The John Tanner Family
March 1979

“The John Tanner Family,” Ensign, Mar. 1979, 46

The John Tanner Family

He gave the Church two fortunes—his wealth and a family that has built the kingdom ever since.

Authors’ original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.

It was the middle of December in 1834 when John Tanner, a recent convert to the Church in Lake George, New York, “received an impression by dream or vision of the night, that he … must go immediately to the Church” in Kirtland. He disposed of his property—several flourishing farms, a hotel, and orchards—loaded his numerous family and several neighbors into wagons on Christmas morning, and traversed the five hundred mile distance to arrive in Kirtland on a Sunday, January 1835.

He had indeed been needed. A mortgage on the temple site was falling due and, according to some accounts, the impoverished Prophet Joseph and some of the brethren had been praying for assistance.

John Tanner did not hesitate. He loaned the Prophet two thousand dollars and took his note, loaned the temple committee thirteen thousand dollars, signed a note for thirty thousand dollars with the Prophet and others for goods purchased in New York, and made “liberal donations” toward the building of the temple.

There is no evidence that any of these loans were repaid. Later, when he moved with his family to Missouri to build up Zion there, they had a “borrowed team and one old broken down stage horse, and an old turn pike cart, a cag [keg] of powder, and $7.50 in cash,” according to his son, Nathan. (George S. Tanner, John Tanner and His Family, Salt Lake City: John Tanner Family Association, 1974, pp. 74–77. Subsequent references, unless otherwise noted, will be from this volume.)

It was the beginning of generations of Tanner service to the Church, service not only to the Church as a whole but also at ward and stake levels wherever they lived.

John Tanner was born in Rhode Island just two years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He would probably have stayed permanently in upper New York where he was one of the area’s leading entrepreneurs if he had not met the missionaries. By then, his family consisted of his second wife and six children. They would have seven more children; then, after the death of his second wife in 1835, he married Elizabeth Beswick, who added eight more children to the family. Fourteen of the children grew to maturity and all but four of them affiliated with the Church and moved to Utah: Sidney, John Joshua, Nathan, Louisa Maria, Albert Miles, Myron, Seth, Freeman, Joseph Smith (born in 1833 after the family joined the Church), and David Dan (p. 27).

John Tanner was a Bible-reading Baptist who, hearing rumors of Mormons in the neighborhood, went to the meeting so he could protect his Baptist brethren. For some months, his leg had been afflicted with open sores, a condition apparently without remedy. Propping himself up in his cart, he drove to the meeting, listened to the preaching of two redoubtable elders, Simeon and Jared Carter, and brought a Book of Mormon home after warning his Baptist friends that “they had better not fight against [the truth].”

A few days later, Jared Carter visited the home, administered to John, and commanded him to rise and walk in the name of the Lord. He never used his crutches again. John and Elizabeth were baptized on 17 September 1832. (See p. 52.)

From then on, John Tanner never looked back. From Kirtland, the family moved to Missouri, where they shared fully in the persecutions of the Saints. John’s son Myron remembers going with his father to grind wheat for the hungry family. Spotting some state militia on the way home, John gave twelve-year-old Myron quick orders to hide in a pile of brush, an action that may have spared the boy severe harm. One Missourian hit John in the head with a rifle, opening a seven-inch gash to the bone. Covered with blood, he had “such a horrifying appearance” that his captors turned him loose. Another son, Nathan, standing guard that night, confessed that “when I let my father through … I did not know him only by his voice as he was so covered with blood” (pp. 92–93).

Without freedom to work their land in peace, the Tanners were poor when they joined the rest of the Saints in the forced exodus to Illinois. They settled first in Montrose where, Myron remembers, “our diet consisted almost exclusively of corn bread and milk”—and they sometimes ran out of corn (p. 101).

During their six years at Montrose, they not only established a good living for the family again, but paid off a portion of the $30,000 note that John had cosigned with the Prophet Joseph (see p. 102).

John showed the same kind of loyalty over money matters just before he left on a mission in 1844. Meeting Joseph Smith on the streets of Nauvoo, he gave the Prophet his note for $2,000, signed in Kirtland in 1835 to redeem the temple land. The Prophet asked what he wanted him to do with it, and Father Tanner said, “‘Brother Joseph, you are welcome to it.’ The Prophet then laid his right hand heavily upon Father Tanner’s shoulder and said: ‘God bless you, Father Tanner, your children shall never beg bread.’” (p. 103.)

