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Alethia "Lethe" Browning Tanner
circa 1785 - 1864

By : John G. Sharp

Alethia Tanner was remembered by her contemporaries as someone who's character and philanthropy gave her a remarkable prominence and commanded the respect of all who knew her. Throughout her long life she consistently beat the odds.

Alethia "Lethe" Browning Tanner was born about 1785.1 Alethia Browning and her sisters Sophia (1770-1856) and Laurena, grew up enslaved on the plantation of Rachel Pratt near the Patuxent River, Maryland. Alethia in the ancient Greek means truth or sincerity. Rachel Pratt was the mother of a Governor of Maryland, Thomas George Pratt (1804-1869). Little is known of Alethia Browning Tanner's early life or childhood. We do know, however, that like her older sister Sophia Browning Bell, Alethia possibly met her husband2 at a local market or on a visit to one of the nearby plantations. The two most likely married young in a slave ceremony. Her husband is said to have died early, the couple had no children, and Alethia remained a widow for the rest of her life. It is possible that Alethia may have met African American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) while Benneker was with a survey party near their cabin measuring the boundaries of the nation's new capitol.3

Alethia's sister Sophia Browning Bell had kept a small garden for some time where apparently, with the consent of Rachel Pratt, she was able to grow produce for her family and more importantly she was able to sell any extra vegetables in the local markets of Alexandria and the District of Columbia. Through such endeavors, Sophia was able to gather enough money to purchase her husband George Bell's freedom from his owner the Addison family for $400.00 and then George was able to reciprocate and buy Sophia's freedom.4

Alethia Tanner's gardening and entrepreneurial skills gave her the ability to adopt a similar manumission strategy. Tanner also sold produce at one of the City's markets and it was at the Washington Market that she may have met President Thomas Jefferson. President Jefferson often visited the market located right outside the White House, where he selected produce and recorded the prices of thirty-seven varieties of vegetables available. Alethia Tanner would have been able to meet some of Washington, D.C.'s other elite, because many of the City's leaders, like Chief Justice John Marshall, frequented this market to purchase their own produce.5

Historian and genealogist, Dorothy S. Provine, has found in her research that Alethia Tanner was able to buy her freedom from her owner Rachel Pratt for $1400.00. Tanner made her last payment of $277.00 on June 29, 1810 and received her manumission papers on July 10, 1810. Tanner's purchase price was substantial and it must have required considerable effort, saving and sacrifice for her and her husband to amass such a sum. In 1810, fourteen hundred dollars was the equivalent of at least three years wages for a skilled tradesman.6                   see below : Manumission Document

Over the next four decades Alethia Tanner helped manumit her family,7 including her sister Laurena Browning Cook, her husband, the couple's children and numerous nephews and grandnephews, and friends of her family. Among her sister Laurena Browning Cook's children was John Francis Cook (1810-1855), who became an educator, a clergyman and later established the Union Seminary for black students seeking preparation for ordination. John F. Cook later became the first black Presbyterian minister in the District of Columbia. Cook was a favorite of Alethia Tanner who listed Cook in her 15 May 1847 will as her principal heir; sadly John F. Cook predeceased his aunt.

Alethia Browning Tanner like her sister and brother-in-law George Bell and Sophia Browning Bell was a recognized leader in the early African American community of the District. Like many blacks Alethia Tanner may have been attracted to the moral tone and concerns of the early Methodist Church. She first worshiped at Ebenezer Methodist church, on Capitol Hill. One of the things that attracted blacks like Tanner to the Methodist church fold was the Methodists strong critique of slavery. Early Methodists held with their founder, John Wesley, that there was an essential equality of all believers before God. Over time, however, this changed and many white congregants retreated from their earlier egalitarianism, and most African Americans resented being confined to the galleries of the church as they found that the church itself no longer welcoming. It's worth emphasizing that this church segregation process was not unique to Washington, D.C. or to the Methodist Church. Indeed, similar processes were going on throughout most denominations and in most American cities. In the 1820's, Alethia Tanner, John Francis Cook, and George and Sophia Bell along with numerous other black parishioners, decided the time was right for them to move to another church of their own. As a result, they helped found the Israel Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. At one point the fledgling church was nearly sold at auction by the creditors who held the mortgage and it was Alethia Browning Tanner with her brother-in-law George Bell and sister Sophia Browning Bell who stepped in to pay the mortgage and save the church.8

In addition to striving for equality within the church, Althea was much concerned with education. In 1807, her brother-in-law George Bell, along with Nicholas Franklin and Moses Liverpool announced they were starting a school for Black children. The school which became known as "the Bell school," was the first in the District of Columbia open to free Black children. Bell, Franklin, and Liverpool may have been illiterate,9 however, each would have known from their own personal experience how important education was to attaining equality and economic prosperity. George and Sophia Bell are said to have been the school's principal financial supporters. At this time Alethia Tanner may have been only able to provide moral support as she was building up enough capital to purchase her freedom. From the evidence of her will, Alethia Tanner could sign her own name and perhaps like Michael Shiner, she may have been able to learn the basics of reading and writing at a Sunday school offered by the Methodist church.10 The Methodists emphasis on reading "God's word" gave many African Americans their first real opportunity to become literate.

