Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Finding William

Depending on the geographic area, the type of jurisdiction and the time period in question, you will eventually get to the point where you cannot go any further in your research. I like to say that there are always more places to look and more records, but when you reach the steep curve of time, resources, and availability, you have to evaluate whether your efforts will ultimately prove successful.

My point of evaluation deals with an English-born immigrant who arrived in Rhode Island sometime before 1680. The earliest European settlers in Rhode Island arrived in the mid-1630s. My ancestor's name was William Tanner. He first appears as a witness of a disclaimer deed signed 12 May 1682. [Arnold, James N. Editor of the Narrangansett Historical Register, Compiler, The Records of the Proprietors of Narrangansett. Otherwise Called the Fones Record, Rhode Island Colonial Gleanings, n.d. Pages 79 and 108.] Assuming he was, at least, twenty-one years old at the time the will was made, he could have been born before 1660 and supposedly died after 1735. I say supposedly because I believe that the traditional genealogies have skipped a generation and may have omitted a son, also named William Tanner. Randal Holden's name is consistently misspelled as "Holding" or "Houlding."

There are several published books that include accounts of William Tanner and his descendants. The best known of these is

Tanner, George C. William Tanner, Sr. of South Kingstown, Rhode Island and His Descendants: In Four Parts. Faribault, Minn: G.C. Tanner, 1910.

However, there is also an earlier book by the same author in 1905.

Tanner, George C. William Tanner of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and His Descendants. [Minneapolis, Minn.]: Pub. by the author, 1905.

Although there are several additional books that purport to address William Tanner and his descendants, all of the subsequent books are more or less a repetition of the claims made in the 1910 book.

If you want to see real confusion, all you have to do is look at various user submitted family trees online concerning William Tanner and his immediate family and descendants. But recourse to the supposed original records leaves just as much confusion.

In response to the cloud of uncertainty that exists about this individual, I have spent a considerable time at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City examining literally every book on the shelves about Rhode Island and looking at every single microfilm that could have any information about him or his family. It will still be necessary to research the records that I know are kept in various repositories in the state of Rhode Island.

So far, I have found at least four different wives listed for "William Tanner" in the same time period and various children from two of the four possible marriages. This leads me to speculate that there may be more than one William Tanner in Rhode Island during this time period.

A search of the early immigrant passenger lists shows only one individual with the name of William Tanner who came to America in the corresponding time period. Although in the published books there is only a reference to “William Tanner” as a witness on the disclaimer deed signed 12 May 1682, later that same year, a second deed was also signed and witnessed by William Tanner. In both cases, William Tanner acts as a witness to the signature of Frances Houlding, the wife of Randall Houlding in making a disclaimer deed to her husband’s transfer of property. The real property, for both deeds, was located in “warrick” described as in “Narrangansett countrey” and included “Fox Island.” Fox Island is located in Narragansett Bay. Examination of the original record verifies the entry for both deeds.

It is interesting that this same Randal Holden appears in Rhode Island history as a friend and supporter of Samuel Gorton, who, in the fall of 1643, with some of his supporters, barricaded themselves in a house in Massachusetts and held local soldiers at bay for two days, in an attempt to avoid imprisonment for “vituperative and blasphemous behavior.” Gorton’s crimes included truculence toward authority and lack of respect for the colony’s judges. Gorton joined Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and other free thinkers in Rhode Island. William Tanner’s association with these notorious radicals as well as his residence in Rhode Island, known for its nonconformity to the rest of New England, may reflect his own views. Subsequent references to William Tanner by the Reverend Tanner locate him in Westerly, Rhode Island, and specifically, in the town of Hopkinton, which was formerly part of Westerly.

