Friday, March 1, 2013

Was Thomas Tanner of Connecticut related to William Tanner of Rhode Island?

There is a commonly digitized book concerning the descendants of Thomas Tanner of Connecticut.[1] This book is available on Google Books at, and similar websites. Unfortunately, the book begins its discussion of the advent of the Tanner family in America by reporting the common genealogical myth concerning the arrival of three brothers from England. A variation on this myth, also reported, is that one of the brothers stayed in England because of his inheritance and the other two brothers were the immigrants. Aside from the fact that there are absolutely no source citations, other than “family tradition,” these speculations are not supported by the scant facts that do exist.

It is undisputed that there was a Tanner family based primarily in Connecticut and at the same time there is also a well-documented family with the same surname in Rhode Island to which I trace my family line. But there is no demonstrable evidence connecting the two families. The Tanner surname is common in England and there is no reason to suppose that all the Tanners found there are descendants from some common ancestor. Since the origin of the name clearly refers to a common occupation, there is no need to question the distinct possibility that use of the name arose in different areas and at different times as adopted by unrelated individuals. Subsequent surname books on the Rhode Island Tanner family refer to the multiple origins of the surname and even add in a Coat of Arms.[2]

An examination of the Thomas Tanner book[3] shows several very serious initial inconsistencies. For example, at page one, Thomas Tanner is described as having four children, however only three are identified in the text. The first child identified is named William Tanner and is further identified as “born about 1729 in Rhode Island. “ In fact, two of the three identified children are listed as born in Rhode Island.

The difficulty here is engendered by the supposed connection of this family to the one in Rhode Island because of the use of the common given name, William. However, it is clear from later references in the Thomas Tanner book, that the William Tanner who was supposedly his son, was born well after the William Tanner. Further reference to the Appendix A to the Thomas Tanner book[4] demonstrates further the lack of supporting documentation for the information in this book. William Tanner is listed as born between 1725 and 1730, contradicting the earlier information in the same book listing his birth date as 1729.

This type of confusion and lack of source citations makes these early surname books almost useless in determining the correct relationships. Caution should be used in referring to the information, unless the books provide a specific way to independently verify the information.

There is no evidence supporting a conclusion that the William Tanner identified in the Thomas Tanner book is in any way connected with the Rhode Island Tanner family who are the progenitors of John Tanner of Hopkinton, Washington, Rhode Island.

[1] Tanner, Elias F. 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. Lansing (Mich.): Thorp, 1893.
[2] See, for example, Tanner, Maurice, and George C. Tanner. Descendants of John Tanner: Born August 15, 1778 at Hopkintown, R.I., Died April 15, 1850 at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. [S.l.]: Tanner Family Association, 1942, page 7.
[3] Ibid Genealogy of the Decendants of Thomas Tanner, Sr. of Cornwall, Connecticut. With Brief Notes of Several Allied Families, Also Short Sketches of Several Towns of Their Early Residence. at page 1.
[4] Ibid, at page 87.


  1. You mention a coat of arms for the Connecticut Tanners. Is there one for our Tanners or the Oversons? I don't think I've ever seen one.

  2. As far as we know, both families were middle class and/or skilled tradesmen, so neither family should have a coat of arms.