The Bell School survived for just a few years due to lack of steady funding and the fact that in 1807, the District of Columbia's "free colored" population consisted of only 494 individuals. Thus the small student base may have doomed their venture from the start. Still, the Bell family and Alethia Browning Tanner, combined with other daring members of the community and made another try in 1818 with the Resolute Beneficial Society School.11

In their announcement for the new school, the sponsors made considerable efforts to placate white fears of the Black population learning to read and write. The sponsors also made clear their policy of never assisting slaves to write any type of communication less they be implicated in assisting slaves to evade capture by forging travel passes and like documents. The Resolute Beneficial Society School eventually succumbed to the shear realities of a segregated society. The District's black population however, never gave up and their support efforts along with sympathetic white support, continued to open private schools for black children.

Alethia Tanner was extraordinarily successful in navigating her way through the legal and slave codes of the District of Columbia and seemed to have been skillful in adapting and negotiating for the freedom of her family and friends. But no matter how successful she and other leaders became, danger was always present whether it involved slave catchers eager to take someone without the necessary freedom certificate or travel papers or the periodic racial violence that was inflicted on the African American community such as the "Snow Riot "of 1835.12 This 1835 riot began on August 11, 1835 as a labor strike at the Washington Navy Yard. It rapidly morphed into a race riot, as young WNY mechanics and apprentices decided to take their frustrations and fears out on free blacks such as Beverley Snow, a free black man who was the owner of a popular oyster restaurant. Other black businesses were also attacked. Black schools and churches were attacked with special zeal as the rioters sought Alethia Tanners' nephew John Francis Cook, who by 1835 had become an established figure in the religious community as well as a teacher and educator. In going after the free black population the mob reflected the deepest fears of a white community anxious uncertain and fearful of those promoting black literacy. The mob especially seemed to want to shut down black schools and was relentless in its pursuit of John F. Cook, "The mob wanted Cook, a solemn free black man who was well-versed in Presbyterian theology and sought to educate every Negro child he could find. Cook was a firm opponent of drink and slaver",13 and he had to flee for his life to Philadelphia where he remained for a year until it was safe to return.14 Tanner's own safety may well have been in danger too although there is no record of her ever leaving the District of Columbia. The rioting went on for three days before the militia was called in and the mob dispersed.

In her old age Alethia Tanner was able to see the District of Columbia Emancipation Act signed into law on April 16, 1862, by Abraham Lincoln.15 On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was also signed by President Lincoln.16 These two acts signaled that there was no going back and that ending slavery was now a national priority. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, it fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and for freedom. Among these men were some of Alethia Tanner's nephews.

As reflected in her will, Alethia Browning Tanner was able to accumulate property and had some saving to pass on to her nephews and grandnephews.17 By the time of her death in 1864 she could look back on a long life filled with achievements and hard work. She had managed to obtain by her long labors, perseverance, and in spite of all odds, not only her own freedom, but she had also purchased the manumission of her sister, her nephews and grandnephews. Alethia during her long and productive life helped the larger community by sponsoring some of the first schools for black children in the District of Columbia and by her financial support had made it possible for many hundreds of young people to gain access to education. Finally, Alethia Browning Bell contributed to and promoted the newly formed African American Methodist Episcopal Church as a place of refuge and dignity for her community. Her impressive legacy was truly "a goodly heritage."

"All these were honored in their generations,
and were the Glory of their times."       Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44: 1 - 15

This transcription was made from a copy of the holographic manuscript of the Last Will and Testament of Alethia Tanner, 1864 Box 33, filed in the District of Columbia Orphan's Court (Probate Court). The spelling, punctuation and the use of ampersands and overstrikes are those of the original documents. My thanks to Mr. Ali Rahmann Archivist, District of Columbia Archives, for generously providing a copy of Alethia Tanner's last will and testament for transcription. Alethia Lethe Browning Tanner's name is spelled various ways on different documents, e.g. "Allethia" or "Allethea" also "Lathee" for Lathe. For consistency, I have transcribed her name as and retained the spelling of her last will and testament dated 15 May 1847, which she signed "Lethe Tanner" and have used these spellings in my brief biography of her and the endnotes.

