Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fighting the Good Fight, or How Do You Explain to People That They Don't Know What They Think They Know

Lehi and the Brass Plates.
John Tanner knew the name of his great-grandfather, so his son, Sidney Tanner, served as proxy for his great-great grandfather William Tanner in the early 1840s in some of the earliest baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo

Unlike the dramatic story of Lehi's family in the Book of Mormon, John Tanner and his family did not leave their original home with a record of their forefathers. John's memory stretched back to the third generation, which is as far as human memory normally goes without a written record. Although our memory may go that far, and sometimes further back based on the sharing of written records, we may know a few things about our great-grandparents from hearing stories from our grandparents, but we're unlikely to know detailed information or be able to reconstruct their families without supplementary documentation, or know much personal information about their ancestors. As would be expected, although he could remember the name of his great-grandfather, William Tanner, John Tanner did not remember the name of William's wife or parents.


Almost half a century after these first baptisms for the dead, two ministers by the names of Elias Fitch Tanner (Presbyterian Church, Wisconsin and Michigan) and George Clinton Tanner (Episcopal Church, Diocese of Minnesota) began researching the origins of the Tanner family. They were limited in their research by their location in the Upper Midwest and the resulting difficulty of finding sources, but their publications are quite amazing for the time. We are in debt to George, in particular, for preserving records that would have been lost otherwise.

Like many genealogists of the time, they did not have the access to the records we now have. They were limited by the same overall lack of records as we are, and they did not cite their sources as a modern historian should. However, people reading their books mistook their speculative conclusions about the origins of the Tanner family for fact, and hundreds or thousands of online trees have reproduced their speculations without providing any supporting documentation.

My father, James Tanner, an internationally-known genealogist, realized that there were several major problems in the genealogy. There is little question about the connections between generations back to Francis Tanner, but there are major red flags about the purported connection between Francis Tanner and William Tanner. I will not detail them here; they have been discussed elsewhere. (William Tanner on AncestorFiles and Genealogy's Star).

Francis Tanner Home, Hopkinton,
Rhode Island, c. 1762,
courtesy of Brandon K. Staheli.
Several months ago, my father made a decision to remove Francis Tanner's purported parents from a widely-used online family tree, FamilySearch Family Tree, until documentation was found supporting their identities. The change log for Francis's page shows a battleground with traditionalists who continually add back in William Tanner and whichever of his wives feels right. Most do not give reasons for their action, but those who do justify the change with reasons like "dup." (That cryptic explanation refers to the records of Daughters of Utah Pioneers, a heritage organization chartered in 1901 to preserve and promulgate information about those who migrated to Utah between July 1847 and May 1869. Although DUP has done valuable work in historical preservation, unspecified records in their collections are no source for the identity of Francis Tanner's parents since any information DUP holds would trace back to the work of George C. Tanner.) One notable exception was from a woman who added William Tanner back, then realized the problem and removed him, noting "I should not have added this family. More research needs to happen."

Since members of the family are adding William back almost as fast as he is being removed, I decided to write an explanation to place at the top of Francis's page, hoping to educate and possibly provoke additional research and findings. Hopefully it will result in greater collaboration and understanding. The following is the text of my explanation.

• • •

Please look through Sources, Memories, and “Latest Changes” and read the following before making changes to Francis Tanner’s entry. As of May 2017, several family members are reading through Rhode Island and New York records to identify probate, property, tax, vital, church, and other historical records for the Tanner family. We are adding information to FamilySearch as we find it.

We have removed William Tanner and his supposed wives as parents of Francis Tanner. Around the start of the 20th century, Rev. Elias Tanner and Rev. George C. Tanner wrote books about the family. Over time, their speculations about the origin of the Tanner family were taken as fact and adopted in many genealogies and spread through online family trees, heritage society applications, family books, etc. A close examination of the speculative genealogy shows problems such as one possible mother, Elizabeth Cottrill, supposedly giving birth to Francis when she was a little child. The problem is that although there is very good reason to believe that a man named William Tanner was Francis Tanner’s father, there may have been multiple William Tanners in Rhode Island, and no one has provided documentation *created at the time* showing which one was the correct father, and which wife was Francis’s mother. Again, as far as we can tell, no one sharing online or published family trees has provided documentation supporting these speculative relationships.

