The Rankins of Guilford County, NC: the mistaken identity of the Robert Rankin who died there in 1795

© Robin Rankin Willis

The problem in general

Every genealogist knows that many family trees on the internet aren’t worth the paper it would take to print them. Perhaps the most serious rookie mistake a family history researcher can make is to import data from someone else’s family tree without confirming it with independent research.

Some of us learned that lesson the hard way. When I was just getting started in this hobby in the 1990s, I sent a chart for one of my lines (as requested) to the administrator of the Graves Family Association website.[1] The chart included information I had obtained from other researchers purporting to identify the forbears of my last proved Graves ancestor. Unfortunately, I had not confirmed those alleged ancestors with my own research.

I wish I had remembered that and deleted those names before I forwarded the chart. The website administrator replied with a blistering email excoriating me for perpetuating a fiction which all serious researchers had long since discarded. My screen and my red face were both too hot to touch when I read that email.

The fact is that all family history researchers make mistakes, even without naïvely adopting someone else’s data. It is the nature of the hobby. Original records are incomplete or the courthouse burned down entirely, handwriting is faded, blurry or just lousy, and our ancestors tended to recycle the same given names ad nauseam, producing an error called “same name confusion.” Other mistakes are perpetrated and then perpetuated by the aura of accuracy that accompanies information that makes it into print. If a printed history states, e.g., that Joseph Rankin of New Castle County, Delaware (1704-1764) had a son named Samuel Rankin who married Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander, that particular “fact” is thenceforth cast in concrete. That is so despite the lack of any supporting evidence whatsoever in actual records and y-DNA tests that disprove a genetic relationship. That is precisely the case with Joseph and Samuel.[2]

Some mistakes are just simple errors exacerbated by a dose of carelessness. Who can believe an ancestry chart asserting that a woman who was born between 1740 and 1743 was the mother of a man born in 1749? Or a chart saying that a man married Miss Smith months after he was already dead and his will probated? Happens all the time.

One Rankin problem in particular: the Robert Rankin who died in 1795 in Guilford Co., NC

There is just such an error in research concerning one of the Rankin families of Guilford County, North Carolina. The error appears in a number of Rankin family trees on the Family Search and Ancestry websites.[3] It is probably attributable to one published Rankin history which wrongly interpreted the 1795 will of Robert Rankin as being the will of the “patriarch” – the eldest immigrant – of his family line in Guilford.[4] Robert Rankin the patriarch (let’s call him “Old Robert” for short) had a wife named Rebecca, maiden name unknown.[5] Old Robert and Rebecca had a son named George.[6] The 1795 will identified the testator as “Robert Rankin Senior” of Guilford County, a designation occasionally used for Old Robert in the early days of the county.[7] Robert also devised land to a son named George. He did not name a wife, which proves nothing except that his wife most likely died before he wrote his will. In short, identifying the testator in the 1795 will as Old Robert seems reasonable at first glance.

The problem is that Old Robert and Rebecca’s son George died in 1760 – thirty-five years before Robert’s 1795 will.[8] I have heard of people being tardy about updating their wills, but … several decades? C’mon, y’all!

Admittedly, Guilford County is tough on Rankin researchers for several reasons. First, there are a dizzying number of country records referencing, e.g., Robert Rankin, Robert Rankin Sr., and/or Robert Rankin Jr. One state grant mentions all three of those names![9] Second, the line of Old Robert and Rebecca, as was common, used the same names every generation. They favored John, William, Robert, and George, sometimes distinguishing between them with “Jr.” or “Sr.” That didn’t always help, because a man identified as “Jr.” isn’t necessarily the son of “Sr.” Sometimes those designations were used to differentiate between an elder and a younger man who were from different nuclear families – for example, a man and his nephew. Worse, the designations changed: a man called “Robert Jr.” in 1760 became “Robert Sr.” after the elder Robert died. Keeping track of who was “Sr.” and who was “Jr.” isn’t always easy.

Finally, Guilford is rough sledding because there were three Rankin “patriarchs” in Guilford: (1) John Rankin (1736-1814) who married Hannah Carson and who is a proved son of Joseph Rankin of Delaware;[10] (2) John’s brother William Rankin (1744-1804), who married Jane Chambers; and (3) Old Robert Rankin and his wife Rebecca, who came to Pennsylvania from Letterkenny Parish, County Donegal, Ireland about 1750 and moved to Guilford County (then Rowan) a few years later. Fortunately, the lines of John Rankin and his brother William Rankin are well-documented, so it is relatively easy to distinguish them from the line of Old Robert and Rebecca.