     John G. Sharp                                                                                      August 19, 2008

image of will

Last Will & Testament of
Alethia Browning Tanner
(circa 1785 -1864)
In the name of God Amen.

           I, Alethia, commonly called Lethe Tanner of the City of Washington being of sound and disposing mind, knowing the uncertainty of life and the certainty of Death do make and ordain this to be my last will and testament for ordering this to be my last will and testament for ordering and disposing of my worldly affairs where it shall please God to call me hence hereby revoking and utterly annulling all former wills testaments and codicils by me heretofore made.

           I give and device to Thomas Cook my nephew a frame house belonging to me situated on part of lot ten in Square Two Hundred and fifty in the said City of Washington and standing detached from the corner house and to the eastward thereof, on H street, together with so much of said lot Ten as Francis Datcher and John Francis Cook, whom I hereby appoint trustees for that purpose, shall assign under their hands and seals for the use of said house as a necessary site for the same: the said house and the lot so assigned to be held and enjoyed by the said Thomas Cook for his life only with remainder to the heirs of his body if he shall leave such living at his death who shall take under this will as purchases, but if he shall die leaving no issue then the said house and lot shall remain in fee simple and descend to John Francis Cook Junior and Joseph Tanner Cook sons of my nephew John Francis Cook Senior.

           I give and devise to John Francis Cook Junior my grandnephew the remaining portion of lot Ten in Square Two Hundred and Fifty rendering and paying unto his brother Joseph Francis Cook and his heirs and assigns the annual rent of Twenty Dollars to be annually paid which is hereby charged upon the said portion of lot ten in square Two Hundred and Fifty.

           I give and bequeath to Thomas Cook and Henrietta Pleasants each a bed and bedding to be assigned by my Executors from my household furniture.

           I give and devise the rest and residue of my estate real and personal amd all my rights credits and effects unto John Francis Cook Junior and Joseph Tanner Cook sons of John Francis Cook Senior

           I constitute and appoint Francis Datcher18 and John Francis Cook junior the executors of this my last will and testament.

           In testimony whereof I have set my hand and seal this 15th day of May in the Year One thousand Eighteen Hundred and Forty seven

Lethe Tanner     [signed]     {SEAL)

Signed published and declared for her last will and testament by Althea Tanner in the presence of the undersigned who at her request and in her presence have affixed in names as witnesses thereto; May 15, 1847

Sam D. King    [Signed]       H.B. Croggin    [Signed]       E. Simms    [Signed]


District of Columbia 		}			Orphans Court 
Washington County, to wit 	}			     March 8th 1864

This day appeared H.B. Croggin, one of the subscribing witnesses to the a foregoing 	 
last will and testament of Alethia Tanner late of Washington County aforesaid, deceased, 
and made on oath on the Holy Evangels of Almighty God that he did see the Testatrix 
therein names sign and seal this will ; that she published , pronounced and declared the 
same to be her last will and testament; that at the time of so doing she was to the best of 
his apprehension, of sound and disposing mind, memory and understanding; and that his 
name as witness to the aforesaid will was signed in the presence and at the request of the 
Testatrix  and in the presence of Sam D. King & E. Simms, the other subscribing 
witnesses thereto, The said H.B. Croggin, at the same time also provided the Signature 
and death of the said E. Simms one of the witnesses to the said will.

Test: Z.C. Robbins Register of Wills.  {Signed} 

District of Columbia 
Washington County 

on this day of March 1864before me the Subscriber a Notary  Public in and for the 
County and District a foresaid personally appeared Eurydice F. Simms and made oath on 
the Holy Evangels of Almighty God the names of subscribers and witnesses to the 
annexed will of Lethe Tanner is the hand writing of her Late Husband  Elerus . Simms 
 John Clarke 19


				  Alethia Tanner's 


Filed March 8 -1864 and the same day proven by one of the subscribing witnesses thereto 
& also death & signature of one of the witnesses  Also the same day fee paid for 
recording & probate of will 

				  April 12th 1864

Letters of Administration issued to John F. Cook a son of one of the Executors of the 
Will appointed; it appearing tot he Court that both of the Executors named in the will are 

Recorded Liber No. 1 Folio 323 


1 Much of the above information regarding Alethia Browning Tanner, George Bell, Sophia Browning Bell Laurena Browning Cook and their remarkable families are derived from District of Columbia, Department of Education, Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition of Public Schools in the District of Columbia, submitted to the Senate, June 6, 1868, and to the House, with Additions June 13, 1870. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1870, (hereafter Special Report 1870) See pages 195 - 198. The Special Report published in 1870 is notable for its candor and that individuals who knew the Bell, Browning, and Cook families apparently provided much of the information used in this report. The last wills and testaments of both George Bell and Sophia Browning Bell are also useful as they contain valuable insights into the Bell family's economic situation and are also useful l to establish the number and names of their surviving children and grandchildren. Their wills were filed in the District of Columbia Orphans Court (Probate Court) see Bell, George1845 Box 17, and Bell, Sophia 1853 box 22.

