Descendants of Captain Arthur Fenner

Thomas P. Fenner & Sabra Dyer


Early Life and Military Service

Thomas Putnam (or Putnum) Fenner [b 22 Nov. 1829 in Providence, RI; d 15 Oct. 1912 in Hampton, VA]. Both of his parents died when he was young; his mother when he was almost three, his father when he was seven. He was probably raised by his grandfather. He served in the U.S. Cavalry during the Mexican War (1846-1847), after which he committed himself to a career in music, with a facility for the violin, voice, and other instruments. Thomas m Sabra Hannah Dyer [b 29 Feb. 1832 in N. Kensington, RI; d 24 Nov. 1898 in Providence, RI], daughter of Daniel Dyer and Sally Colburn Merrill, on 16 Sept. 1851 in Providence, RI. His grandfather died the following year. Thomas and Sabra had their two daughters Ethelyn and Lucia in 1854 and 1856.

In late 1860, Thomas formed a singing society with four other men. By November of the following year, it had grown to 17 members and took the name Orpheus Club. Thomas’ involvement during and after the Civil War is unclear. The club became strictly masonic in 1872 and in 1879 was chartered as Orpheus Lodge No. 36.

During the Civil War, Thomas served as a musician in the Union Army, 1st regiment, Rhode Island Infantry. The group initially consisted of 22 musicians that were otherwise known as the American Brass Band of Providence. Among the battles they accompanied, they were known to have been at the first Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861). Some of the members, including Thomas, spent part of the war stationed at the Naval Academy in Newport, RI.

The American Brass Band, of Providence, patriotically volunteered, immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities, to accompany the regiment. It is unnecessary to comment upon the invaluable services which its members rendered in the camp, on the march, and upon the battlefield in the care of the wounded and dying. Always prompt, ready and generous, the Band, under the inimitable direction of its veteran leader [Joseph C. Greene], added to its already high reputation, and won the highest encomiums of all listeners to its music (Augustus Woodbury, A Narrative of the Campaign, 1862, p. 172).

Hampton Institute (Hampton University)

Thomas Fenner, ca. 1873-75, in The Southern Workman (1912).

Thomas is said to have developed a friendship with Providence musical entrepreneur Eben Tourjée, who directed the Providence Musical Institute (a.k.a. Providence Conservatory of Music), and he worked there at some point as a teacher, although Thomas’ name does not appear as a faculty member in surviving concert programs from 1857 and 1866-1868 (Brown University Library). Tourjée moved to Boston in 1867 to found the New England Conservatory of Music; Thomas remained in Providence.

In the fall of 1871, a group of singers from Fisk University set out on a tour to raise money for the school, including funds for the construction of a new hall. During their tour, they met with New York publisher Biglow & Main, who arranged to have their spirituals transcribed and printed in 1872. That spring, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, superintendent of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), was in Boston when the Fisk Jubilee Singers were passing through. The success of the Fisk group prompted him to develop a similar group at Hampton. He consulted with Eben Tourjée at the New England Conservatory, who recommended Thomas P. Fenner.

Thomas arrived in Hampton in June 1872, and set about the task of preparing a group of singers to tour for the school, hoping to raise at least $200,000. On 13 February 1873, he and a group of 17 singers set out on an ambitious tour. All but four of the singers had been slaves. Their first performance was for President Ulysses Grant in the White House, and their first concert was at Lincoln Hall in Washington D.C., a testament to the enormous success of the Fisk singers a year earlier and the influence General Armstrong.

Thomas transcribed the songs (spirituals) of his students, which were included in Hampton and Its Students with Fifty Cabin and Plantation Songs (1874). The book contained extensive information about the school and was used as a fundraising tool, just like what was happening at Fisk. The money from the tour was used to build Virginia Hall, which still stands. Helen Ludlow, a fellow teacher at Hampton, described Fenner’s ability as a musician and his approach to handling the spirituals. She wrote:

“The peculiar strength of the Hampton Chorus is the faithful rendering of the original slave songs, and Mr. Fenner has been remarkably fortunate . . . in that he has succeeded in preserving them in these old-time melodies that pathos and wail which those who have listened to the singing on the old plantations recognize as the ‘real thing’” (p. 128).

