Sunday, August 24, 2014

William Tanner Lives Again: A Summary of the Tanner Genealogy in 2014

I confess that I have not done much work on the Tanner line past John and Joshua Tanner. I knew the recorded history contained dubious genealogy and fake royal lines, but felt that those who were more interested would spend time on it, and I would continue to do what I do best: 19th century family and community history.

Then a couple of years ago some friends invited my family to vacation with them in New England. We returned home through Rhode Island and as we drove a few of the highways and byways of our smallest state, I was surprised by feelings of deep connection to the place and people.

Despite these feelings of connection, my list of projects often falls prey to the demands of everyday life and I have not done much work on the Tanner genealogy, but there has been a recent surge of interest in the subject, so here is a brief summary of the research.

This is how the family currently looks on FamilySearch Family Tree. This shows John Tanner's entry KWJ1-K2F and Joshua Tanner's entry L7BX-YNF. [1]

This chart shows that John Tanner (1778-1850) is the son of Joshua Tanner (1757-1807), the son of Francis Tanner (1708-1777), the son of William Tanner (1660-1757). From what I've gathered of the current dispute, most people agree on the first three generations but disagree on the identity of William Tanner and his parents and wives.

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Several family books were published before it became common to list sources. I will not list them all. They include valuable stories that would have been lost if they had not been written, but also contain genealogies that range from reliable to incorrect. [2] The family books seem to rely on the research of George Clinton Tanner of Minnesota, most notably the following:
Tanner, George C. William Tanner of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and His Descendants, 1905. (Also available here.)
All of the genealogical information should be independently verified before adding it to an online family tree. [3]

Stone bridge in Argyle, New York, used as is from Sébastien Barré at Flickr.

The most thoroughly-sourced exploration I've seen of the Tanner colonial genealogy is by my father, James Tanner. I have also done a few small projects, so I will list our work together by generation. Some of these links are to my father's blog, Genealogy's Star. Some of these links contain interesting comments from cousins. Some of the articles may include ongoing research, so if you have questions, please ask.

John Tanner (Tabitha Bently) (Lydia Stewart) (Elizabeth Beswick)
The John Tanner Story (a previous summary of resources)

Joshua Tanner and Thankful Tefft
Looking for Thankful Tefft (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three)

Francis Tanner

William Tanner

Here is another reliable resource, Karen Bray Keely's website on the Tanner family, mostly on John Tanner and his descendants: (Tanner Family)

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Current Genealogical Research

As mentioned in the comments to some of these articles, some family members have put significant effort into tracing the genealogy, but as far as I can tell from internet searches and public family trees, none of these efforts are publicly available.

I have not been contacted by people working on the family line, except in blog comments, and have limited time right now to work on this project. However, if you have done work on the family and would like to run it past me or my father, contact me at amyancestorfiles at gmail dot com or my father at genealogyarizona at gmail dot com. My father has expressed interest in doing further research, and I would be happy to review your research.

Prescott Farm, Middletown, Rhode Island. Source: susteph.

Research Directions

One of the weaknesses of many sources on the Tanner family, including George Shepherd Tanner's book, John Tanner and His Family (1974), is that they seem to lack historical context. They do not take into account differences in religious and family life in previous centuries, nor do they take into account changing boundaries, migrations, or the connections between family and community groups.

Did you know that John Tanner crossed the plains with relatives of his first wife's family and his nephew Benjamin Baker, among others? Did you know that although the beautiful movie about John Tanner, Treasure in Heaven, shows him loading up a couple of wagons and leaving New York with "a few others," the family moved with a large group of around 45 people?

Who were these people?

And why is it important?

The reason it is important is that when you are tracing a family through the generations, it is vital that you do not choose a single person in each generation and go back from son to father to grandfather, ignoring wives, children, siblings, cousins, and in-laws. If you do this, you are going to miss valuable connections that will help confirm that you are tracing the right family. It is important to understand the extended family.

Next, in order to trace families back correctly, it is important to have an understanding of the geography. Where did they live? How were the places related to each other? How far is it from Rhode Island to Greenwich? Greenwich to Bolton Landing? Which counties did they live in and how did the boundaries change over time? Knowing the correct locations are important so you know where to look for records, which will be cataloged by locality.

Last, it is important to understand the history: local, national, and international. Why did they live where they did? Why Rhode Island? Why Greenwich? Why Bolton Landing? How were those places connected? When did they move and why? What did they do there? What does it mean that they were Baptists? Were any of the Tanners Seventh-Day Baptists? How did religion play into their moves? When and why were they involved in warfare? What can tax records tell us about them? Were they northern slaveowners like some of their neighbors? Why or why not?

It does take work to understand extended family, geography, and history, but without it, it will be hard to treat your ancestors' lives with fairness and accuracy and an understanding of their real experiences, not just the experiences you or someone else think they should have had.

