Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Colonial Heritage of the John Tanner Family

My family and I were in Massachusetts recently, and we drove home through Rhode Island, the historical home of the Tanner family. I was surprised by what an emotional experience it was to visit since I have never done any genealogy on the line past John Tanner (1778-1850).

This small cemetery doesn't seem to have any ancestors, but it does have relatives.

By about 1790, the Tanners left Rhode Island to settle in Washington County, New York, but previous to their departure, the family's connection to Rhode Island goes back to the founding of the colony.

Disclaimer: I am using others' work on the family lines and have not independently verified any of this information.

A marker telling some of the history of Hopkinton, Rhode Island, the birth place of John Tanner.

One ancestor, Philip Sherman, became interested in the teachings of John Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson, and left Massachusetts to found the community of Portsmouth. He was one of the signers of the Portsmouth Compact in 1638, "the first document in [American] history that severed both political and religious ties with mother England." (Wikipedia.)

"The Portsmouth Compact." In Isaac Backus, A History of New-England, with particular reference to the...Baptists, Boston: Edward Draper, 1777.

A distant uncle's gravestone in Hopkinton, Rhode Island.

Here is a list of some of the family names in the Tanner line accompanied by their locations as listed in the genealogy:
  • Brownell (Portsmouth, Little Compton, Newport).
  • Jenckes (Pawtucket, Providence, Warwick). A son of this family, Joseph Jenckes, was an early governor of Rhode Island. Here is a short but very interesting article that includes some information about his father and grandfather, our ancestors: Joseph Jenckes.
  • Kenyon (Kingston, Westerley).
  • Sherman (Portsmouth). See above.
  • Mumford (Kingston). The Great Swamp Fight, a crucial battle during King Philip's War, took place on ancestor Thomas Mumford's land.
  • Potter (South Kingston, Portsmouth). I took a quick look around a Potter family cemetery in South Kingston and saw a distant uncle's grave marker in Hopkinton.
  • Sheldon (South Kingston).
  • Sprague (Smithfield).
  • Stanton (Newport).
  • Tanner (South Kingston, Hopkinton).
  • Tefft (Richmond, South Kingston, Providence).
  • Tibbetts (Kingston, Portsmouth).
  • Tripp (Portsmouth).
As you look at maps of Rhode Island, many streets and physical features are named after these families. It was an impressive experience to see the family homeland.

This South Kingston book store is run by a very distant Sherman cousin. The proprietor was very helpful.

Since these family lines include founders of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and of our nation, many of the family lines have been thoroughly and accurately researched. Over the next several years I will start exploring this colonial American family history and its connection to the history of the Baptist churches in America and confirming the relationships (as possible). I will present the research here.

Who is Mary Tanner? How is she related to John Tanner? What is the meaning of the text on the gravestone about the Civil War?

To be continued (eventually)...


  1. Mary is Mary Colgrove, first wife of John Tanner of Newport. John was a deacon in the Sabbatarian Baptist Church in Newport. He also was a silversmith. He left Newport when the British occupied the city during the revolution. This is the civil war mentioned on the gravestone.

    John (1712-85) and his brother James (1714-82) were in Newport by 1735 or so. They were related to the other Rhode Island Tanners, but not descendents of William.

  2. Thank you for the explanation! It reminds me that I need to put the gravestone photos onto FindaGrave.

    I am tentatively planning on doing research on the Tanner lines in 2019 and 2020, but in the meantime, would you mind mentioning some of the sources you've found helpful in researching these family lines?

  3. Hi,

    Start with the two books by George Tanner:

    "William Tanner of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and his descendants," George C. Tanner, published by the author in 1905

    "William Tanner, Sr. of South Kingston, Rhode Island and his descendants: In four parts," George C Tanner published by the author in 1910.

    The 1905 book follows the descendents of William Tanner, Jr, first son of William Tanner, Sr. The 1910 book describes the descendents of the other four sons of William Sr.

    Both books are available as reprints and, occasionally, used. Alibris has them

    There is also "Genealogy of the descendants of Thomas Tanner, sr., of Cornwall, Connecticut, with brief notes of several allied families, also short sketches of several towns of their early residence," Eilas F. Tanner, 1893. Thomas is a contemporary of William, Sr. and probably a relative. Many of his descendents wound up in Utah as part of the Mormon migration there.

    Fourth, there is "SIDNEY TANNER - His Ancestors and Descendants - Pioneer Freighter of the West 1809-1895" by Compiled By: Elizabeth De Brouwer (1982). This one starts in New York, where many RI Tanners moved between 1790 and 1810. I think the connection made to the earlier
    Rhode Island branch is a bit fanciful.