For the birth year of Alethia Browning Tanner, see The District of Columbia Free Negro Registers 1821 -1861 volumes 1 & 2 by Dorothy S. Provine, Heritage Books, Bowie, Maryland 1996. See in particular Volume 1 page 154. Provine quotes Liber Y 24, page 369 and notes that "Lethe Tanner" was freed on July 10, 1810. The 1840 U S Census for the District of Columbia lists "Lethea Tanner" a free black, between 55 and 100 years of age (the 1840 Census enumerates only the heads of household by name and all individuals ages are in broad categories). The 1850 U S Census for the District of Columbia enumerates "Alethe Tanner" as free black, 50 years of age. The ages listed by the Census takers were often guesses provided by relatives or friends. Since Alethia Tanner there is documentation for the date of her manumission as 1810 the 1850 census listing of her age as 50 is clearly in error; for we know with certaintly Tanner was a mature adult at the time she was manumitted, hence circa 1785 is a reasonable surmise.

2 Despite considerable investigation I was unable to find documentation for the first name of Alethia Browning Tanner's husband.

3 Special Report 1870

4 The District of Columbia Office of Planning brochure for Ancositia page 5 has an early watercolor of Alethia Browning Tanner early watercolor of Alethia Browning Tanner

5 Special Report 1870 page 198, recounts a story that Alethia Tanner worked as house maid for President Thomas Jefferson, while there is no other documentary evidence for this story that I have been able to locate, it may well be true or if not, at the very least, the two would have seen each other in the public market where Thomas Jefferson would have been accompanied by his butler, Etienne Lemaire during Jefferson's stay at the White House as President 1801-1809. Almost all of the District's vegetables were grown and sold by slaves or free blacks. For the markets of Washington DC and President Jefferson's keen interest in vegetables and his tabulation of monthly market prices see, The City of Washington An Illustrated History by the Junior League of Washington edited by Thomas Froncek, Wings Books, Avenel, New Jersey 1977 page 101 and the Monticello web page

6 For some idea of how remarkable Alethia Tanner's ability was to accumulate sufficient capital to paid Rachel Pratt her large purchase price, one really needs to examine the typical wages of this decade, see the Washington Navy Yard Payroll of Mechanics and Laborers for July 1811. For purposes of comparison, I have used an average wage of $ 1.56 per day. In 1811 this would represent the pay of a skilled ship joiner and it's important to remember that most all workers were paid per diem and rarely ever worked the entire year.
Washington Navy Yard Payroll of Mechanics and Laborers for July 1811

7 See Dorothy S. Provine, Volume II page 715, for a completer listing, of the manumissions for which Alethia Browning Tanner is described as a party to the transaction. Among those listed are Alfred Cook 1829 her nephew Volume 2, pages 43-44, John Francis Cook 1832 Volume 2, pages 237-238, John Francis Cook is listed in the will as her heir became a distinguished Presbyterian minister. Also listed is William Cook 1830 Volume 2, pages 206- 207 John Butler, 1835 Volume 2, pages 356-357, Ellenora "Nelly" Nobel 1835 Volume 2, pages 363-364. Thomas Simmes Ferguson, Letitia Ferguson, Louisa Ferguson, Joseph Ferguson were all manumitted in 1835, Volume 2, pages 428-429, as was their mother Hannah Ferguson Volume 2, pages 429--430. George Cook 1836 Volume 2, page 452, Thomas Cook 1836, Volume 2, page 498, Rachel Jennifer, 1837, Volume 3, pages 5-6, Lethe Cook Kennedy & son George William Wood 1841 Volume 3 page 380 , Susanna Smith & child William Henry 1842 Volume 3, pages 431 -432, Elizabeth Smith 1846 Volume 3, pages 606 , 608-609.

8 See The First Negro Church in the District of Columbia, John W. Cromwell The Journal of Negro History 7,No. 1 1922 pp 64-106

9 For more on Nicholas Franklin and Moses Liverpool were both ship caulkers, working a hard and demanding trade at the Washington Navy Yard but paid the same rate as their white counterparts $1,75 per day see

10 See my introduction to Michael Shiner's Diary
especially "The Education of Michael Shiner"

11 The National Intelligencer article, of August 29 1818, regarding the Resolute Beneficial Society School, reflects that some white families within the District of Columbia looked favorably on the school. This period of good will lasted to the Nat Turner rebellion after which restrictions on the movement of the District's Black population grew ever more restrictive.

