By James M. Wall
This blog is concerned, among other things, with current events, history, and religious connections. You don’t like family history? Well stick around, at least long enough to hear, below, a rousing rendering of “Old Dan Tucker” from Bruce Springsteen.
My history is also your history. Our joint histories are our world’s history. We are all connected. You may find these connections to be of interest, and, just maybe, you could decide to launch your own search for a bishop in the family tree.
When I started building on the research of Florence Day Ellis (my Aunt Florence) I knew we had a connection to a famous name (famous in church circles, that is) but we had never been able to confirm a “blood kin” connection.
McKendree is the “M” in my byline above. McKendree was my grandfather James McKendree Day’s middle name; my son, my grandson, and my great grandson, all have McKendree as their middle names.
The McKendree name is significant in our family history.
My Aunt Florence, who died before she could enjoy the luxury of internet searching, uncovered the first appearence of a McKendree in our family history. She was looking for a family connection to the American Revolution. Many women of her generation were eager to belong to the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution); membership required documented proof of a family member who had served on the American side in the rebellion against the British.
She found Daniel Tucker, originally from Virginia. He was a soldier on a pension from service in the Revolutionary army. Army records are valuable to family research. They qualified Aunt Florence for the DAR.
Daniel Tucker was the grandfather of the first McKendree in our family, my grandfather’s great-grandfather, the Rev. McKendree Tucker, who was born in South Carolina in 1808. Daniel’s son and McKendree’s father, the Rev. Epps Tucker, was a South Carolina itinerant (traveling) minister in South Carolina. Epps Tucker worked under the supervision of the Rev. William McKendree, a “presiding elder” in the southeastern United States.
Aunt Florence could find no family ties linking William McKendree to the Tucker family, so she assumed the McKendree name entered our family tree because Epps named his son for the future bishop. But what if there had been an actual “blood-kin” connection between the bishop and the Tucker family?
Aunt Florence could not find that connection. It did not help that Bishop McKendree never married.
Still, looking for the bishop in the family tree demanded further research. Methodists who know their church history will recognize the name of William McKendree as a major player in early American history. He was the first native-born American bishop of the Methodist Church. There are American churches and schools named for Bishop William McKendree. One of my cousins served as pastor of a McKendree Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
The first two Methodist bishops, Philip Asbury and Thomas Coke, were British born, both appointed by John Wesley, the church’s founder. (The Methodist Publishing House still has a string of book stores named after the first two bishops, Cokesbury.)
William McKendree, the first American born bishop, was not appointed; he was elected by delegates from American churches at the 1808 General Conference. This was the United States, not England. The people, not the authorities, selected their leaders.
John Wesley knew that his first two bishops, Asbury and Coke, could not keep up with the growing American church. Wesley authorized an election of an indigenous bishop to oversee the rapidly expanding Methodist local congregations and annual conferences, which were spreading rapidly along the east coast and westward into the new frontier.
The delegates elected one of their own, William McKendree, a “presiding elder”, a title given the traveling preacher who supervised and started new churches in the new country.
Churches on the frontier were developing out of what became known as the two Great Awakenings, historic waves of enthusiastic conversion experiences at camp meetings, some held deep into the wilderness. William McKendree was one of the converts from the second Great Awakening.
Outdoor preaching was a Methodist tradition; John Wesley started his “societies” in England from his converts, after the Anglican Church blocked him from preaching inside their churches. Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest, but he was a radical who demanded change. Church authorities drove him into the streets and the fields. Their mistake.
The First Great Awakening is seen by many historians as a precursor to the American Revolution. Later, the Second Great Awakening (1790s-1840s) contributed to the abolition of slavery. History, of course, is never a matter of a simple cause and effect, but the streams of history that grow into rivers as they rush toward the sea, is made up of many parts, including religious beliefs and inspired preaching.
Methodist historians like to brag that the reason Methodist churches outnumber Presbyterian churches today is that the Presbyterians, strict adherents of doctrine, had to send their clergy to school for additional education. Methodists, who ordained their clergy once they were “called” by God to preach, skimped on the education, put their preachers on horseback and sent them out to evangelize on a Godless frontier.
Methodist preachers carried their books in their saddlebags. They gained their education reading books while they rode the circuit.
McKendree Tucker’s father, Epps Tucker, was one of those pastors traveling on a South Carolina circuit–a network of churches. Our family assumed that when his son was born, Epps named the baby for his presiding elder, William McKendree, a respectful gesture, but still, no “blood kin”.