    Finally, a few years ago Terri J McSweeny published "A Guide to the Descendants of William Tanner of South Kingston, Rhode Island (2 Volume Set)." It has lots of names but less personal information than the others.

    best wishes,

  4. The first books you listed are available for free download at books.familysearch.org. I'd add links but the site is down for maintenance. I think they're also available at Google Books. I'll keep my eyes open for the Elias Tanner and McSweeny books. I have a copy of the DeBrouwer book and it is of mixed usefulness since much of it is lists of descendants.

    Thank you for your comment, David! I do look forward to piecing together the Tanner genealogy. (Unless some other intrepid soul wants to do it, in which case I'll add links to the website.)

  5. Hello All,

    First off, I'm a direct descendant of Wm Tanner and Mary Babcock. I have been doing my Dad's Tanner genealogy for 34 years now, and it seems like forever. I hired a genealogist in London several years ago to find Wm, that is the RIGHT Wm. This was accomplished several years ago, and I chose to hire a genealogist because of the incorrect information that several (if not all of them) of the books written about Wm are incorrect and full of errors. Yes...ALL of them.

    George Clinton Tanner's books and Elias Tanner are wrong about where Wm came from and the year he was born, and also concerning the children which they list in their books from Wm's three wives. Wm's first wife, Hannah Avis Tibbetts had one child together. Apparently Hannah died giving birth to their only child or shortly after giving birth to Wm Henry Tanner.

    Wm's second wife, Mary Babcock had 12 children together with the last having been b. in 1719. That's TWELVE children. Mary Babcock d. in 1722. Yes, 1722,

    Wm married 3rd Elizabeth Colgrove in 1723. This is found in the Marriages for this time period in RI and is recorded. I think, you see the problem with stating children for Elizabeth and Wm. In other words, THEY HAD NO CHILDREN. This is a mistake by George to say that they did. George even lists the marriage date as either 1722 or 1723!?! Elizabeth Colgrove (her maiden name) married twice before she married Wm..she married a Gardiner/Gardner first, the a John Cottrell. She had 4 children with John Cottrell before his early death.

    She is buried with Wm along with Mary Babcock in a very crude cemetery of which I have pictures. Hannah may also be there.

    In the Colgrove genealogy book, it states that Elizabeth Colgrove parents were Francis Colgrove and a Elizabeth who apparently died giving birth to Elizabeth in 1688 or shortly thereafter. This was the first marriage for Francis. Francis married 2nd a Ann Black and not a Hannah or Ann Bailey. Hannah or Ann Bailey married a son of Francis Colgrove and Ann Black who's name is also Francis. It would appear that Mary Colgrove b. 1711 is from this union. This Mary Colgrove married a John Tanner b. 1717. This John Tanner is NOT descended from Wm. It appears that he is related to Wm, but not a descendant. At this point, it's unkown who John's parents are.

    Now, Wm Tanner was b. 10 Mar 1657. He was found in the Chipstead Parish Records, Chipstead, Surrey, England. These parish records list his father as a John Tanner b. 1631 and his mother as a Elizabeth. So Francis is NOT the father of Wm. As it turns out, the genealogist found a brother of John Tanner named Francis. Nothing else is known about this Francis other than he is not the father of Wm. I also know the name of the father and mother of John Tanner which is also a William. John's mother was a Ann Hills.

    The problem with George Clinton Tanner's genealogy book, is that he accepted hearsay from other people who thought they new what Wm's ancestry was. That's a mistake on George's part when doing genealogy. You can't rely on hearsay. I'm not criticizing George's hard work. He did the very best that he could with what he had to work with.

    One last thing about Wm and his parents. Wm had 3 or 4 sisters and two other brothers. I would have to look it up in my data base to remember their names. There are no ship records for Wm, but the genealogist said that he probably came over with his brother John who settled in CT and Wm in RI. Wm was well educated as was his brother John.

  6. Thank you, Peggy! That's a lot of great research and it's good of you to summarize it here. Let us know if you're going to publish it or provide it online in any form.

  7. I haven't figure out if I will publish what I have yet. I have over 43,000 people. Most are allied families related to William via marriages of his children. I'm willing to look things up for folks if they need help. William was such a problem finding. Very illusive! The problem being, that there are tons of Tanners still in England, plus many of the very early Tanner records were very hard to read or had been partially burned from the Cromwell Wars. Could it be possible that John Tanner b. 1717 (I have 1712 Westerly, RI) be from Germany? At this point like David above, I would have to say that this John Tanner is not directly related to Wm. Another thing I will say about Wm is this, he did not have a son named Thomas, but Wm brother John did. It was believed that William Tanner may have had a son, Thomas, who settled about 1730 in Litchfield Co., CT, and removed to Cornwall in 1740. He had three sons, William, Thomas, and John. This family is explored in "Genealogy of Thomas Tanner of Cornwall, CT," by Rev. Elias b. Tanner, 1893. New proof, however, disproves this possibility. A quitclaim was found around 2001 by a Tanner researcher in Wisconsin that proves Thomas Tanner of Cornwall CT was not the son of William. Thomas Tanner's father was John Tanner and his wife was Rebecca Spencer. In the deed, John Tanner is called Thomas's "beloved father." William Tanner and Mary Babcock were married by 1692.7 TannerCOA http://trees.ancestry.com/rd?f=image&guid=b9750e99-b99a-4d92-9d91-197ccd0573d0&tid=17870349&pid=666465320