That prophecy was amply fulfilled. When the family moved west after the martyrdom of the Prophet, John Tanner sent two of his sons with the Mormon Battalion; was able to care for his own family and the seven plural wives and children of his son-in-law, Amasa Lyman, who was with the advance company; and had time to see his family settled and thriving in Cottonwood, a few miles south of Salt Lake City, before his death in 1850.

His ten children who came west fulfilled the Prophet’s prediction as they participated in the colonization, not only of South Cottonwood, but of San Bernardino, California; of such Utah communities as Beaver, Fillmore, Payson, and North Ogden; and of Arizona.

The nine Tanner men were big—near six feet and over 200 pounds, generous, plain-speaking, and long-lived as well. (Those who came west averaged a lifespan of eighty-two years.)

Each has a separate story to tell, but in the activities of the family as a whole, we can see their contribution to the Church. They consistently contributed to the growth of their communities; they served long and faithfully in their local wards and provided children and grandchildren who sat in the highest councils of the Church. Consistently devoted and hard-working, they gave their families economic and spiritual security and left an honorable legacy of commitment that has not decreased with time.

Sidney, the oldest son to come west, had fought in the Battle of Crooked River in Missouri, then settled in Montrose, Illinois, with his wife and five children. In the exodus from Nauvoo, his wife and the three youngest children died.

Despite his sorrow, he wrote an unwavering defense of his faith to his unbelieving parents-in-law: “In your letter you wanted to know what we wanted to move for. It was to go to a land of freedom, where we could enjoy the peace of society and our liberty.” He related his wife’s illness and death, then added: “She requested me to write to you and tell you that she died in the full triumph of the faith of Jesus Christ and her most desire for living was for the benefit of her family and friends and [to] do what she was afraid they would not do for themselves, that they might arrive to a glorious salvation in the kingdom of God, where she expects to meet them and enjoy their society.” (p. 234.)

After Louisa’s death, Sidney married Julia Ann Shepherd, a seventeen-year-old girl, who faithfully mothered his children. He settled in the Salt Lake Valley, then in San Bernardino, where he was elected to the city council and also served on the high council. When he returned to Utah, he brought with him Joseph Ridges, the Australian convert who designed the Tabernacle organ. Sidney died in Beaver, the father of twenty-two children, active in Church and community affairs. (See pp. 236–37.)

John Tanner’s next oldest sons, John Joshua and Nathan, both marched to Missouri in Zion’s Camp, spent a year helping the Saints move from Jackson County, and then relocated with their father and families in Kirtland. Nathan was the last survivor of Zion’s Camp and the ancestor of President Hugh B. Brown, apostle and counselor to President David O. McKay; of Fern Tanner Lee, wife of President Harold B. Lee; of President Nathan Eldon Tanner, counselor in four First Presidencies; and of Victor L. Brown, Presiding Bishop of the Church. Nathan’s daughter, Emily, married Franklin S. Richards, Church lawyer from the time of Brigham Young to. Heber J. Grant, and uncle to Elder Franklin D. Richards, now in the presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Even as a young man in Kirtland, Nathan’s testimony was powerful. He recalls one incident when the opposition to the Prophet was so bitter that one of the Seven Presidents of the First Quorum of Seventy proposed to disfellowship anyone passing Kirtland-printed banknotes. All of the seventies except Nathan voted to sustain the motion, but Nathan “arose and said I have some very grave objections. It is wall none [known] that Joseph and others are now in Canada chainging money to increas its circulation and I cannot rase my hand to cut them off. I realise the consequence.” Called thus to their senses, the quorum as a body voted to rescind their motion. (Journal of Nathan Tanner, typescript, Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pp. 1–2.)

Another side, a warmly tender side, is revealed in Nathan’s 1852–53 missionary journal in the Sandwich Islands. On 24 July 1853 he wrote with longing, “O how I would love to spend this day in grate Salt Lake City with the Saints & hear their choir music & lovely instruction from the stand & prehaps partisapate in a publick dinner of the best the country could produse. … [But] my enjoyments hear are not in eating nor drinking nor musacal instruements. But it is in the prosperity of the Work of God that is my only delight at presant. I can contemplate the restoration of this people to their former standing & beauty before God.” (Journal, 1852–53, vol. 4, pp. 3–4.) Despite homesickness, he was sustained by the greater vision of bringing the Hawaiian people to a knowledge of their origins and destiny.

Louisa Maria Tanner Lyman, John Tanner’s only daughter to come west, set a high standard of womanly loyalty, resourcefulness, and independence for the family to follow. Her courtship with Amasa Lyman was brief, and began in earnest when she, a sixteen-year-old, received a short letter from Amasa:

“Having been a wanderer, and desiring to enjoy the blessings that would result from the society of a companion who would participate with me in the changing scenes of life, if you desire or feel willing to converse with me on the subject of matrimony, please write your answer below. It is with the belief that I would be happy in your company that I write you.” (pp. 263–64.)