12 For more the "Snow Riot" and its effect on the lives of African Americans see Morley, Jefferson. "The Snow Riot" Washington Post (February 6, 2005): W14. And see the Michael Shiner's Diary for 1835 page 60. Shiner was a contemporary observer and gives some account of what it was like to be black worker in the city during the riot and also see The Captain from Connecticut: The Life and Naval Times of Isaac Hull. Maloney, Linda M Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986. Maloney's discussion of the strike and riot of 1835 is by far the most coherent of the all the accounts of this remarkable and fateful year.

13 Morely, Jefferson The Snow Riot

14 For more on John Francis Cook, see History of the Negro Race In America from 1619 to 1880 George Washington Williams Volume II page 189-192 1 G.P. Putnam and Son New York 1883

15 The act is now online at Emancipation Act of 1862


17 Her property she owned land at 14th and H streets and rented space to a store was eventually sold by one of her nephews for $ 100,000.00

18 Frances Datcher, was member African American middle class a supporter of higher educational and a member of the same church as Tanner. He is listed in the 1822 Washington Directory as "Datcher, Francis, ( col'd man) messenger, In btw 15 & 16 w" Francis Datcher owned four lots in the District of Columbia and paid property substantial taxes. See, Free Negroes In the District of Columbia 1790-1846, by Letitia Woods Brown , Oxford University Press, New York 1972 p.152 .

19 This crossed out portion of Alethia Tanner's will is difficult to ascertain but is appears the Justice of the Peace was simply validating the signature of one of the witnesses to the will who had died sometime after her will was signed on 15 May 1847. Alethia Tanner died 17 years later and the will was probated on March 8, 1864.

Bill of Sale for Alethia "Lethe" Browning Tanner
dated 7 July 1810
Transcription :
This transcription was made from a copy of the typewritten manuscript of Liber Y no 24 Folio 334 filed in the District of Columbia Deed Books. Many District of Columbia bills of sale and some manumission documents too are filed in the Deed Books. Each deed book is identified liber (latin for book) then the alpha numeric for a specific year and defined area.

The spelling, punctuation and the use of ampersands is that of the typed documents in the collection of the District of Columbia.

Acknowledgement: My thanks once again to Mr. Ali Rahmann, Archivist, District of Columbia Archives, for generously providing a copy of the Bill of Sale for Alethia Lethe Browning Tanner

     John G. Sharp                                                                                      12 March 2009


Rachel Pratt         }
To:   Bill Sale      }                                    Recorded 16th July 1810
Joseph Daugherty     }

	Know all men by these presents that I Rachel Pratt of Prince Georges County and 
State of Maryland, for and in consideration of the sum of two hundred and seventy five 
dollars to me in hand paid by Joseph Daugherty of the County of Washington and District 
of Columbia the receipt whereof I hereby acknowledge  have granted bargained sold and 
by these presents  do hereby bargain sell and deliver unto the said Joseph Daugherty my 
negro slave Lethe I will warrant and defend to the said Joseph Daugherty his Executors, 
administrators and assigns against me, my executors, and administrators and against 
every person or persons whomever. In witness whereof.  I have hereunto set my name 
and affixed my seal this sixth day of July eighteen hundred and ten.

							Rachel Pratt (Seal) 

In the presence of James Mullikin & John Mc Gill,  July 7th 1810 received the above in 
full for Mrs. Rachel Pratt.     

Nicholas Whelan 
Wm Kean Witness

End Note
For more on the life of Alethia Lethe Browning Tanner and some notes on Rachel Pratt
see above: Biography and last Will and Testament of Alethia Browning Tanner


Manumission of Alethia "Lethe" Browning Tanner
dated 16 July 1810
The manumission below dated 16 July 1810 by Joseph Daugherty of Lethe Tanner is an excellent example of the historical value of early District of Columbia manumissions recorded in the District Deed Books.

Alethia "Lethe" Browning Tanner (circa 1785 - 1864) was a remarkable woman who overcame considerable hardship to emancipate not only herself but eventually to manumit her extensive family. Tanner sold vegetables and produce at a District of Columbia in order to accumulate sufficient funds to buy her freedom. Joseph Daugherty probably a trusted white neighbor was used to complete the legal purchase of Alethia Tanner from her owner Rachel Pratt.and then to manumit her for a nominal sum.