Based on this scant documentary evidence, each of the published sources date William Tanner’s birth to approximately 1660 in England. This conclusion concerning William Tanner’s birth is not attributed to any recorded source. An extensive search of the early birth records for Rhode Island fails to show any reference to a “Tanner” born before 1709. The lack of any previous references may argue for the English birth of William Tanner. However, there seems no support for the supposition that his birth occurred in 1660, other than the most nebulous guess that he was at least twenty-one years of age at the time he witnessed the deed. Even if the evidence is accepted to support a birth in 1660, he may have been born elsewhere in America and moved to Rhode Island. Although a search of the comprehensive listing of all New England immigrants does not show a reference to any other immigrant named William Tanner during the critical time period.

Reverend George C. Tanner quotes from the “Early history of Narragansett” by Judge E. R. Potter, p. 226 concerning a land purchase by William Tanner in Westerly, Rhode Island. The land contains a Tanner cemetery and the cemetery records show a grave marker for “WT” and two other markers for “ET” and “MT.” It could be supposed that these are the graves of William Tanner and his two wives, Eliazbeth Cotrill Tanner and Mary Babcock Tanner. A subsequent search of the early land records shows the deed from Henry Hall to William Tanner establishing the land conveyance. There is a second deed from William Tanner and his wife Elizabeth Tanner to his son Benjamin Tanner dated March 3, 1723/4 establishing the name of, at least, one of his wives. I visited the site of the graves in Rhode Island, but the weathering of the stones had made all by the one marked MT unreadable.

In his 1905 book, the Reverend Tanner speculates that William Tanner came to America in 1682, in the year of the witnessed deed, and with no further citation, states that “[t]he genealogical indications and indirect evidence all point to this conclusion.” By 1910, Reverend Tanner adds a birth date, “about 1660” and speculation that William Tanner emigrated from England, coming to the Rhode Island colony in 1679 with the same Randall Houlding, for whom he witnessed two deeds, as stated above. Subsequent research has yet to yield much more information. There is no direct evidence connecting the witness, William Tanner, with any name on the emigrant lists during the necessary time period from England. There is, in fact, no evidence linking subsequent references to “William Tanner” to the witness of the two deeds. According to the

Gale Research. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA:, Inc., 2005. Original data: Filby, P. William, ed. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s. Farmington Hills, MI, USA: Gale Research, 2005

none of the individuals named “William Tanner” either arrived in America early enough to have witnessed the disclaimer deed or have the destination of their immigration in an area that would make their residence in Rhode Island likely. The lack of contradicting evidence would argue for the conclusion that this particular William Tanner was the one signing the deed in 1882 and that he emigrated from England in 1680.

--> The absence of a death record for William Tanner has some recent family group records showing a death date as late as the 1770s making him over 110 years old at death. This assumption is not impossible but is only a very remote possibility. The last record of William Tanner may date from 1735 although it is not clear, from the existing records, and certainly more likely, that references to “William Tanner” after 1712 refer to his son, William Tanner who was born in 1687. The lack of records makes it possible that the immigrant died in, or shortly after 1735.

Some of the unsubstantiated family group records show that William1 married Hannah Tibbetts, the daughter of Henry Tibbetts and Sarah Stanton, about 1686 in North Kingstown (or Kings Towne), Rhode Island. Additional unsubstantiated information has Hannah born in 1664 in Kings Towne, Rhode Island, and dying in 1713 in Kings Towne, Providence Plantation, Rhode Island at age 49. She was said to have been buried in Rhode Island. Although many family group records show up to seven children for this marriage, it is very unlikely that this information is correct. Given the dates of his subsequent marriages, there would be only two children possible; an unidentified child and William. Although Hannah Tibbetts, the daughter of Henry Tibbitts, is the first of the wives listed by Reverend Tanner, she is the least likely. Osborne’s The Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island lists the children of Henry Tibbitts, with Hannah Tibbitts as the eighth child. Hannah is shown as married to “William Tanner” with their first child born in 1712. The first born child of the immigrant, William Tanner, is identified by Reverend Tanner as being born before 1692. It is possible, that this son is the one who married Hannah Tibbits. He would have been the right age to marry and have a first child in 1712. It is very unlikely, that Hannah Tibbitts was the first wife of the immigrant William Tanner if the information about the Tibbitts family is accurate. It seems more probable that Hannah Tibbitts, the daughter of Henry, was the daughter-in-law, not the wife, of William Tanner, the immigrant It is also possible that the birth and death information was for Mary Babcock.  If this analysis is correct, then this leaves two wives for William Tanner, Mary Babcock, and Elizabeth Cottrill, exactly matching the initials given for two wives in the family burial plot.

