Monday, September 7, 2015

William and Mary Denison of Wilson Co Tennessee

Some time in the early 1880's, (perhaps late 1881 or early 1882) William Carol Denison found two men hiding in "his" saw mill. Turns out they were Mormon missionaries, hiding from some people who wanted them to get out of the county. Feeling rather sympathetic for the men, he said they could stay. He took his dogs out and using some brush, obscured the missionaries trail, both covering their tracks and throwing off their scent. And it worked. The angry mob passed by without discovering their prey.

According to one daughter, the missionaries then asked if they could use the saw mill in which to hold meetings. I find this odd. If they had to hide from the local citizens, why would they then hold a public meeting in the same neighborhood. There must be more to this story. Why was the mob chasing them in the first place? What made them stop? Did the mob only operate at night? Did it really happen the same night or was it really weeks or months later? As it is with folk lore which was passed down first by word-of-mouth and later written down, I get no answer to the most poignant questions.

The folklore continues that William was OK with them holding meetings in his mill, but after saying he instantly regretted his decision, feeling no good could come from Mormonism, so he told his wife not to attend. Of course, out of curiosity William attended the meeting himself. Imagine his surprise to find his wife was there too. I can almost hear the awkward conversation ("I told you not to come to this", "Well you can't tell me what to do, besides you are here"). It must have been a short lived disagreement. In March of 1882 they both were baptized.

Brother and Sister Denison appear in the missionary journal of Jacob F Miller1. On March 7th 1883 at Baird's Mill, Tennessee he wrote;

"There is a Branch of the Church consisting of about forty members here. Of these I have been introduced to Brother and Sister Huddleston their, daughter Sarah Vaughn, their cousin Mary Cummings and the teachers of the District or Branch Brother Dennison and his wife. Bro. and Sister Dennison are intending to emigrate to Colorado this month. A company starts from  Chattanooga March 29th."

Notice that both brother and sister Denison were teachers. Elder Miller went on about William who spoke at a Sunday service saying that he "speaks fluently and with no apparent embarrassment." Miller arrived just as William was being released as Branch President because he and his family were emigrating to Colorado at the end of the month.

Colorado was where many of the converts from the south were gathering at the time. They went by train for much of the journey, only needing to use wagon for the very last leg. The train didn't go all the way to Mannasa, but members brought their wagons and met the travelers at the station. Elder Morgan was on this particular trip, a detail which maintained a prominent place in every telling of the story.

About six months later, the Denison family ran out of money. Miller recorded that letters send back home from the Denison's showed that they were unhappy and were moving out of Mannasa. That part of Colorado did not have a lumber industry nearly the size of middle Tennessee so William's skills as a mill operator were not in high demand. Although there would be some work, there was generally not enough to meet the family's needs. The late 1800's was a difficult time in south Colorado. Many people lost homes and businesses. The Denison family were no different. One daughter claimed that William returned to Tennessee to work. He probably had no problem getting work at the saw mill again.

The only saw mill back at Baird's Mill was owned by the Baird family, with a series of relatives buying from each other over the years, but always staying in the family. It is likely, however, that William was in charge of running the mill, making it "his" in the sense that he was responsible for it.

Census records show that their fifth child, Ruby, was born in Tennessee in January 1885. That suggests that perhaps the entire Denison family had returned to Tennessee, directly contradicting family folklore. I don't automatically assume the the census is right. Sometimes people don't tell the truth on official records. I know that is frustrating, but life isn't always fair. At any rate I love a good puzzle.

If they all did go back to Tennessee they didn't stay there long. Their sixth child, LeNora, was born in Sanford, Colorado on 3 March 1887. Family lore says they lived in La Jara, which is only 2 miles from Sanford. Their remaining five children, Christian (who died as an infant), Mabel, John, Prudence & Carl, were all born in La Jara.

The 1900 census put them outside San Luis, Costilla county, Colorado, about 35 miles from La Jara. There William had found work as a brick mason.

The 1910 Census put them 300 miles west in Rhone, Mesa county, a suburb of Grand Junction, Colorado. It was a massive and perhaps their last big move. One family story puts them briefly in Rupert, Idaho, though I don't have dates or verification. By 1920 they are back in (or perhaps still in) Mesa county in Fruita, just three miles from Rhone. In both 1910 and 1920 William is listed as a Farmer.

This photo shows the family while they were living in Colorado. Mary is sitting on the left in the front wearing a white dress. William in on the right with two dogs jumping on him. I don't have a date for this photo but based on the ages of those identified I'm guessing after 1918 but before 1926.

Mary died on 4 August 1926 and was buried in Mesa County, Colorado. I know the gravestone says 1927 with no date, but the 4 August 1926 record comes from family records. I lean toward believing a full date over a partial date. What the partial date tells me is that whoever ordered the stone didn't really know when died. Sadly I didn't find anything resolve the dispute.

According to the 1930 census William was living with his daughter Ruby and her husband Charles Clouser in Grand Junction, Colorado. It was there that he died in 1935 in full fellowship with the Church.

I always hesitate to post family rumors, particularly if they are unsavory. They are very hard to prove, and harder to disprove. But in this case I found multiple descendants who were quick to point out that by the end of his life William was a member of the Church in full fellowship. But only one ventured to explain the reason why someone might think otherwise. According to him William became involved in bootlegging. Another relative gave the dates of his excommunication (1902) and rebaptism (1910), and that William was prone to drinking. That is hard to contextualize without more information, given how lax the Word of Wisdom was viewed when the Denison's joined the church compared to when he passed away. I tend to err on the side of being generous. At the very least I can say he probably drank more than Mormons today would find acceptable, which isn't saying much, and he was willing to do whatever he could to earn a living for his family.
  1. Full disclosure: Jacob F Miller is my great grandfather []

1 comment:

Ardis said...

As always, you put as much effort and care into tracing and documenting your early Tennessee members and with as much respect as anyone could do if they were writing about their own grandparentsthis may eventually result in the same kind of historical directory Andrew Jenson published ... except that your entries on branches and families will be INTERESTING to read, with your personal detail and color.