This transcription was made from a copy of the typewritten manuscript of Liber Y no 24 Folio 335 filed in the District of Columbia Deed Books. While most DC manumissions for newly freed individuals are found in the Manumission and Emancipation Records, 1821 -1862 National Archives and Records Administration Record Group 21, prior to the creation of that record system. Most manumissions were filed in the District of Columbia Deed Books. Each deed book is identified liber (latin for book) then the alpha numeric for a specific year and defined area.

The spelling, punctuation and the use of ampersands is that of the typed documents in the collection of the District of Columbia.

The use of the term "Yellow Women" used in this document and other such expressions are common on manumissions from this period. Such terms were used in anti bellum era legal documents, e.g. sale notice, and wills and manumissions as the District of Columbia developed its own idiom for identifying free and enslaved African Americans. This term was generally applied to people of mixed race

The District of Columbia Free Negro Registers 1821 -1861 volumes 1 & 2 by Dorothy S. Provine Heritage Books, Bowie, Maryland 1996. See the introduction to volume 1 for a discussion the various types of manumission documents used in the District of Columbia. For the birth year of Alethia Browning Tanner,see in particular Volume 1 page 154. Provine quotes Liber Y 24, page 369 and notes that "Lethe Tanner" was freed on July 10, 1810. The 1 840 U S Census for the District of Columbia lists "Lethea Tanner" a free black, between 55 and 100 years of age (the 1840 Census enumerates only the heads of household by name and all individuals ages are in broad categories). The 1850 U S Census for the District of Columbia enumerates "Alethe Tanner" as free black, 50 year of age. The ages listed by the Census takers were often guesses provided by relatives or friends. Since there is documentation for the date of her manumission as 1810 the 1850 census listing of her age as 50 is clearly in error; for we know Tanner was a mature adult at the time she was manumitted, hence circa 1785 is a reasonable surmise.

The Health of the Nation by Convey Bolton Valencium Basic Books New York 2002 page 253 for more racial identification in early America.

Free Negroes In the District of Columbia 1790 -1846 by Letitia Woods Brown Oxford University Press New York 1972 has an excellent discussion on modes of emancipation and manumission in the District of Columbia See particularly chapter 6 pp 97 -120 for her discussion of manumission by deed..


My thanks once again to Mr. Ali Rahmann Archivist, District of Columbia Archives, for generously providing a copy of the Lethe Tanner manumission document.

     John G. Sharp                                                                                      1 October 2008


Joseph Daugherty    }
to )Manumission     }	Recorded 16 day of July 1810
Lethe Tanner        }	District of Columbia 	

	To all persons whom these presents may concern, Be it remembered that I, Joseph 
Daugherty have this day the 10th, of July 1810 for value received and other good causes, 
set at free Liberty my Yellow women Lethe, who calls herself Lethe Tanner, a Slave that 
I purchased a few days ago of Mrs. Rachel Pratt, or John McGill her agent as will appear 
from the foregoing bill of Sale that she the said Lethe is from this day forward to be 
considered free from all my heirs executors or administrators and all other persons 
whatsoever, and it is to be considered to possess all the privileges of a free person to 
employ herself or to pass and repass wherever she may think proper Given under my 
hand and Seal this 10th day of July 1810.
Witness 						Joseph Daugherty (Seal)
William Thornton

District of Columbia County of Washington Sct. On the 17th day of July 1810 Joseph 
Daugherty came before the subscriber a Justice of the Peace for the County aforesaid and 
acknowledged the foregoing instrument of writing to be his act & deed delivered for the 
purposes therein contained. 

					William Thornton 


Alethia Lethe Browning Tanner

see above: Biography and last Will and Testament of Alethia Browning Tanner


CASSIN, Captain John



Captain John Cassin, USN
Portrait by C. B. J. Feret de Saint-Memin
circa 1806
This portrait is from
the Library of Congress

Commodore John Cassin (1760-1822)

By John Sharp

Commodore John Cassin was an important leader during the developmental years of the Washington Navy Yard, led the vital defense of Gosport Navy Yard during the War of 1812, and served as its Commandant during a formative era. John Cassin has been described by one distinguished naval historian as an “experienced and capable seaman” with “tested skills as manager and commander; a reliable officer.” 1 Cassin was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 7 July 1760, the son of Daniel Cassin an industrious Irish Catholic immigrant from Dublin. During the American Revolution at age 17, Cassin joined the Pennsylvania Militia as a private, where he participated in the Battle of Trenton. He was later appointed First Mate of Pennsylvania privateer schooner the Mayflower on June 27, 1782. 2 His physical description as entered on the Mayflower’s muster lists his age as: “23 years, height 5 feet 10 inches tall, hair dark brown with a fresh complexion.” 3 After the Revolution, Cassin continued on at sea as a merchant seaman, where he was twice shipwrecked. In the early 1780’s Cassin married Ann Wilcox of Philadelphia. The young couple had four children who reached adulthood. They were: Elizabeth Ann Cassin, Joseph Cassin (1784-1821), Stephen Cassin (1783-1857) and John Cassin. Two of the couples sons, became naval officers. Joseph Cassin, a naval purser, and Stephen Cassin, a hero of the war of 1812, was later appointed Commodore. Cassin’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Cassin, married naval officer Captain Joseph Tarbell who led in the repulse of British forces from Craney Island on 22 June 1813. 4