The facts in brief

Two simple facts establish that the Robert Rankin who wrote a will and died in 1795 in Guilford County – call him “Robert d. 1795” – was not Old Robert. First, the dates for the records of Buffalo Presbyterian Church show that Old Robert died long before 1795. Second, records concerning the George Rankin who was named as a son in the will of Robert d. 1795 establish that George the devisee was alive and well after 1795. He was not the George who had died thirty-five years earlier.

When did Robert with wife Rebecca die? Answer: circa 1770, definitely by 1773

Rev. Samuel Meek Rankin provides information about Old Robert Rankin in his book History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church and Her People. Rev. Rankin identified Old Robert as having belonged to Nottingham Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania.[11] Old Robert and his family (or some of them) migrated to North Carolina in the 1750s.[12] The family acquired land in that part of Rowan County that became Guilford County.[13] Rev. Rankin identified Old Robert’s wife as Rebecca, which is confirmed in a gift deed of land by the couple to their son George.[14] According to Rev. Rankin, Old Robert and Rebecca had children “George, Robert, Rebecca, John and others.”[15]

For purposes of this article, however, we are only concerned with Old Robert and Rebecca, their sons George and Robert (who was sometimes called “Robert Jr.” in early Guilford records), and a grandson named – I’m sure you can guess this one – Robert. A few facts about that crew is in order. Rev. Rankin says that George died in 1761, although his will was actually written and proved in 1760.[16] George’s will named his widow Lydia and two minor sons, John and Robert – the grandson we have in mind.

George and Lydia’s son John inherited the 480-acre tract on Brushy Fork that Old Robert and Rebecca had given to George. John sold it and left Guilford before 1800.[17] George and Lydia’s other son Robert, grandson of Old Robert, fought in the Revolutionary War and applied for a pension in 1833.[18] Bless his heart, because the application provides useful information. Let’s call him “Rev. War Robert.” His application establishes that Rev. War Robert was born in Guilford County in May 1759 and that he moved to McNairy County, Tennessee in 1830. It is important for this narrative that Rev. War Robert lived into the nineteenth century.

That is sufficient predicate, I hope. The bottom line is that Rev. Rankin also has this to say about Old Robert, who was (according to oral tradition) one of the first elders in Buffalo Church:

“Robert Rankin is another whom Rev. J. C. Alexander said tradition listed as one of the first elders. He settled here in 1753 … he died before the first date in the minute book.”[19]

Reverend Rankin said there were no records for Buffalo Church “from the organization in 1756 to 1773.” Consequently, Old Robert Rankin, husband of Rebecca, must have died before 1773. Rev. Rankin states that Old Robert died about 1770, although there is no extant tombstone for him in the Buffalo Church cemetery.[20]

Old Robert cannot be the same man as the Robert Rankin who died in Guilford in 1795 because Old Robert had been dead for more than two decades by 1795.

What about the George named in the will of Robert Rankin d. 1795?

Let’s look closely at Robert Rankin’s 1795 will, which names the following devisees and beneficiaries:[21]

… his son George and his three grandsons William Rankin Wilson, Andrew Wilson and Maxwell Wilson, sons of his deceased daughter Mary Rankin and her husband Andrew Wilson. Robert devised his land on Buffalo Creek to George and the three Wilson grandsons.

… his daughter Isobel.

… two unnamed living daughters, each of whom was to receive one-fifth of Robert’s personal estate.

Robert’s will plainly demonstrates that he was capable of distinguishing between his children who had died and those who had not. He described his three Wilson grandsons as “sons of my deceased daughter Mary Willson alias Rankin.” Robert describes his son George as … simply George, without stating that George was deceased or that the devise of land was for George’s heirs. The straightforward language of the will makes clear that Robert the testator (even if Old Robert had still been alive in ’95, which he wasn’t) was not referring to a son who died in 1760.

Subsequent Guilford County records indicate that Robert the testator was correct: his son George Rankin was still alive in ‘95. About three years after Robert died, George surveyed the land he inherited from his father. Robert’s will included a detailed metes and bounds description of how his land on Buffalo Creek was to “be divided by my estate.” The document filed in the real property records expressly recites that the survey of the tract was required by the will of Robert Rankin, deceased, and by his executor. [22] Some two decades later, George Rankin made a gift of a portion of that tract to his own son – named Robert, of course.[23]

Here’s the best advice I could ever give to a rookie genealogist: follow the land.

