Samuel Rankin, b. abt. 1734, d. abt. 1816, Lincoln Co., NC, married Eleanor (nickname “Ellen”) Alexander: Who Was His Father? Part I.

This is the first of two articles concerning the family of origin of Samuel Rankin of Rowan, Mecklenburg and Lincoln Counties, North Carolina (call him “Sam Sr.”). He lived in North Carolina from roughly the mid-1750s until he died in about 1816. Rankin family history researchers have at least two theories about the identity of Sam Sr.’s father:

  • Theory #1 — Sam Sr.’s father was Joseph Rankin of White Clay Creek Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware (1704-1764). The identity of Joseph’s wife is unknown.[1] Let’s call him “Joseph of Delaware.”
  • Theory #2 — Sam Sr.’s parents were Robert and Rebecca Rankin of Guilford County, NC. Call them “R&R.” Before migrating to North Carolina in the mid-1750s, Robert appeared on the 1753 tax list for West Nottingham Township, Chester County, PA.

This article addresses the first theory, i.e., that Sam Sr. was a son of Joseph of Delaware. The article has three sections. First, we start with the probable origin of that theory, a book published in 1931 by Rev. S. M. Rankin about Rankin genealogy. Then we look at the evidence in the county and other records concerning Sam Sr. and the family of Joseph of Delaware. We conclude with the Y-DNA evidence about the descendants of Sam Sr. and Joseph of Delaware.

To take the mystery out early, Joseph of Delaware was not the father of Sam Rankin Sr. Although Rev. Rankin appears to have been a meticulous researcher, his notion that Joseph of Delaware was Sam Sr.’s father is speculative. There is no evidence whatsoever in the county, church or other records to support a close family connection between Joseph of Delaware and Sam Sr. As we might suspect, the Y-DNA of two proved descendants of Joseph of Delaware is not a match – not even remotely close – to a proved descendant of Sam Sr.

The origin of the theory that Joseph of Delaware was Sam Sr.’s father

There are a nunber of family trees on, in compiled (paper) genealogies, and elsewhere on the web in which a researcher has identified Joseph of Delaware as the father of Sam Sr. So far as I have found, the first instance of that theory is in the Rev. S. M. Rankin’s 1931 book, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy.[2]

Here is what Rev. Rankin has to same about the family of Joseph of Delaware, with some material that I have italicized for emphasis:

“The children of Joseph Rankin were James, John, Robert, Thomas, William, Joseph and Anne and perhaps Samuel. We are sure about all of these except James, Robert and Samuel

[i]t is thought that Samuel was also a son of Joseph Rankin, Sr. The dates fit in. John [one of Joseph’s proved sons] was born in 1736, Samuel in 1740 and William [another proved son of Joseph] in 1744. The family names also indicate that Samuel was a brother of John and William … both John and Samuel had a child named Samuel, and both William and Samuel had a child named William. Furthermore the personal appearance and personal traits of characters of the descendants of these three men indicate that they were brothers. Professor Jesse Rankin Wharton, who was in college with some of the descendants of Samuel Rankin, and who prepared a partial genealogial tree of the descendants of John and William Rankin, gave it as his fixed judgment that Samuel was a brother of John and William. The fact that no record of Samuel was found in New Castle County, Delaware, does not prove that he was not a son of Joseph. Only one record, and that in a deed, was found to prove that John and William were sons of Joseph.”

Rev. Rankin essentially makes four arguments: (1) Sam Sr. was the right age to have been a son of Joseph of Delaware; (2) there are similar names in Sam Sr.’s family and the families of two proved sons of Joseph of Delaware, John and William Rankin of Guilford County, NC; (3) someone who went to college with descendants of Sam Sr. firmly opined that they were related to John and William; and (4) simply because there is no proof in the records doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

I choose to ignore the “personal appearance and personal traits of character” argument Rev. Rankin makes. The Scots-Irish were always described by other Scots-Irish as hard-working and upright Presbyterians, and never as the hard-drinking and occasionally rowdy characters their English and German neighbors occasionally accused them of being.