The establishment of the new federal navy created a need for experienced sea going officers and gave John Cassin his opportunity for he was directly appointed a lieutenant on 13 November 1799. In 1803 he was assigned one of his first important jobs as second officer at the Washington Navy Yard. The Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith in his letter appointing Cassin, stated his responsibilities for the administration of the navy yard. Smith’s letter provides valuable insight as to duties and responsibilities of a naval officer at an early federal shipyard:

The public property at this place belonging to the Navy Department, requires the superintendence of a vigilant, active, and intelligent and You will consider yourself hereby invested with the charge of all the Vessels that are or may hereafter be in ordinary at this place – also of all the sores and also public property now at the Navy Yard, or that may hereafter be deposited there expecting the Small Arms which are to be in charge of Col. Burrows. The stores now here, you will receive by inventory from Captain Tingey, upon which you will be charged and held accountable for their Expenditure. – You will give Receipts for all issues you make. –

It is expected that You will immediately take measures for cleansing each Ship, and for the putting her as far as your means will admit, in a state of preservation, and ready for service as far as their dismantled state will admit, and that You will adopt such a discipline as will keep them all in that state. It is also expected that You as far as may be practicable, arrange all the different stores having the stores of each Vessels placed separately and distinctively that you will have all the cordage, Sails, Water casks, Boats & completely overhauled and put into a state fit for service, and its further expected that you will from time to time communicate to me such improvements in the arrangements at the Yard, as your Experience may suggest.

To enable you to execute the duties of this appointment, You will have a Clerk under you and You are hereby invested with the Command of all Officers and Men now at the Yard or onboard the Ships, or that may hereafter be attached to either.

You are allowed the frigate United States and her furniture for your accommodation and you will receive for your services, the pay and rations allowed by Laws to a Master Commandment. 5

On 10 January 1804 Cassin was made superintendent of WNY; his appointment was to fill the vacancy created when Thomas Tingey declined the position. Tingey had refused over issues of his pay and benefits but was later reappointed. 6 Tingey and Cassin were a good team though of differing temperaments. They got on well together and it was Cassin’s systematic mind combined with Tingey’s practical experience running a federal shipyard that allowed them to write the first regulations for the governance of naval shipyards. One of John Cassin’s continuing concerns was the training and development of an officer cadre. He was particularly sensitive to that reality that officers stationed ashore be employed fully; that “they will avoid setting an evil example of idleness and inactivity. While at sea, sailing masters, boatswains, gunners, and carpenters, all have important duties to discharge”. Cassin then wrote “officers on shore station needed to live on the ships in ordinary” and to ensure their vessels and the crews were inspected at least once a day and their ships be kept “clean and sweet” and most of all ready for sea. Cassin proposed that all these activities be placed under the direction and supervision of a “master of the yard.” 7 Cassin’s recommendations which were accepted by Tingey led to the streamlining of the maintenance and repair of naval ships in ordinary. More importantly his ideas marked the real beginning of legislation to provide shipyard commandants and their deputies a permanent supervisory staff of salaried civilian employees.8 In April 1806, Cassin was promoted to Master Commandant. Tingey and Cassin worked together for over ten years with no serious issues and Cassi’s two son’s Stephen, a hero of the War of 1812, and Joseph, a purser, would later work for Commodore Tingey as well.

On July 3, 1812 Cassin was promoted to Captain, then the highest rank in the United States Navy. At the beginning of the War of 1812, he led the United States Navy in the defense of Philadelphia. His competence there led to a new appointment. On August 10, 1812 he was designated the new Commandant of Gosport Navy Yard, a position which he held until June 1, 1821. Cassin wrote to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, two weeks after his arrival, and described his new quarters and command as wanting in comfort and civilian mechanics:

“I have the honor to inform you of my arrival at this place on Sunday last, after a very disagreeable passage of ten days heavy gales & rainey weather and [I am ] extremely unwell, but by the assistance of Doctor Schooflield I am much better. I caught a violent cold in the river followed up by going into the house which is too Small entirely for my family and on the first night we had 18 inches of water in the cellar, when I was complel’d to partake of your liberal instructions as it respects my quarters by making two Small wings & kitchen to the House, my Office is too small and under the Hospital whenever they wash it the water runs all over me, books & everything. I find we are in want of everything to make it like a Navy Yard.”