Absent a trip to Rhode Island for research, I am not likely to make any further headway.


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U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900, Electronic Database,, Record; Name: Joshua Tanner; Gender: male; Birth Year: 1757; Spouse Name: Thankful Tefft; Spouse Birth Year: 1757; Marriage Year: 1775; Number Pages: 1, 10 May 2006.
United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the time of the ratification of the Constitution from 1777 and 1795 Originals in the Library of Congress at Washington, [reprinted, 1936 by U.S. Geological Survey, Original Engraved and Printed for Wm Feden, Charing Cross, July 22, 1777].
Virkus, Frederick Adams, The abridged compendium of American genealogy: first families of America : a genealogical encyclopedia of the United States, Baltimore, Maryland; Genealogical Publishing, 1968 [Chicago, Illinois, A. N. Marquis, Virkus Company and Institute of American Genealogy], 1925-1942, 7 v.
Wills [abstracts, ca. 1704-1814], South Kingstown, Rhode Island, Microfilm of typescript (leaves 189-235, 95-127). Contents: Samuel Helme, will probated 1728 -- Nathaniel Gardner, will probated 1734 -- Henry Knowles, will probated 1726 -- Robert Knowles, will recorded 1759 -- William Knowles, Sr., will probated 1727 -- Peleg Mumford, will probated 1745 -- Thomas Mumford, will recorded 1728 -- Ichabod Potter, Sr., will probated 1729 -- John Potter, will probated 1739 -- Samuel Potter, will probated 1739 -- William Robinson, will recorded 1751 -- Copy of commission of Captain Richard Updike, 1776 -- Richard Updike (d. 1805) grave inscription, Wickford, Rhode Island -- Ephraim Bull, will recorded 1721 -- William Gardner, will probated 1732 -- Henry Gardner, will probated 1744 -- Adam Gould, will probated 1807 -- Thomas Hazard, will probated 1746 -- Jonathan Hazard, will probated 1746 -- Robert Hazard, will probated 1752 -- Robert Hazard, will probated 1718 -- Rouse Helme, will will probated 1712 -- Samuel Perry, will probated 1716 -- Thomas Potter, will probated 1728 -- Rowland Robinson, will probated 1716 -- Job Babcock, will probated 1755 -- John Browning, will probated 1777 -- Jeffrey Champlin, will probated 1717 -- John Crandall, will probated 1704 -- William Gardner, will probated 1732 -- Thomas Greenman, will probated 1728 -- Richard Hazard, will probated 1762 -- Susannah Hazard, will probated 1767 -- Nathaniel Niles, will probated 1727 -- John Potter, will probated 1715 -- Thomas Potter, will probated 1728 -- James Rogers, will probated 1755 -- Samuel Rodman, will probated 1777 -- Alice Seagar, will probated 1778 -- John Seagar, will probated 1754 -- Abiel Shearman, will probated 1742 -- Nathan Sheffield, will probated 1744 -- John Sheldon, will probated 1705 -- Isaac Turner, will probated 1726 -- Jeremiah Wilson, will proved 1740 -- James Wilson, will probated 1705/6 -- Rebeccah Congdon, will probated 1796 -- Stephen Hazard, will probated 1727 -- Christopher Helme, will probated 1732 -- James Helme, will probated 1777 -- William Mumford, will probated 1765 -- Benjamin Perry, will probated 1748 -- Freeman Perry, will probated 1814 -- John Sweet, Jr., will probated 1716 -- George Hazard, will recorded 1738 -- William Gardner, will probated 1710/11 -- John Gardner, will probated 1770 -- Benjamin Hollway, will probated 1761 -- Joseph Torrey, will probated 1791 -- James McSparran, will probated 1757 -- Samuel Fayerweather, will probated 1781. In Cemetery inscriptions, church records, vital records, marriage records, wills, Revolutionary soldiers, and family Bibles / Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America. Vol. 7.  FHL US/CAN Film 165997.