Farm in Greenwich, New York, used as is from Doug Kerr at Flickr.

Checklist for Tanner Family Research

Collaboration. Who is currently doing research? Can we form a committee, formal or informal, to combine information? If we divide up the work, we can cover more ground than if everyone is duplicating efforts. [4]

Adding Sources to FamilySearch Family Tree. Family Tree is a good way to pool information. If everyone would spend some time and add the sources they have, it would become a great resource for information on the family. [5]

Four important notes:
  • When you make a change in Family Tree, leave a note about why you are making the change. People can't read your mind, and if they don't recognize your name, they won't know whether to trust your change.
  • Don't make a change unless you have a source to back it up. [6] 
  • Primary sources (sources made at or near the time of the event) take precedence over secondary sources (those made later), and just about everything takes precedence over user-created family trees.
  • The published Tanner family books should be taken with a grain of salt. It is best to make changes based on records created at the time of the event. I see someone has recently changed Lydia Stewart Tanner's name to "Stuart" based on the Maurice Tanner book. This is unfortunate since the family name is spelled "Stewart" in most sources created around 1800, and the occasional later use of the spelling "Stuart" is more likely due to a rise in Scottish nationalism than historical fact. [7]
We Will Never Know Everything. There will be some things we will never know about the family, but this doesn't mean there aren't many wonderful discoveries waiting to be made.

Lake George, New York, used as is from Eric at Flickr.


We appreciate all of you and your interest in the family genealogy. We hope you will be able to help. We'd all like to get this right. Let's work together.

If you don't care to put in the effort to learn to do 18th century mid-Atlantic and New England research, please work on your line between yourself and John Tanner. Collect pictures, documents, sources, and stories, and add them to Family Tree. (Whether or not you're a member of the LDS Church, relevant research methods are mentioned at Researching Your Mormon Ancestors.) Don't forget the women of the family, as has so often been done; learn about their lives and tell their stories, too.

Please leave comments, questions, or suggestions here or contact my father or me by email. If you have sourced information available online or in print, please send me a note so I can add a link here.

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[1] Due to the problem of IOUS (Individuals of Unusual Size) created by the switch from NewFamilySearch to Family Tree, John and Joshua Tanner and other family members have at least one other non-mergeable entry. The entries I list are currently their main entries. Every so often (okay, at least once a week) someone goes in and tries to fix the problem, but until NewFamilySearch is closed down for good, it is not possible to fix. So don't bother trying to fix the IOUS's.

[2] As an example of a problem arising from a printed family book, I mentioned in my recent post Finding Thankful, Joshua, and Tabitha, that the Maurice Tanner book noted that John Tanner's sister lived in Mexico, New York, so subsequently many family trees showed her children as being born in Mexico. However, they were all born in Greenwich and many of them died there; it was not until late in her life that the widowed Esther Tanner Wellwood moved to join one of her sons in Mexico. Additionally, her husband is sometimes listed as her child.

[3] Why go back and source and double-check all this genealogy? (a) Because the original work was done in an era when fraudulent genealogies were not uncommon. (b) Because we have much better accessibility to resources now than even professional researchers had back then.

[4] Just think what it would be like to divide up into subcommittees, for example one committee in charge of Joshua Tanner, another for Francis, one for Argyle/Greenwich history and sources, another for Bolton Landing, one for the Teffts, another for the Bentleys, etc. (Pipe dream here?)

[5] There is no way to list sources in sub-categories, so as people have been adding sources to John Tanner's entry, I've been adding years to the source titles, if possible, and sorting by year. If the source does not lend itself to a timeline, it goes on the end by record type. FamilySearch has recently made a change so the source shows who originally added it, and who has made the last change. This is nice, so it doesn't make it look like I added all these sources just because I changed their titles.

[6] There are a very few exceptions, for example, if a date or place needs to be standardized. However, people who delete relationships or individuals because they don't understand them or make willy-nilly merges are not helping the cause. One example from this past week, luckily not the Tanner line: someone merged two people with the same name, resulting in a grandson showing as the husband of his grandmother. Brings a new meaning to the old song "I'm My Own Grandpa."

[7] The Stuart spelling seems to trace back to Nathan Tanner's 1884 history of the family. In 1902 Francis M. Lyman uses the spelling "Stewart," and John Tanner's son's name is always written "William Stewart," although his death record just uses "S." "Stuart" needs to be changed back to "Stewart" unless someone can find a source made during Lydia's lifetime using the spelling "Stuart." 


  1. While I am not a Tanner, I love your wisdom in this post. To be sure, my own appreciation of my family history has been strengthened and deepened as I explore areas of the country where I have family roots. Understanding the geography and religious or civic movements of the time make family history data come alive.

  2. And I really laughed at the IOUs lol. Never skip the footnotes!

  3. can we compare notes?? I believe my Williams and Johns are also in your am looking for early Mormon ancestors! thanks