Monday, August 22, 2011

Nauvoo, Tennessee

Last week I received an email asking how Nauvoo, Tennessee got its name. I had some notes on this, based mostly on a 1973 Ensign article by Stanley B Kimball describing a number of towns in the U.S. named Nauvoo.

Nauvoo, Dyers County, Tennessee, was apparently named by a Mr. Belus Whit in the 1890s. Mr. Whit was a schoolteacher in the area who, though not a Mormon, was alleged to have been sympathetic with the Church. When a post office was established there in 1898, he gave it the name Nauvoo. (Perhaps the name was brought into that area by Elders F. D. Wilson and G. W. Branson, who in 1843 were assigned as missionaries to Montgomery and Dyer counties, Tennessee.) So little is known of this Nauvoo that the Tennessee State Library and Archives could find no references to it at all. Nauvoo, Tennessee, is a rural area on highway 78 approximately four miles north of Dyersburg. [based on Correspondence between Stanley B. Kimball and E T. Palmer, attorney at law, Dyersburg, Tennessee]

I have this annoying habit of giving away stuff like this for free, but really I can't help it. This stuff comes up with a simple Google search. So I replied with what I knew and left it at that. But then I started wondering at some of the holes in the explanation. So last Thursday I went down to the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) and did a little digging.

Honestly, I didn’t expect much, so I was really surprised to find more than one reference, and in books that were surely in the archives when Kimball was doing his research. Kimball obviously called TSLA from St. Louis area where he was living at the time. Perhaps the person he spoke with at the TSLA wasn’t having a good day. That’s why it really pays to go in person, if you can.

There were a couple of different explanations in the Dyer County histories, and none of them mention Mormons. One said it was an Indian word and gave no further information. Another said it was a Quaker word for “a peaceful place”. One of the books confirmed that the person who picked the name was A. B. Witt. Mr. Witt and his wife Ella brought an existing store and added a post office. Because it was their store, they got to submit the name to the postal service.

It is said that James Harper helped decide the name. The stores received barrels of apples from northern states and Mr. Witt is said to have come from a town by the name of Nauvoo also.

I’m not sure what the apples from northern states has to do with it. Apples are grown in Nauvoo today so perhaps they received apples from Nauvoo in the 1890’s. They saw the name on the barrels and liked it. The post office was established on Aug 8th 1898 and one of Mr. Harpers relatives, Prince E. Harper, served as the first postmaster. But after a few months, Mr. Witt took over as postmaster. He remained postmaster until the post office closed on Apr 30th 1903. In 1904, Mr. and Mrs. Witt sold the store and moved to Halls in Lauderdale County, Tennessee.

I found the idea that Mr. Witt once lived in a town called Nauvoo interesting, so I started digging some more. First I had to find out more about him. In one census he used the name Aristus and in another he used Bulas, but his wife [Lou Ella Palmore] and children’s names are the same, so it is likely the same person. The records show he was born in Tennessee in April of 1867, so he couldn’t have been in Nauvoo during the LDS heyday. The earliest reference I can find is his marriage to Ella Palmore on Jan 12th 1897 in Dyer County. One genealogist connected him with an Arthur Witt from Roane County Tennessee, but I don’t buy it. Other than being born in the same month/year and having the same last name, I don’t see the connection.

I did find support for his being a teacher. A published recommendation for him survives in the State Gazette, the Dyer county newspaper. Dated Nov 25, 1897 it says “Samaria Briefs - A B Witt, well recommended, has charge of our white literary school.” Samaria was a tiny community just south of Dyersburg.

None of this explains his connection to Nauvoo or when he might have been there. So while I found far more than I had hoped, I still don’t have slam dunk explanation. No matter. Historical research doesn't always reveal everything.

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