In the preface to the music, Thomas described his approach to transcribing the spirituals:

There are evidently, I think, two legitimate methods of treating this music: either to render it in its absolute, rude simplicity, or to develop it without destroying its original characteristics; the only proper field for such development being in the harmony. . . . To secure variety and do justice to the music, I have, therefore, treated it by both methods. The most characteristic of the songs are left entirely or nearly untouched. On the other hand, the improvement which a careful bringing out of the various parts has effected in such pieces as “Some o’ dese Mornin’s,” … which seemed especially susceptible to such development, suggests possibilities of making more than has ever yet been made out of this slave music.

Another obstacle to its rendering is the fact that the tones are frequently employed which we have no musical characters to represent. Such, for example, is that which I have indicated as nearly as possible by the flat seventh . . . . These tones are variable in pitch, … are rarely discordant, and often add a charm to the performance. It is of course impossible to explain them in words, and to those who wish to sing them, the best advice is that most useful in learning to pronounce a foreign language: Study all the rules you please; then—go and listen to a native.

During Thomas’ tenure at Hampton, his daughter Ethelyn served as his assistant. His wife Sabra was in charge of the Girls’ Industrial Department, in which she gave instruction on tailoring, the use of sewing machines, laundry, and other housework. His daughter Lucia met and married Dr. James Thacher Boutelle, a graduate of Harvard University (1871), “who for many years rendered valuable service to Hampton Institute as its attending or consulting physician” (Southern Workman, Dec. 1912, pp. 685-686). After the conclusion of the singers’ third tour, in June 1875, Thomas and the school parted ways, likely worn out by the demands of traveling through eighteen states and two trips to Canada in two years.

Temple Grove Seminary

Following his stint at Hampton, Thomas, Sabra, and Ethelyn moved to Saratoga Springs, NY, where Thomas was hired as a music teacher at Temple Grove Seminary. Temple Grove was a progressive liberal arts school for women. Whereas the girls at Hampton were trained in domestic life, agriculture, and other trades, Temple Grove students were offered instruction in English, Latin, Greek, French, German, chemistry, history, zoology, religion, physiology, botany, physics, astronomy, geology, and math; music and art were not covered under normal tuition and cost extra money.  Thomas worked at Temple Grove until 1880.

Thomas P. Fenner, undated photo, in The Southern Workman (1912).

New England Conservatory and Return to Hampton

Thomas and Sabra moved to Boston, where Thomas was hired at the New England Conservatory, a return to his connection with Eben Tourjée. He taught voice at NEC from 1881 to 1887, then returned to his hometown of Providence and continued to teach music there. Ethelyn moved to Brooklyn at some point after leaving Temple Grove, where she married Daniel Shaurman and taught art at the Pratt Institute. After Sabra’s death in November of 1898, Thomas moved back to Hampton to live with his daughter Lucia and her husband. He also rekindled his relationship with the university:

In the [last] fourteen years of his residence in the town, Mr. Fenner became one of its most esteemed citizens. Entering heartily into the interests of the community, especially of its musical circles, his genial manner and fine qualities of character made him many friends, in the practice of his profession and in all social relations. Vigorous, alert, and youthful in spirit, any who met him on the street two days before his death might have taken him for a man of fifty rather than an octogenarian. . . . He was a frequent and welcome visitor at the school, often attending its exercises, watching the Sunday inspection of the boys’ battalion, and lending professional aid to its musical entertainments (The Southern Workman, Dec. 1912, p. 686).