In the same vein as that silly argument, my husband once found a picture of a man named Rufus Grady Rankin in the genealogical section of the Charlotte, NC library. Gary was struck by how much he resembled my father, Jim Leigh Rankin. Grady Rankin is a conclusively proved descendant of Sam Sr. and Eleanor. I subsequently exchanged emails with a charming grandson of Grady’s, who told me that a receding hairline leaving behind a “topknot” was a characteristic of Rankin males in his family. My father definitely had one of those topknots. Unfortunately, I doubt that any serious genealogist would accept that physical trait as evidence that my father was a descendant of Sam Sr. and Eleanor (although that is actually the case). I still have that picture of Rufus Grady Rankin, but the copy is too poor to scan and include in this post. If it were any good, I would paste it in here along with a picture of my father. What the heck: here is my sweet father about 1952, with the incipient topknot and kind smile that he shared with Grady.

JLR abt 1952 favorite

And here is the topknot in full flower in 1960.

Jim Rankin abt 1960

Back to Rev. Rankin’s logic. Argument number one – that Sam Sr. was the right age to have been a son of Joseph of Delaware – is unpersuasive. First, Sam Sr.’s birth year is a matter of controversy. Various family history researchers give his birth year as 1732, 1736, or 1740, all without citing a source. The most credible evidence I have seen for Sam Sr.’s birth year is a DAR compilation of North Carolina tombstone records that was filmed in 1935 by the Genealogical Society of Utah. That compilation indicates that Sam Sr. was born in 1734, a date that doesn’t seem to have much of a following on the web.[3]

Whichever date is correct – and I’m voting for 1734 – Sam Sr. was probably born sometime during the 1730s. That would be consistent with the birth of his eldest son, William Rankin, in 1761.[4] However, if being born in the 1730s is evidence re: Sam Sr.’s father, then we should consider not only Joseph Rankin of Delaware, but also Robert and Rebecca Rankin of Guilford County, NC … and most male Rankins of a certain age (say, between 20 and 70) living in Ireland or Scotland during the 1730s.[5]

The second argument — “similar names” in the family — is even more flimsy. How many Scots-Irish families used, ad nauseam, the names William, James, John, Samuel, Richard, or Robert? Some names are good evidence of a family relationship, such as Esom Graves and Esom Logan Burke. Or Parasida Burke, another name found among my Burke relatives. John and William, et al., aren’t much good as evidence of a genealogical relationship.

Third, the “fixed opinion” of Professor Wharton, who went to college with descendants of Sam Sr. and prepared a genealogy of John and William, is nice. Throw his vote in the pot with all the other family researchers’ opinions, but let’s not give it too much more weight than yours or mine.

As to Rev. Rankin’s last argument, the one I highlighted in italics. It is the most fun. Rev. Rankin says, in essense, that the fact there is no proof in the records doesn’t disprove the hypothesis that Sam Sr. was a son of Joseph of Delaware. True. Just because I have never seen a ghost doesn’t mean that ghosts don’t exist.

What Rev. Rankin says has some depressing truth, though: sometimes there just isn’t any evidence in the records. When there is no such proof, we deem the theory speculative. Period. As much as I admire Rev. Rankin’s research on the descendants of John and William Rankin, he deserves a C- on his theory about Sam Sr. as a son of Joseph of Delaware. Further, there is more than one deed to prove that John and William were sons of Joseph, and the recitations of names, relationships and locations in those deeds provide conclusive proof that William Rankin and John Rankin of Guilford County, NC were sons of Joseph of Delaware.[6]

I hope that, if nothing else, this highlights the fact that even careful and conscientious researchers like Rev. Rankin make mistakes. We all do, of course. In his defense, I note that Rev. Rankin carefully qualified his opinion of Sam Sr. and Joseph with this phrase in the passive voice: “it is thought that Samuel was also a son of Joseph.” That doesn’t say that was what Rev. Rankin thought. It just means somebody thought that, and that person (reading between the lines) was Prof. Jesse Rankin Wharton. Rev. Rankin also admits that “we” aren’t sure that Samuel is a son of Joseph. He thus expressly admits that he isn’t sure.

The evidence in the New Castle County, Delaware records about Sam Sr.

Rev. Rankin already said it all: there is none. Nada. Zilch. Zero. He claims that doesn’t disprove anything, but … hey … you can’t prove anything with no evidence, either. Every attorney in the world knows which side of that argument she or he wants to be on.