We now have access to many more records than did family historians of prior generations, so we have begun to build a case for Francis’s parents. We are finding clues in probates, property records, and the records of the Sabbatarian or Seventh Day Baptist Church. We are identifying how Abel Tanner and Nathan Tanner and others are related to Francis, since a document associated with a relative might provide the clue that could reveal the identity of Francis’s parents.

If you would like to help, here are a few of the things you could do.

* If you've done research in the original records, look through the family entries on FamilySearch to see if something is missing, and please share a copy.

* Research related or possibly related families (Tosh, Sheldon, Tefft, Tibbitts, Babcock, Colgrove, Cottrill) using the original records of Rhode Island and New York, and add the sources to Family Tree.

* Transcribe Francis Tanner’s fourteen-page will. This would require familiarity with 18th century handwriting and legal language. (See a copy of the will in “Memories.”)

* Create detailed maps to show where each family lived during the 17th -19th centuries based on original property deeds.

* Research the history and records of the Seventh-Day Baptists and other Baptist denominations in Rhode Island and New York.

* Find additional records or original copies of extracted records in archives or government offices.

* Work on closer generations where relationships are known but the entries need sources, pictures, stories, family timelines, and biographies. In many cases the experiences of the women in the family were ignored; what can you discover and share about their experiences?

We appreciate all who have added original records or photographs. FamilySearch Family Tree gives us a remarkable ability to collaborate, so this is a good time to try to confirm what has only been speculation for too many generations.

• • •

Nauvoo Temple, undated daguerreotype
The source for the baptisms for the dead mentioned in the first paragraph is Susan Easton Black and Harvey Bischoff Black, Annotated Record of Baptisms for the Dead 1840-1845, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois (Provo, Utah: The Center for Family History and Genealogy, Brigham Young University), 6:3562–3570 (image 216–224). This book is available for viewing at books.familysearch.org at your local Family History Center.

Note, first, what this book is and is not. Susan and Harvey Black extracted the information from the Nauvoo Baptismal Records of the Dead. This book shows the baptisms for the dead done at Nauvoo, Illinois between 1840 and 1845. They supplemented the original record with genealogical information from FamilySearch and the old Ancestral File. They do not differentiate between the information and spellings from the original record and information from later (sometimes unreliable) sources. However, reduced to its essence, here is the important information, although the original records need to be located and checked. 

Note that these early members of the Church did baptisms for both male and female relatives; this was an early practice.

In 1840 John Tanner did proxy baptisms for Thankful Barber (his sister), Elizabeth Tanner (his grandmother), Francis Tanner (his grandfather), Joshua Tanner (his father), Lydia Tanner (his second deceased wife), Tabbatha Tanner (his first deceased wife), William Tefft (his grandfather), Mary Tifft (his grandmother).

Elizabeth Beswick did proxy baptisms for Elizabeth Beswick (her grandmother), Everton Beswick (her grandfather), John Beswick (her uncle), (Ephraim's Wife) Boughton (a friend), Boughton Lamb (a cousin), Elizabeth Lamb (an aunt), Sandrus Lamb (a cousin), and Mabe Varson (a friend).

Sidney Tanner did baptisms for Tift Barber (his cousin), Amy Hyde (his aunt), Angeline Place (his cousin), Amy Stewart (his grandmother), William Stewart (his grandfather), William Taylor [sic] (his grandfather). [The latter would be William Tanner, his great-great-grandfather.]

Louisa Conley Tanner (Sidney's wife) did baptisms for (Uncle) Barton (her uncle), (Grandfather) Cole (her grandfather), (Grandmother) Cole (her grandmother), William Coles (her uncle), Calvin Conley (her brother), Easter Conley (her cousin), Elsie Conley (her mother), Anstrus Conly (her grandfather), Sally Persons (her cousin), Samuel Persons (her uncle), Phebe Warding (her step-mother).

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