So … who the heck was the Robert who died in 1795? Answer: Robert, son of Old Robert and Rebecca

Naturally, there was more than one Robert Rankin living in Guilford County in the late 18th century. We can eliminate anyone from the lines of John Rankin and Hannah Carson or William Rankin and Jean Chambers, because their sons named Robert (John and William both had a son named Robert) lived well past 1795.[24] The testator in 1795 was not Rev. War Robert, son of George and Lydia, because his pension file proves that he died in 1833. The only Robert Rankin in Guilford in 1795 who was old enough to have three grandsons, and who did not live into the nineteenth century, was Robert Rankin (Jr.), son of Old Robert and Rebecca.

And there you have it. In a perfect world, Old Robert would also have left an extant will. I suspect that he had already given away everything he owned, particularly his land, before he died.

* * * * * * * * * *

[1] See http://www.gravesfa.org.

[2] Rev. S. M. Rankin, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy (Salem, Massachusetts: Higginson Book Company, facsimile reprint of the original, copyrighted 1931), p. 52. Rev. Rankin is reliably accurate, so far as I can tell from my own research, with few exceptions. However, y-DNA testing conclusively establishes that the Samuel Rankin who married Eleanor Alexander was not a son of Joseph Rankin of Delaware.

[3] https://familysearch.org/search/ and http://home.ancestry.com. The former is free. The latter requires a paid membership.

[4] E.g., A. Gregg Moore and Forney A. Rankin, The Rankins of North Carolina (Marietta, GA: A. G. Moore, 1997).

[5] Rev. S. M. Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church and Her People (Greensboro, NC: J. J. Stone & Co., Printers, 1934) at 27. See also the gift deed in the next footnote.

[6] Id. See also Jo White Linn, Rowan County North Carolina Deed Abstracts Vol. 1, 1753 – 1762, Abstracts of Books 1 – 4 (Salisbury, NC), abstract of Deed Book 2: 70, a gift deed dated 13 Apr 1755 from Robert and Rebecca Rankin to George Rankin, for 5 shillings (the usual gift deed “price”), 480 acres on the south side of Brushy Fork. Robert had paid 10 shillings for that tract, a Granville grant. Id., abstract of Deed Book 2: 102.

[7] Clayton Genealogical Library microfilm, “NC Guilford County Wills, Books A-B 1771-1838,” File #312, will of Robert Rankin Sr. dated 30 May 1795 proved Nov 1795, giving metes and bounds instructions on how to divide the land he owned on the south side of Buffalo Creek and devising that land to his son George Rankin and grandsons William Rankin Willson, Andrew Willson and Maxwell Willson. Robert also made bequests to his daughter Isobel and two other living daughters who weren’t identified by given name.

[8] Clayton Genealogical Library microfilm, “NC Rowan County Will Books A-B 1767-1793,” p. 141, will of George Rankin of Rowan County dated 23 May 1760, proved Oct 1760. Witnesses to the will included Robert Rankin (either George’s father or his brother) and William Denny (George’s brother-in-law, married to George’s sister Ann Rankin Denny).

[9] William D. Bennett, Guilford County Deed Book One (Raleigh, NC: Oaky Grove Press, 1990), abstract of Deed Book 1: 504, 16 Dec 1778 state grant to Moses McClain, 200 acres adjacent Jonas Touchstone, Robert McKnight, David Allison, Robert Rankin Jr.’s line, along Robert Rankin Sr.’s line, NC Grant Book No. 33: 83. There is one deed in my Lunenburg Co., VA Winn line in which the grantee and two witnesses to a deed were identified as John Winn, John Winn, and John Winn. No “Sr.” or “Jr.,” or “John Winn, carpenter,” or “John Winn of Amelia County.” Those three men obviously had a sense of whimsy. Lunenburg Deed Book 7: 231.