They were married ten days later and Amasa practically became part of the family, moving with the Tanners to Independence, then Far West. He became an apostle in Missouri and was harrassed by a mob, spending the winter in Liberty Jail with the Prophet.

Maria’s loyalty did not waver. She accepted seven sister wives and followed Amasa across the plains, to San Bernardino, to Beaver, Utah, and then to Fillmore. Their son Francis Marion became an apostle. A grandson, Richard R. Lyman, also became an apostle; and among their descendants today is Elder Marion Duff Hanks of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Another of John’s children, Myron, epitomizes the Tanner resourcefulness and sense of community responsibility. Myron and his brother Albert went with the Mormon Battalion to California. Myron returned to Utah but decided to try his luck in the gold fields after his father’s death in 1850. In two and a half years, he and his younger brother Seth had amassed considerable money—Myron invested $1,250 in land and livestock in San Bernardino—and they brought back a herd of California horses which they had broken for riding.

In Salt Lake City Myron met a lively, “refined and intelligent” girl, Mary Jane Mount, closed out his California affairs, and married her in 1856. They set up housekeeping in Payson with a wedding gift of a wagonful of vegetables from Myron’s brothers John Joshua and Nathan, who had turned the family’s South Cottonwood property into a farm so thriving that they had plenty of food, even during periods of short rations in the valley.

Their permanent home was in Provo where Myron served twenty years on the City Council and twenty-seven years as bishop of Provo Third Ward. Myron had been in Salt Lake City when the ward members sustained him unanimously, but his own feelings were, at best, mixed: “I was never more surprised in my life and was, perhaps never more severely tried. For three days I did not venture down town. Of all positions I considered that of Bishop in the church most undesirable [i.e. “most difficult to fill”]. (p. 291.) Part of his agony was caused by making “a miserable failure” of two attempts to speak in public—but he later developed a talent for public speaking.

A thriving businessman, he put the Church’s interests first and turned his mill and property into the Church’s cooperative movement of the 1870s, even though the failure of the movement hurt him financially.

Another test for his family was his marriage to his second wife, Ann Crosby. When Mary Jane was writing her memoirs at age forty-four, she said simply, “I have lived fifteen years in poligamy, which is a severe trial to our fallen nature, but God has sustained me, and I feel to rejoice that I am counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake … and I would not turn back that leaf of my history” (p. 405).

Myron Tanner’s son, Joseph Marion Tanner, was a brilliant scholar, graduating with Brigham Young Academy’s first class, teaching with Karl G. Maeser, presiding over Brigham Young College in Logan and Logan’s Agricultural College (now Utah State University), and studying law at Harvard. He was Maeser’s successor as Church Superintendent of Schools, serving from 1901 to 1906.

Seth and Dan, two of John Tanner’s younger sons, were particularly noted for their work with the Indians. After the death of Seth’s first wife in North Ogden, he colonized settlements on the Little Colorado River with James S. Brown, who had married Seth’s niece. Part of Seth’s influence with the Indians was established during that first exploration trip. Riding a mule through the Kaibab forest, he saw five Navajos watching him. Seeing a cedar limb hanging out across the wagon way, he hooked an arm around it, clamped onto his saddlehorn with the other, and spurred his mule forward. The mule came to a halt with its front feet off the ground. Seth backed up the mule, got a fresh (still one-handed) hold on the limb, and charged forward again. This time the limb broke. It made a permanent impression on the Indians who crowded around Seth exclaiming, “Haustien, Shush!” or “strong as a bear.” Seth’s sons were thereafter known as “Shush Yazzie” or “young bears.” (p. 303.)

He made a quick trip back to Utah where he married in 1876 Anna Maria Jensen, who raised seven children in an isolated farm on the route between the Little Colorado settlements and Tuba City, apparently with complete confidence in the friendliness of the local Indians.

Seth’s influence extended into future generations. One of his sons, Joseph Baldwin Tanner, prevented at least a battle and possibly a massacre when an Indian agent took the plural wives of an Indian into custody and the Indian and his supporters raided the agency and took the women back. The Indians took refuge on Beautiful Mountain and the agent asked Washington D.C. for troops.

Joseph protested the use of troops, won the agent’s reluctant permission to talk things over, and climbed into the Indian camp despite warnings from the Indian sentries. “Because of his brave and determined effort,” according to a family historian, “bloodshed was averted” (p. 308).