There are actually a fair number of records in New Castle County regarding the family of Joseph of Delaware, including deed, probate, church, tax, and military records. I will save all that information for another article, because it is fairly extensive. Suffice it to say that four sons of Joseph of Delaware are conclusively proved by New Castle County deed and probate records and two more sons are proved by good circumstantial evidence, including tax and military records.[7] Admittedly, the New Castle records are not complete – for example, Joseph of Delaware clearly left a 1764 will (at least two deeds recite that fact) – but there is no extant record of such a will that I can find. However, the county records aren’t exactly spotty, either. William Tecumseh Sherman didn’t burn down that courthouse.

The bottom line is there is no evidence in the New Castle County records so far as the eye can see – not even circumstantial – which suggests that Sam Sr. was a son of Joseph of Delaware. If you had to prove that Joseph of Delaware was the father of Sam Sr. to a jury, they would look you squarely in the eye and vote unanimously against you. Jury deliberation would take fifteen minutes, max.

The Y-DNA evidence

There is a Rankin DNA Project which provides (anonymously, if desired) Y-DNA results online.[8] One member who has taken a Y-DNA test has a solid paper genealogical trail showing him to be a descendant of Joseph of Delaware. His name is Doug Rankin. I found another proved descendant of Joseph of Delaware by conventional paper research (let’s call him “Mr. X”), and Doug convinced Mr. X to test. Turns out that Mr. X and Doug are 37-marker matches with one mismatching marker, which genetic genealogists call a “37-marker match with a genetic distance of one” (or “GD=1”). That is a darn good match. With two closely matching Y-DNA samples and two solid paper trails, there is a high degree of confidence that Doug and Mr. X provide a good picture of the Y-DNA of descendants of Joseph of Delaware – as well as those who aren’t his descendants.

There is more, of course. The Rankin DNA project has two members (call them Mr. A and Mr. B) whose paper trail proves them to be descendants of Samuel and Eleanor Alexander Rankin. Neither of them is a match – not even remotely close – to Doug Rankin and Mr. X. Based on the tests from Mr. A, Mr. B, Mr. X. and Doug Rankin, the Y-DNA evidence proves conclusively that Sam Sr. is definitely not a son of Joseph of Delaware.

The Y-DNA evidence thus confirms what the paper trail establishes: there is neither a genetic link nor a link in the records from Sam Sr. to Joseph of Delaware.

* * * * * * * * * *

[1] There is speculation about the identity of the wife of Joseph of Delaware, although there is no evidence whatsoever to support it.

[2] Rev. S. M. Rankin, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy (Greensboro, NC: J. J. Stone & Co., printers and binders, 1931, reprint by Higginson Book Co., Salem, MA).

[3] Microfilm at the Clayton Genealogical Library, Houston, TX, titled “North Carolina Tombstone Records, Vols. 1, 2 and 3,” compiled by the Alexander Martin and J. S. Wellborn chapters of the DAR; transcribed lists filmed 1935 by the Genealogical Society of Utah.

[4] Virgil D. White, Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files, Volume III: N-Z (Waynesboro, TN: The National Historical Publishing Co., 1992). William Rankin’s pension application states that he was born in January 1761 in Rowan County, NC.

[5] Robert Rankin (wife Rebecca) of Guilford County, NC. died by 1773; he had grandsons born in 1757 and 1759, so he was clearly old enough to have a son born in the 1730s.

[6] FHL Microfilm 6564, New Castle County Deed Book Y1: 499 and 565.

[7] Insert New Castle County deed, probate, military and tax records here. Alternatively, save them for a separate article about the family of Joseph of Delaware. <grin> If anyone reads this footnote, please let me know in a comment and I will promptly provide citations!!!!!

[8] This website has links to Y-DNA results (incomprehensible if you aren’t both a Rankin and Y-DNA expert) and to a “patriarch page” with lots of Rankin descendancy charts. For the most part, all participants provide their own ancestry and get to say from whom they are descended. When two different people whose Y-DNA does NOT match claim descent from the same Rankin ancestor, the editors of the patriarch chart intervene to either make corrections or at least file disclaimers. If you have questions about that website, please let me know.


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