She married Mormon pioneer Price Nelson and they were sent to the Church settlement in northern Mexico with the other “Saints.”  The members of the Casas Grandes group in Chihuahua, Mexico were polygamists and that included the Price and Annie Nelson.  Annie was a self-taught midwife and thus useful to the colony.  After seventeen years in Mexico they returned to Arizona.

In her lifetime she delivered one thousand two hundred thirty four babies without ever losing a single mother or child.  That is an amazing record for the time when infant mortality was high.  Ironically, only one of her own children survived infancy.

On one occasion in Mexico she delivered a local woman of triplets with only a small girl for a helper.  Most of Seth’s other children moved on to successful lives in Arizona, but only Joseph carried on the trading tradition.


Joseph Baldwin Tanner and his wife Nora Foutz

Joseph married Nora Foutz, another Mormon pioneer in the community of more than three hundred located at Tuba City.  They made the three-week trip to get married in the St. George Temple.  Half of their thirteen children were born before the government bought out the colony in 1902 and Joseph relocated to northern New Mexico.

J.B. was just naturally involved in a variety of enterprises.  As soon as he reached the San Juan Valley, he was working on the irrigation system and bought some freight wagons.  He also located his first trading post, in a barren part of the Colorado Ute Reservation north of Shiprock known to this day as Tanner Mesa.

One consistent thread of Tanner’s life story was his love of a good time.  They say he’d be standing in a crowd of men and spot a couple of boys, one thin and one fat.  He would say “Boys, I want to have a race between those two lads.  We’ll give the fat one a twenty-yard head start.”  He’d look at the men and grin.  “I’ll bet on either one of them,” he would say.

There is a story from this period that illustrates his love of sports and gambling.  The Utes held a horse race at Towoac, near Cortez, and Joe entered a pony.  The Navajo jockey parted from the horse well before the end of the race and the animal ran all the way home.

Of course there was nobody there and the pony got lonely – probably hungry after his long run.  The building was built in a crack in the rocks and part of the roof was ground level.  When the family got back to the place, they found the horse standing in the living room and a gaping hole in the ceiling.

Though Joseph would own – or partner in – a number of trading posts on the Reservation, he wasn’t a “behind the counter” kind of merchant.  The day-to-day business was handled by somebody else so he could stay on the move.  Joe Tanner believes that Grandpa J.B.’s wonderful rapport with all the tribes and dozens of traders set the stage for the Tanner trading dynasty.


Chee Dodge

Joseph would visit his mine near Tombstone, Arizona, and pick up stone.  He also introduced coral and Persian turquoise to Southwestern jewelers.  It bothered some of his family that he always gave first selection of the turquoise to his old friend Chee Dodge, but that was his pattern.

Dodge and Tanner were inextricably intertwined their whole lives.  The Seth Tanner homestead at Tanner Springs was taken over by Dodge, who later expanded the Navajo Reservation to surround the land.  Later he took possession of Joe Tanner’s homestead near Chaco when Joseph died.

Tanner would make the rounds of Indian villages, Hopi, Santo Domingo, Zuni, all over Navajo country, doling out the natural stone.  His arrangement was that the bead maker kept half of the finished product for his work, and Joe took the other half for providing the stone.  He almost always traded the necklaces and jah-cloh (literally “ear-rope” in Navajo) for livestock, wool, crafts, whatever they had.

It was said that a nice jah-cloh was worth at least a good cow.  Then he had to dispose of all the stuff he picked up.  Many of the sheep and cattle passed through Rock Springs Ranch, originally homesteaded by the Kennedy family, and later run by J.B.’s good friend Howard Wilson.

Joe had his freight wagons to move goods around – wool, piñon nuts, and other goods, but he didn’t like to store anything.  All of his activity was just that – active and fluid – thus at any given moment, Joe could be anywhere in the Southwest.  He gave new meaning to the word “trader.”

Just maintaining his wagons was a small industry.  The Cousins family who ran a post south of Gallup employed a couple of good welders who were kept busy repairing wagon wheel rims and other equipment belonging to Tanner.

He actually carried around a teepee he could set up anywhere he was.  A friend recently gave Joe Tanner an invitation found in some old papers.  It was hand-drawn by Joseph Baldwin, inviting them to his lodge in Taos, November 26, 1929.

He also embodied the idea of a “free spirit,” always following his own star.  And he loved a good party.  When he took over the Hogback Trading Post he threw the biggest bash in Reservation history, with games, races, gambling, and lots of food.  It was such a big shindig it was given coverage in the Gallup newspapers.  He sold the post less than a year later.

On the level of “legendary,” Joseph Baldwin was as mysterious as his father had been.  He always seemed to have plenty of money for his various “deals” and enterprises.  The family has a story about the source of this cash.

According to the Tanner tradition, J.B. had some Navajo friends who had a significant cache of silver.  Nobody knows who or where they were, nor where the silver originally came from.  There are plenty of “lost mine” stories in the Southwest, usually involving looting conquistador pack trains.

Joe would borrow the money in silver, and he had to pay it back in silver.  There was no paper trail of any kind.  It was one of the secrets he kept from the family and took with him to the grave.

In the public record J.B.’s involvement with the “Beautiful Mountain Rebellion” is shadowy, if not non-existent, but according to local traders and Navajos, Joe’s role probably prevented a heavy loss of life.  His fame and respect among local Natives and his close relationship with Chee Dodge averted catastrophe.

It is a matter of record that William T. Shelton, first superintendent of the San Juan Indian Agency, and founder of the town of Shiprock in 1903, did a lot of good for his Navajos, and Joe Tanner considered him a friend.  Shelton was a very tall, lanky fellow known to the Navajos as Nataani Nez, Tall Boss. The down side of Shelton was that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was committed at the time to destroying traditional Indian cultures and making “white men” out of the Natives.