[10] FHL Film No. 6564, New Castle Co., DE Deed Book Y1: 499, deed dated Apr 1768 from grantors John Rankin of Orange Co., NC (a predecessor to Guilford County) and his wife Hannah, and William Rankin of New Castle Co., DE, to grantees Thomas Rankin and Joseph Rankin, both of New Castle, land devised to John and William by their father Joseph Rankin. Witnesses to the deed were neighbors of William and John Rankin in Guilford: Robert Breden, James Donnell and James Simpson. Robert and Rebecca’s immigration date and origin are established by the autobiography of their son, Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister who became a Shaker.

[11] Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church, p. 22. See also Futhey and Cope, History of Chester Co., PA (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), reproduction facsimile by Chester County Historical Society (Mt. Vernon, IN: Windmill Publications, Inc. 1996). The 1753 tax list for West Nottingham Township, Chester Co., PA included taxables George Rankin and Robert Rankin.

[12] Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church, p. 22.

[13] E.g., Jo White Linn, Rowan County North Carolina Deed Abstracts Vol. 1, 1753 – 1762, Abstracts of Books 1 – 4 (Salisbury, NC), abstract of Deed Book 4: 100, Granville grant dated 24 Jun 1758 to Robert Rankin, 640 acres on both sides of North Buffalo Creek. That creek flows roughly from southwest to northeast into Buffalo Creek. The creek, and the grant, are located just south of Buffalo Presbyterian Church.

[14] See note 6.

[15] Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church, p. 27. George and Robert are also proved as sons by deed records. There is only circumstantial evidence for a son John and no evidence that I can find for a daughter Rebecca. The deed and will records also prove a daughter Ann Rankin who married William Denny.

[16] Clayton Genealogical Library microfiln, “NC Rowan County Will Books A-B 1767-1793,” p. 141, will of George Rankin of Rowan County dated 23 May 1760, proved Oct 1760. The 1761 date for George’s death appears in every family tree I have seen for Robert and Rebecca. Someone read Rev. Rankin’s book and many people imported the information without checking it.

[17] Id. George devised to John the 480-acre tract on Brushy Fork or Brush Creek. John sold 200 acres in August 1784, Guilford Deed Book 3: 101, and the remaining 297 acres in Sep 1796, Deed Book 6: 182. John was listed in the 1790 census for Guilford County but not in 1800. He was a Revolutionary War Soldier and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He struggled with what he saw as the abstract and impersonal nature of Presbyterian doctrine and became a Shaker minister. He went to Tennessee in the late 1790s and wound up in Logan County, KY in a place called “Shakertown.” In one of many Guilford County marriages that makes researchers rip their hair out, he married Rebecca Rankin, a daughter of John Rankin and Hannah Carson.

[18] Virgil D. White, Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files, Vol. III: N-Z (Waynesboro, TN: National Historical Publishing Co., 1992), abstract of the pension application of Robert Rankin, W5664. Robert was born 29 May 1759. Wife Mary. NC line. Soldier was born in Guilford and enlisted there. In 1830, he moved to McNairy Co., TN where he applied 20 May 1833. He died there 21 Dec 1840. Soldier had married Mary Moody 22 Nov 1803 in Guilford. Widow applied 12 Jun 1853 from McNairy, age 75. Widow died 11 Jul 1854.

[19] Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church, p. 122.

[20] Raymond Dufau Donnell, Buffalo Presbyterian Church and Cemetery Greensboro, North Carolina (Greensboro, NC: The Guilford County Genealogical Society (1994), second printing March 1996, p. ii, saying that the “earliest written records of the church date from 1773,” and stating that Robert Rankin Sr., “Pioneer … Ruling Elder” died ca. 1770.

[21] Clayton Genealogical Library microfilm, “NC Guilford County Wills Books A-B 1771-1838,” File #312, will of Robert Rankin Sr. dated 30 May 1795 proved Nov 1795.

[22] Guilford Co. Deed Book 6: 346, 16 Feb 1798.

[23] Guilford Co., Deed Book 14: 11, 23 Mar 1819.

[24] Rev. S. M. Rankin, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy (Salem, MS: Higginson Book Company facsimile reprint of the 1931 original), p. 55 (John Rankin and Hannah Carson’s son Robert lived from 1780-1866) and p. 149 (William Rankin and Jane Chambers’ son Robert C. Rankin lived 1791-1853).

One thought on “The Rankins of Guilford County, NC: the mistaken identity of the Robert Rankin who died there in 1795”

  1. Robin. In reading this again, I see you have referenced everything and more I was able to review at the library. I certainly hope the new ydna test might confirm more.
    Terry

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