  1. I feel your pain trying to research this family is like chases ghosts

  2. Very well thought out and written. I am helping a friend, who is another Tanner descendant, and your explanation provides me with enough information that I can inform him that his tie into William has not been proven conclusively. Have you had any correspondence with Peggy McCollester? Apparently, she hired a professional researcher to find William Tanner's origins and she asserts that he is from Chipstead, Surrey, England and that his father is John, not Francis. She has doubts, as you have expressed here, about William's wives and which children come from which wife, and even believes that the marriage to Elizabeth Cottrell was the son, William, and not the earlier William Tanner. She has posted her comments on theancestorfile blog but as far as I can tell she has not posted the research with the sources, etc. I would be interested to know what you think of her analysis. Thanks.

    1. Hello, we have asked her for proof of some connection to William Tanner in Rhode Island, but nothing has been provided. I do not really believe there is a connection. Some document explaining why he was signing a quit claim deed as a witness for Randall Houlding's wife would also help. My daughter writes TheAncestorFiles blog.

    2. Hi James. . .then your daughter is Amy Tanner Thiriot? You both do excellent work! And, I see now that you are the one who posted in March 2013 about the current status of the family of William Tanner of Rhode Island. I am helping John D. Tanner, whose father was Earl Pingree Tanner, with his genealogy, so I am new to the Tanner family history. With what you have reported, I think I will report to John that his lineage to William is tenuous and that there is confusion about which William (father or son) was married to Elizabeth. . .and thus, his ancestor, Francis, has unproven parentage. There is so much duplication on FamilySearch and it appears IOUS's cannot be combined -- leading to a mess of things impossible to untangle. I'm hoping that Peggy Tanner McCollester will eventually respond and share the research she says she paid for, as I would like to see the search methodology and sources. Keep up the good work! By the way, are you any relation to Ron Tanner of FamilySearch? Thanks for your assistance.

    3. Now that I live in Provo, I have much greater access to the microfilm records for the Rhode Island towns. I am planning on following up with the research, which will be published either here on Genealogy's Star or on TheAncestorFiles. Yes, Amy is my daughter. Ron and I are second cousins, probably one generation removed.

    4. Ah. . .you are in Provo now. . .will you be changing your desert/cactus screen display? I will look forward to any further information you may find regarding William Tanner.

  3. James,

    James, NO ONE has asked me for proof of the information I provided to you concerning William Tanner!! I have emailed both Amy and you James, but never received an answer back from either of you! What gives? You have not contacted me for proof.

    1. I am sorry. I find that my correspondence was with my daughter Amy. I have not received an email from you however. All my correspondence has been through the blog posts and comments. I would be glad to receive any proof linking the William Tanner who signed the disclaimer deed signed 12 May 1682. [Arnold, James N. Editor of the Narrangansett Historical Register, Compiler, The Records of the Proprietors of Narrangansett. Otherwise Called the Fones Record, Rhode Island Colonial Gleanings, n.d. Pages 79 and 108.]. I am truly sorry for any misunderstanding. You can email me at I am aware that there were several "William Tanners" who immigrated or were transported to America during the time period in question. There were also unrelated Tanners who came to America beginning at a very early time. I have never seen a connection established between the Thomas Tanner family in Connecticut and the descendants of William Tanner in Rhode Island. I would be very grateful for any evidence connecting William Tanner with a family in England. I believe any such explanation will also explain how he was connected with Richard Holden.

    2. Do you mean Randall Holden?

    3. Sent you info via your email you gave. Did you get my email?

    4. Yes, I did. I have not had time to reply. I have been teaching genealogy classes all afternoon.

    5. I live in RI and have had a terrible time researching the Tanners!