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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Does your family have a Coat of Arms?

Long before I was very much aware of my extended family, we had a book in our home with a green cover and the words "John Tanner Family" in gold on the cover. It was written before I was born, but it did list my father and his only brother. As I know now, the book was originally published in 1923 and then updated and revised in 1942. In 2007, the book was reprinted. Here are all the editions of the book:

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, 1923.

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.

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. Salem, MA: Higginson Book Company, 2007.

In looking at this book, when I was much younger, I was impressed by a plate at the beginning of the book showing our family's "Coat of Arms." It was a remarkably ugly and rather crude drawing (which I will not reproduce here in the event that some Tanner family member immediately adopts it as valid). As I began to be more involved in genealogy, many years later, I was struck by the statement on page 7 of the book made after listing several men in England with the Tanner name and noting that the "name is clearly of English origin, although found in Wales, Ireland and even in Switzerland and among our Scandinavian cousins":
It is not definitely known from which of the first emigrants of the name to America were descended but it is generally believed that ll lines of this illustrious family in England were of common ancestry at a remote period.
The blunt truth of the matter is that the original Tanner, to whom this branch of the family traces its ancestry, arrived in America about 1680 and, so far, his ancestry has yet to be established with any certainty. In other words, it is pure speculation that any of the people listed in the introductory paragraph of this section of the book are in any way related to our American family. 

I have spent a considerable time and effort examining early records of the Tanner family and, so far, my research has confirmed the statement that its origin past 1680 in Rhode Island, "is not definitely known."

So where did the Coat of Arms come from? Why is there some claim to a Coat of Arms if the origin of the family is unknown? The more serious question is why would you believe that a surname that is obviously adopted from an occupation, can be traced back to a common ancestry? Can you claim ownership of a Coat of Arms merely because you share a common surname with someone who had a Coat of Arms in England? Does a Coat of Arms mean anything more than the person has a surname? Is a Coat of Arms merely a useful symbol of the family and helps to engender interest in family history? 

The answer to this question determines to some extent your approach to genealogy and/or family history. The fundamental question as expressed by Val Greenwood in his book,

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2000.

is this: Is genealogy a science or a pastime. He says, at page 8, "Genealogy should be a science--it deserves to be a science--but the methods of some tend to lower it to the level of a mere pastime, and that built upon false premises."

Now I have to say that the statements made in the Tanner book and other surname books written about my family contributed to my passion for genealogy. But not in the way you might expect. I was not caught up in a desire to know about my romantic past with kings and knights in England, I was appalled at the inaccuracy and mistakes of fact transmitted by these books and I was offended by the fact that for so many years, I had been told something that was fundamentally untrue. My desire was to find out for myself whether or not the information, unsourced as it was, was true or not. I am still in that mode and still finding inaccuracies and misinformation. 

Unfortunately, I am losing ground rapidly. The proliferation of family trees including my own family lines is so immense that it is doubtful that the mistakes and errors will ever be corrected. The fables and falsehoods are now accepted as fact and spread at the speed of light to unknowing family members.

That Tanner Coat of Arms to me is a symbol of everything that is wrong with genealogy and its more general name, family history.


  1. Fake coats of arms are one of my pet peeves.

  2. I couldn't agree more. When I see a coat of arms, I know the person knows absolutely nothing about genealogical research.