    Thomas was born in Rhode Island between 1705-1710. He married Martha (last name not known) between 1728-1730. They moved to Cornwall in 1740. Not much is known of his life. He died in 1750 at about 45 years old. In May 1951 his widow was appointed administrator of his estate. Thomas's wife maiden name was Borden.

    1. Hi Peggy,
      I too come from the William Tanner (b. 1657) and Mary Babcock line. My line then goes down through their son John. Do you have any records about this line? I believe he was born on 12/24/1692 and that he married Susannah West. There, the records seem to get a bit sketchy. One record I saw said Susannah was born in 1666 (so she would have been 57 years old when she gave birth to her son George in 1723 - not likely) and another one says she was born in 1700 (this seems more likely). Do you have any information about John Tanner and his wife Susannah West and their children (particularly George (Sr.) b. 1723). Thanks in advance.

    2. Hi Aaron,

      The second part of "William Tanner, Sr. of South Kingston, Rhode Island and his descendants: In four parts," George C Tanner (1910) is about John Tanner. His account of this branch reaches the 8th generation. According to him, Susannah was the second wife and indeed the mother of George.

    3. Hi Aaron,

      I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond to you. Due to my limited time it's slow going to get back to these posts. You have the wrong date on John Tanner. He wasn't born in 1692, but rather he was b. in 1694 so far, there isn't a month or day for his birth. The John Tanner b. 24 Jan 1692 was a twin of Benjamin Tanner. According to the Historical Society that oversees William Tanner Grave Yard, John Tanner b in 1692 died either at birth or shortly after. John Tanner b. in 1694 married twice. David is correct on this point. John married first Jane Shelley/Shelly. They had two children before Jane died. Jane and Mary Babcock both died either in 1722/23 from an illness that was sweeping through the colonies killing many people. John married 2nd Susannah West. I have their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc. I think this is what you are after. I have Jane's line, Susannah's line and many others. As far as George Clinton Tanner's book on William it's FULL of errors. I learned a long time ago not to rely on his books. They're good starting points, but that's about it. I don't blame George at all. He did the very best that he could in writing the books on William Tanner and other Tanners he wrote about. He was limited on resources and information that he was given by mouth and time. Many of the Rhode Island records were written in hand and are hard to read. The father of William Tanner b. 1657 was not Francis Tanner. Francis was Williams uncle. Williams father was a John Tanner and his mother was Elizabeth (last name is unknown). The correct information on who Williams father and mother was provided to me by a paid Genealogist in England. It took her almost 5 years to get the right William. I may have posted this information on an earlier post on William.

      Let me know what you want me to do.

      Aaron I'm descended from a son of John Tanner and Jane Shelley/Shelly and a daughter of Benjamin Tanner b. 24 Dec 1692 and Joanna Lewis.

      Aaron I will send you a gedcom on John and Susannah West if you will provide me with a email address.

      David thanks for you comments to Aaron.

  8. Peggy,

    I believe this is a misprint on the date(may 1951).

  9. A word of caution: someone who has done quite a bit of work on this family line looked briefly at this discussion and thought that perhaps more than one family may be getting included in the information.

    I'll try and follow up and see what the specific concerns are, but neither the other researcher nor I have much extra time right now, so it could be awhile.

  10. Hi Amy

    Thank you for your post on a word of caution. I have noticed this problem for many years now with people trying to tie another Tanner line in with William Tanner or giving incorrect information on who his father was. It was not Francis Tanner. A hired Genealogist has confirmed who Francis was and what his relationship to William was. Francis was Williams uncle. Williams father was John Tanner b. 1631. Williams mother was Elizabeth b. Abt 1638. Maiden name is unknown. This information is found in the Chipstead Parish Records, Surrey, England.

  11. Peggy,

    Your research is fascinating. I am descended from a Nathan Tanner (b.1709), who I believe to be one of the sons of William. My mother's research shows Nathan being married to Mary Cottrell, but as I see that name pop up in other generations, I am a little doubtful (my mother, God rest her soul, did not always record her sources).

    I would love to know if you have any research on Nathan. I can be reached at tc59@aol.com.


    Tom Castele