Prior to Thomas’ return, the school had continued to print expanded editions of spirituals, under the title Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students (1876, 1891, 1901). He may have consulted on the 1901 edition. The 1909 edition, Religious Folk Songs of the Negro, contains the first printing of “Go tell it on the mountain.” The publishing tradition culminated under the leadership of Nathaniel Dett, who edited a new edition of Religious Folk Songs in 1927. The singing tradition carries on through new generations of Hampton singers in accredited music degree programs. Thomas P. Fenner left a long and lasting musical legacy through multiple states and countless students.


1. Ethelyn K. [b 4 Nov. 1854 in Providence, RI; d Sept. 1929 in Brooklyn, NY] m Daniel Sayre Shaurman [b 17 Mar. 1861 in NY; d Feb. 1926 in Brooklyn, NY], son of Nelson & Maria Shaurman. She taught art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and was mentioned in Who Was Who in American Art.

2. Lucia Frances Merrill [b 2 Nov. 1856 in Providence, RI; d 10 Oct. 1927 in Tryan, NC; bur. in Hampton, VA]; ca. 1873-1875 she m Dr. James Thacher Boutelle [b 6 Jan. 1845 in Cambridge, MA; d 6 Aug. 1913 in Hampton, VA].


Arthur | Thomas | Thomas | Daniel | Daniel | Thomas | Thomas | Thomas

Early Life and Military Service
a. Thomas and Sabra's marriage record (
b. Thomas P. Fenner, United States Civil War Soldiers Index, NARA (
c. The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, ed. Frank Moore, vol. 1 (1860-1861), "Documents and Narratives," p. 125 (Google Books).
d. Augustus Woodbury, A Narrative of the Campaign of the First Rhode Island Regiment (Providence: Sidney S. Rider, 1862), p. 172 (Google Books).
e. Edwin W. Stone, Rhode Island in the Rebellion (Providence: George H. Whitney, 1864), pp. 286-288 (Google Books).
f. U.S. Census, 1860, Providence, RI (
g. U.S. Census, 1870, Providence, RI (
h. State of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations at the End of the Century, vol. 3, ed. Edward Field (Boston: Mason Publishing Co., 1902), pp. 524-525.

Hampton Institute (University)
i. Edith Armstrong Talbot, Samuel Chapman Armstrong: A Biographical Study (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1904), pp. 225-226 (Google Books).
j. M.F. Armstrong, Helen Ludlow, & Thomas P. Fenner, Hampton and Its Students, with Fifty Cabin and Plantation Songs (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1874) (Google Books).
k. Helen Ludlow, "The Hampton Student Singers," Southern Workman (May 1894), pp. 72-76 (HathiTrust).

Temple Grove Seminary
l. Temple Grove Seminary recital and anniversary/graduation programs, 1876-1880, courtesy of Skidmore College Archives & Special Collections | PDF
m. — Moore, "Remembering Temple Grove Seminary: A Well Rounded Education for Women in the 19th Century" (unpublished, courtesy of Skidmore College Archives & Special Collections) | PDF
n. U.S. Census, 1880, Saratoga Springs, NY (

New England Conservatory and Return to Hampton
o. Boston Directory, 1 July 1882 (Boston: Sampson, Davenport & Co.), p. 372 (PDF)
p. New England Conservatory of Music, Calendar [Catalog] ( 1881-1883 | 1883-1890).
q. Providence Directory, 1 July 1889 (Providence: Sampson, Murdock & Co.), p. 199; Thomas is listed as a music teacher. (PDF)
r. U.S. Census, 1890, Thomas was counted in Providence as a war veteran (
s. U.S. Census, 1900, Hampton, VA (
t. U.S. Census, 1910, Hampton, VA (
u. Thomas Fenner's memorial at, no. 29235340
v. "Thomas Putnam Fenner," The Southern Workman (Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Dec. 1912), vol. 41, pp. 682-686 (PDF).
w. Lucia's gravestone very clearly says she was born in 1857, but her birth record, census records, and death record indicate 1856. This is likely an error in transferring information to the cemetery and/or engraver.
x. U.S. Census, 1920, Brooklyn, NY (
y. Lucia's death record, Tryan, NC (