Epps Tucker had an additional distinction. His father was Daniel Tucker, veteran of the American Revolution (Aunt Florence’s ticket into the DAR), and a retired Anglican priest. In his final years he ran a ferry across the Savannah River, linking the states of South Carolina and Georgia.
It was during his final years that the Rev. Daniel Tucker became better known, thanks to a local folk song, as “old Dan Tucker”. That song found its way into early American musical history, and from all the evidence we have been able to find (including a state of Georgia road marker near Old Dan Tucker’s grave) is that it emerged from a song sung by slaves, which in the folk music tradition, added verses over time, all poking fun at “old Dan Tucker”.
Bruce Springstein has recorded this version of the song, as have many other folk singers. Listen carefully to the words and you will hear affectionate verses portraying “old Dan” as a lazy man always late for supper, and given to strong drink. (A more traditional country music version of the song is from Grandpa Jones, which may be accessed by clicking here.)
Local historians and family members deny that this is an accurate picture of “our” Dan, but popular history links the song to Daniel Tucker, so old Dan’s family accepts the mocking since it was good spirited, and besides, having a folk song in the family is rather special.
Missing, however, from our history, was an explanation as to why the McKendree name was given to my grandfather’s great grandfather. Ecclesiastical respect just wasn’t enough. We kept hoping to find that “blood kin” connection. Then one day, the hope turned into reality. With the help of the internet, I found our connection.
The mother of the Rev. McKendree Tucker (born in 1808), and the wife of the Rev. Epps Tucker, was Frances Tucker (born in 1790). The paper trail Aunt Florence had found gave McKendree’s mother’s name as Frances Unknown, no maiden name was available. She was 18 when McKendree was born. She had a maiden name, but what was it?
I spent a lot of time on the computer, searching through Ancestry.com. One day I made a simple discovery: Frances’ family name was McKendree. Frances and Epps named their son McKendree Tucker. It wasn’t just admiration for a future bishop. McKendree’s mother wanted her name vested in her son.
I still did not know if Frances McKendree was related in any way to Bishop McKendree. Only a family connection would provide the “blood kin” connection we needed. Then I found it. Bishop McKendree was Frances McKendree Tucker’s uncle. That made the bishop the great-uncle of McKendree Tucker, my grandfather’s great-grandfather.
Uncle William McKendree, the bishop, was the oldest son (he was born on July 6. 1757) in a family of eight children. His father was John McKendree Sr. (born in 1727) and his mother was Mary Dudley (born in 1729, in Virginia). Accounts differ as to John’s birthplace; it was either Scotland or Virginia.
What is important in our search in the family tree, however, is that one of Bishop William McKendree’s brothers was John McKendree, Jr., the father of Frances McKendree, McKendree Tucker’s mother. That makes her the Bishop’s niece, and the bishop is McKendree Tucker’s great-uncle. The search was over: The bishop and my extended family are all “blood kin”.
McKendree Tucker’s mother, Frances McKendree Tucker, died in 1818, when her son was 10. Old Dan Tucker died the same year. Both Frances and Dan are buried in the Tucker family cemetery.
They are buried in a wooded area on a small mountain above Lake Russell. Aunt Florence knew about this small family cemetery, which is why she was alarmed to discover a few decades back that a dam on the Savannah River would create a lake that could rise above and cover the Tucker graves.
I have only family memories to confirm this but we believe Aunt Florence wrote to Georgia Senator Richard Russell to plead for the preservation of the Tucker site. The word is that she asked Senator Russell to intervene and keep the lake’s water level from reaching the mountain top. Whether it was her letter or some other reason, the rising waters of Lake Russell have spared the Tucker cemetery.
After a family reunion in the summer of 2008, a few of us drove to the cemetery to visit the resting place of Old Dan Tucker and that of his wife, which is close to Elberton, Georgia. We also visited the grave of McKendree Tucker’s mother, Frances.
McKendree Tucker and his wife are buried in a family plot near Opelika, Alabama. Bishop William McKendree’s original grave has been moved to a place of honor on the campus of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee.
And that concludes this part of the research journey: Three generations of Tucker preachers, starting with Old Dan Tucker, introduced a famous Methodist name into our family through Bishop McKendree’s niece. The search was worth it: Bishop William McKendree and I are “blood kin”. I have the records to prove it.
(Updated October 14, 2019).