David Dan, Seth’s brother, was also a close friend of the Indians. He had made his first home at the Tanner ranch near Payson where he and his wife, Rebecca Moore, had fourteen children. He specialized in dairying and cheesemaking. Later he moved his herd to Indianola in Sanpete County, the location of a Church Indian farm, where there was better grazing. There were about seven white families and twenty Indian families in the little area; good relations reigned between them. David Dan approved of efforts to educate the Indians, and fed a number of the Indians, particularly “the old and handicapped” a hot meal each day. The Indians spoke of David Dan as “heap good friend Tanner.” (p. 337.) He served in his ward bishopric while Rebecca served in the Relief Society presidency. (p. 337.)

A lively spirit of energy and intelligence in managing resources and developing new ones is a family trait exemplified by many of John Tanner’s descendants, including two additional sons, Freeman and Joseph. Freeman, who settled in Payson along with other brothers, had a special affinity for horses and at one time reportedly owned about five hundred—draft, riding, and trotting. His interest may have developed during the time the family spent in California—wild horses were to be had for the rounding up—and he held “the championship for riding in California for a number of years” (p. 313).

Freeman’s brother Joseph helped look after the South Cottonwood farm in Utah, until they went to San Bernardino in 1851 with the rest of the family, and settled down finally in Payson. Possibly because of early privation, he developed an agricultural green thumb, a preference for farming, and deep pleasure in being home.

He built homes for each of his three families, and maintained an impressive reputation for hospitality.

Except for a short mission to the Muddy in 1868, Joseph stayed in Payson building his local community as a member of the Payson City Council, as mayor, and as bishop for twenty years, in addition to serving simultaneously as presiding officer of Santaquin, Spring Lake, Salem, and Benjamin. He invested time, money, and organizing talent to help the Payson Cooperative Institution, the Cooperative Meat Market, the Payson Exchangee Saving Bank, and the Payson Creamery.

It is unfair, of course, to single out only a few members of the third generation for mention since the family traditions of Church service, industry, community development, and personal integrity have manifested themselves in many ways, but the picture is not complete without them. Vasco Tanner, one of the fourteen children of David Dan and Rebecca Moore Tanner, was chairman of Brigham Young University’s Zoology and Entomology Department for more than forty years, making substantial contributions to community planning and wildlife preservation as well. (See pp. 338–39.)

Ann Elizabeth Tanner Perry, who fully shared the zest for living of her father Freeman Tanner, learned how to make shoes for the family as a girl. When she married and moved to Salt Lake City, she expanded into dressmaking. Her husband died after their four children were grown, so she sold the family boarding-house, went to California, and in her seventies, learned ceramics, bought her own kiln, and fired her own works. At the age of seventy-three, she took up china painting; at seventy-five, she expanded into oil painting, some of which won prizes at local fairs. Close to her eightieth birthday, she spunkily drove her own car to Utah and back, visiting relatives.

Lois Arminne (Minnie) Tanner Fairbanks, the energetic and organized daughter of Joseph Tanner, began her own cosmetics company in 1921, employed more than 3,000 persons, and operated fifteen beauty schools and fifty beauty salons. Other cousins established profitable businesses all over the Intermountain West, including Canada, where the fathers of President Brown and President Tanner settled.

Obert C. Tanner, a successful Salt Lake jeweler, has beautified many communities with his sparkling water fountains and served for years on the Sunday School General Board. He is a grandson of Myron and Mary Jane Mount Tanner.

George S. Tanner, long-time Institute director at the University of Idaho and Tanner family historian, comments: “One of the chief traits of most Tanners is the desire to be where … the action is,” and quotes Iona Jackson, daughter of Joseph Smith Tanner, on a revealing bit of family lore: “Brigham Young once commented that when he had a tough job to be done, he tried to find a Tanner” (p. 13). Their record speaks for itself.

  • Leonard J. Arrington is the Church Historian and lives in Parleys First Ward, Salt Lake Parleys Stake.

Illustrated by Glen Edwards

The children of John Tanner, about 1898: (standing) Joseph, Freeman, Seth, Myron; (seated) David Dan, Maria Lyman, Nathan.

Sidney, who died in 1895

John Joshua, who died in 1896

Albert Miles, who died in 1879

The Tanner homesite on Chillicothe Road in Kirtland, Ohio.

The Prophet Joseph thanks John Tanner for one of his many, probably unrepaid, loans to the Church.

Seth Tanner demonstrated his strength to admiring Indians.