“We are much in want of a Master Blacksmith also a Plumber and Joiner. I should recommend John Bishop & Willm Saunders from King’s Shop, also Nicholas Fitzpatrick Joiner,9 there is a very Smart man Boat builder who formerly worked under me at the Yard, which is now employed at Norfolk by piece work for the Navy, which I do not admire. I would beg leave to recommend him also should it meet your approbation to get me these workmen with the addition of a few Shops to be able to Save a good deal of outdoor work, all of which I have the honor to submit for your Consideration.” 10

Cassin’s arrival at Gosport came at exactly the right moment and a most critical juncture, for he helped lead the American defense against the British naval attack and assisted in the organization of the fifteen gun boat flotilla that took the offense and engaged and repulsed the Royal Marines, the 102nd Regiment, and two Independents Companies of Foreigners (French mercenaries), plus the H.M. Frigate, Junion. After restoring order and security to his new command Cassin spent the next nine years endeavoring to build up the young naval yard and develop and train its officers and provide Gosport with a group of experienced master mechanics.

In June of 1821 he was chosen to be the Commanding Officer of the Southern Naval Squadron based at Charleston, South Carolina. As leader of naval squadron Cassin was accorded the honorary title Commodore.  Despite his advancement and honors, his last years were hard for Cassin as he suffered terrible losses. In 1819 his younger son Joseph, a naval purser, died while on station aboard the frigate Porpoise, off Pensacola, Florida, his daughter Elizabeth Ann died on 23 November 1821 and his beloved wife and partner of forty years, Ann Wilcox Cassin, died while he was at sea in 1821. Just shortly after his arrival in the city of Charleston to take up his new post, Commodore Cassin died on 24 March 1822. John Cassin was buried with full military honors at the cemetery of St Mary’s of the Annunciation. In his obituary the Charleston Courier editor noted Cassin’s long service to the nation despite lingering illness, and his goodness of heart and character led all who knew him to esteem him. 11 While John Cassin never gained the heroic victories at sea enjoyed of some of contemporaries he served for two decades in a succession of critical shore assignments where the navy department knew they could always depend on his tested skills as an innovative manager and naval officer. 12

End notes

1 McKee, Christopher A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession The creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794 -1815 Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, 1991, p.188.

2 Ignatius, Martin and Griffin, Joseph Catholics and the American Revolution, Volume 3, Philadelphia Pennsylvania, 1911, p.390.

3 Montgomery, Thomas Lynch editor, Pennsylvania Archives,Series 5, Harrisburg Publishing Company: Harrisburg, p.657.

4 Heidler,David Stephen and Heidler, Jeanne T editors The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, 2004, p.130. 

5 Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Pirates Volume II Naval Operations including Diplomatic Background from January 1802 Through August 1803 editor Dudley W. Knox, Government Printing Office: Washington DC, 1940, p.388-389
6 5 Smith to Cassin 10 January 1804, The secretary stated his expectations: “ All the workmen, laborers &c employed in the yard or repairing the Ships &c are to be employed under the direction and control of the Superintendent of the Yard, and to be paid for their services such compensation as may be agreed on with him” Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Pirates Volume III, Naval Operations including Diplomatic Background from September 1803 Through March 1804 editor Dudley W. Knox, Government Printing Office: Washington DC, 1941, p.320-321.

7 Naval Documents Volume III, p.392 -393
8 Brown, Gordon S. The Captain Who Burned His Ships: Captain Thomas Tingey, USN, 1750-1829,Naval Institute Press : Annapolis, 2011,p. 53, 55, 59-60.

9 Nicholas Fitzpatrick had worked with John Cassin at the Washington Navy Yard and is enumerated on the payroll for July 1811 as a ship joiner, NARA RG 45. Fitzpatrick is also mentioned in a 15 April 1817 letter from Tingey to the Board of Navy Commissioners stating that Fitzpatrick and others came to the United States "at or under 8 years of age - having served all their youth to the trade and worked long in the yard - consider themselves citizens." John Bishop and William Saunders, both blacksmiths, had also worked with Cassin at Washington Navy Yard. The “King’s Shop” reference is to Benjamin King, master blacksmith.

10 Dudley, William S. The Naval War of 1812 A Documentary History, Volume I, Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1985, p.222-223.

11 Charleston Courier 24 March 1822

12 McKee,p.188.

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