Shelton, like many well-meaning but misinformed people of the time, was dead-set on doing away with gambling and polygamy, among other things.  He outlawed card games completely and forbade traders from selling playing cards to their customers.

A belligerent Navajo named Thin Man who had a grudge against two renowned medicine men, Bizhoshi and his son Little Singer, reported them for having plural wives.  Shelton sent Navajo police out to bring in Little Singer for a talking to, and then left town.  The medicine man was away performing a ceremony, but the wives – including one who was very pregnant – were home.  The literal minded cops brought in the three women and locked them up.

Shiprock trader Will Evans, who gives the best account of the whole affair, called Bizhoshi “Missing Link” on account of his battered face.  His sons were “Big Link” and “Little Link.”  These names were mild compared to some passed out by the traders.

Almost immediately Little Singer and friends released the wives, inflicting some minor hurt on the agency people.  The women complained loudly about their treatment.  Shelton was livid – literally outraged – and since he couldn’t follow the “rebel” leader into the Chuska Mountains, fired off several telegrams to “Washingdone” greatly exaggerating the whole incident.

General Hugh Scott, who had dealt with the troubles at Hopi, was dispatched with his troops from Fort Robinson, Nebraska.  This was the last time the regular army was officially called out against an Indian tribe.  It took Scott more than a week to arrive and in the meantime the “Rebellion” had escalated considerably.  Newspaper headlines all over the Southwest shouted out the “Redskins on the Warpath” message.  The Navajos were scared to death they were going to be massacred by the coming soldiers.

Hundreds of Navajo families gathered for protection – from the soldiers and the “renegades.”  They gathered in large numbers at Sanostee and Red Rock trading posts.  Rumors flew like fluff from cottonwood trees in the spring.

Though they got no official credit, Joe Tanner and Frank Noel met with Bizhoshi and Chee Dodge at a nearby “sing.”  Tanner took the situation seriously, warning several traders to take their families to safety, but he persuaded Little Singer not to fight and promised him there would not be much punishment.  He wouldn’t be killed or put in prison.


1929 Taos Tanner Invitation

The three men met once again and by the time Scott, the troops and Father Anselm Weber as “peacemaker” arrived more than a week later, the situation had already been resolved.  General Scott chewed out the rebels with such vigor they were reportedly in tears.

The “recalcitrants” were sent to Santa Fe, soon returned to Gallup for a few weeks jail time, and nothing more was said about Little Singer’s wives.  He outlived two of them in the end.

With all of his enterprises Joseph did not really have to promote Indian art, but that was his lifelong passion.  He had a booth at the long running San Diego Panama Exposition in 1915.  A replica of the pueblo of Taos was constructed in Balboa Park and Indians of various tribes stayed there off and on for two years.

Tanner had also helped create the Shiprock Fair – the first of its kind – with Indian Agent Shelton.  He was later involved with the shows that Agent Stacher organized at Crownpoint with rodeos, races and exhibits.   When he and a group of pals including Howard Wilson, Mike Kirk, “Big” Al Tietjen, and the senior Tobe Turpen helped organize the Gallup Ceremonial in 1922, they were all familiar with what it took to throw a grand party.

Early on, Joe bought a herd of buffalo.  At ceremonial they would hold a buffalo stampede – much like the ones at Wild West shows – and one of the animals would be killed each day and barbecued for the dancers.  They were hard to keep penned and constantly broke out of their corral.  On one occasion they were rounded up out east of town, giving the place its name, Iyanbito (Buffalo Springs).  The rest of the year the buffalo herd grazed out at the Joe Tanner homestead.

Other folks may get credit for the official “organization” of Ceremonial, and selling it to the citizens of Gallup, and getting financing for it, but it was Kirk and Tanner and friends who provided the cooperation of the Indians and gave shape and content to the event, which is still pretty much intact ninety years later.

Of the thirteen children of Nora Foutz and Joseph Baldwin Tanner, half a dozen of them stayed in the Indian trading business and their children and grandchildren are legendary in the trade, including Donald, Art, Ruel and Ralph.  Son Ruel Lehi Tanner’s boys became the next generation of prominent Tanners including JB (that was his name, no periods), Bob, Don, Jerry, Joe, Ellis and Rick.

They believe it was the personality, and integrity, of Joseph Baldwin that opened doors and paved the way for the rest of the family.


  • Christina Benally says:

    I come from the Lineage of Shi Che Bizhoshi of Sanostee “Beautiful Mountain Rebellion” there’s been numerous accounts of what really happened, this is the first I’ve heard of your account.One of my sons is named after “Bizhoshi”. He was a Highly renown Medicine Man I have pictures of the three wives of his son and a picture of Bizhoshi and his son Hitalhi Bizhoshi.

  • Dennis June says:

    Thank you, Ernie Bulow, for this riveting account of Tanner Family history and events. Most accounts of this illustrious family begin with the Ruel Lehi branch of the Tanners (Don, Joe & Ellis), whose successes and prominence seem to overshadow this much deeper account. Many mysteries and questions are answered by your story which, I might add, is relatively brief, easily read and loaded with previously obscure historical facts. Fascinating. Many thanks! . . . Dennis June, AZ

  • TossTaylor says:

    I’m looking for a photograph of Howard Wilson. Who was married to a women name Sybil Fry around 1931. They had one child (daughter) at the time. Howard was the brother of Lawrence E. “Bobcat” Wilson.

  • Kurt Tanner says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful information. My Grandfather is Art (as most called him) the son of JB. I’m compiling a book of photos and a brief history for my daughters so they and they’re children may have a better understanding of their name and history, even though they take the name of their husband they will truly know and understand where they came from.

    Kurt B. Tanner

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