The Mysterious Robert Rankin of Gibson County, TN

© Robin Rankin Willis

I spent some time in early 2017 at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville, where I wound up mucking about in Gibson County. I stumbled over a passel of Rankins there. They are my favorite line for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that I was nèe Rankin.

What got me enmeshed in the Gibson County Rankins was the Revolutionary War pension application of one Robert Rankin among the court records. Let’s call him Mystery Robert because his family of origin is a puzzle. He applied for a pension in Gibson in September 1832. His sworn statement is replete with military details. Unfortunately, he did not say where he enlisted, which would likely have led us to his family of origin without much difficulty

I cannot find anyone who claims descent from Mystery Robert among online family trees. This is unusual. The general rule is that, whenever one finds a Revolutionary War soldier, one finds many descendants. I have found no one claiming a revolutionary war soldier ancestor who applied from Gibson County in 1832.

If you know who this man’s family is, please let me know. I’ll send you a box of chocolates, provided that you have proof other than some online tree which cites as sources other online family trees.

Here is what the Gibson records reveal about Mystery Robert, which is precious little.

  • Mystery Robert was 84 when he applied for a pension under the Act of 1832. That was the first Congressional act in which the applicant did not have to prove that he was destitute in order to be eligible for a pension. Since Robert had not applied earlier, we know that he wasn’t destitute. He was born about 1748. He was in the North Carolina militia, which means he almost certainly lived in NC when he enlisted. His pension allowance was $50/year, and the 1835 roll of Tennessee pensioners says that he had received $150 through June 1834. Here is a transcription of his pension application.
  • Robert appeared in the 1830 census for Gibson County in the 80 < 90 age bracket (born 1740 – 1750), consistent with the stated age in his pension application. There is a female 40 < 50 (born 1780 – 1790) listed with him and a male 10 < 15 (born 1815 – 1820). This could be a young wife and son, or a widowed daughter or daughter-in-law who was his caretaker (and her son). The 1830 census only gives names for the head of household, and I haven’t been able to identify the other members of Robert’s household.
  • The 1830s tax records in Gibson County occasionally list a Robert Rankin, although not consistently every year. It is fairly clear that he owned no land. His only taxable item was “one white poll,” which was undoubtedly himself. However, he was charged no tax, which probably means he was exempt from taxes on account of his advanced age. I don’t know when he died, although he did not appear as a head of household in the 1840 census. I found no probate records for him in Gibson Co.

The thing about Mystery Robert that caused me to sit up and take notice was this: his pension application says that his brother, not named, was killed by Tories at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill. So I did some online research about that battle (also spelled Ramseur or Ramsaur). It took place in June 1780. About 40 patriots (Whigs) died there, although it was not easy to ascertain which bodies fought for which side. The combatants wore no uniforms. The loyalists (Tories) stuck a spring of greenery in their hats; the patriots had a piece of white paper in theirs. These identifiers were sometimes missing from the bodies. The largest portion of the patriot troops were from Iredell County, NC. About thirteen of the dead patriots were from Capt. Sharpe’s 4th Creek Company, Statesville, Iredell County. Here is a piece about Ramsour’s Mill.

Family history research rarely involves absolute certainties, especially when one is dealing with facts from more than two centuries ago. Sometimes one must play the odds. The obvious odds were that Mystery Robert and his dead brother were from Iredell County, so I went digging among the Iredell records for Rankin families.

What I found in Iredell was the will of a David Rankin who died in 1789. The original will, dated 1781, is located in the Raleigh Archives in File Box No. C.R.054.801.11 and recorded in Iredell Will Book A: 200. David’s will names his wife Margaret and son Robert. David also named three grandchildren: (1) David McCreary, a son of David’s daughter Mrs. _______ Rankin McCreary, (2) James Rankin, who David expressly identified as a son of Robert Rankin, and (3) David Rankin. Grandson David Rankin’s father was not identified, so David wasn’t another son of Robert. He was a minor, under age 21 in 1781, when his grandfather David wrote his will.

The express language of David’s will – with a Rankin grandson whose father wasn’t Robert – raises the inference that David and Margaret had another son who may have died before David wrote his 1781 will.

The next step was to cast about in Iredell and nearby records to find a candidate for grandson David Rankin whose father may have died before 1781. As it turned out, David was in Lincoln County and was the son of a James Rankin. Here are some relevant Lincoln County records:

  • July 1783, a lawsuit styled the Executors of James Rankin vs. Reuben Simpson. So there was a James Rankin who had died before July 1783.
  • The lawsuit resulted in the public sale of defendant’s land to satisfy the plaintiff’s judgment. See Lincoln Co. Deed Book 2: 756, deed dated 21 Sep 1784 from Joseph Henry as Sheriff of Lincoln Co. to Francis Cunningham of same, levy on Reuben Simpson in suit of James Rankin. A witness to the deed was Robert Rankin, who was almost certainly kin to the dead James Rankin. The only Robert Rankins who lived close enough to witness a Lincoln County deed were (1) Robert, son of David and Margaret of Iredell, and (2) Robert, son of Samuel and Eleanor of Lincoln, who was only 19, and whose brother James was still a child.
  • There is a Lincoln county promissory note (or possibly a guardian’s bond, as my notes aren’t clear) from Francis Cunninghan and Daniel McKissick to John Alexander, guardian of minors David Rankin, Jane Rankin, Margaret Rankin and William Rankin, orphans of James Rankin. Such records usually named children in order of age, so David was probably the eldest. Source: Anne William McAllister & Kathy Gunter Sullivan, Civil Action Papers 1771-1806 of the Court of Ps & Qs, Lincoln County, North Carolina (1989).

David Rankin was still in the area on 14 Oct 1800, when he witnessed a deed from James Alexander to Horatio Gates Alexander adjacent the land of David’s guardian John Alexander. See Lincoln Co. DB 22:65. John Alexander was almost certainly David Rankin’s uncle, so John was probably either (1) married to a Rankin or (2) the brother of David’s mother, Mrs. ___?___ Alexander Rankin.

Here is a crucial piece of evidence. The Iredell County Genealogical Society has a collection called the “Philip Langenhour papers,” which were Mr. Langenhour’s collections of stories about local families. His papers mention a Miss Alexander (no given name stated) who married a Mr. Rankin (ditto) who died at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill. Given the fact that the guardian of James Rankin’s children was John Alexander, it is as good a bet as you can find in genealogy that it was James Rankin who died at Ramsour’s Mill. This is the only piece of evidence I have found that a Rankin died in that battle … other than the pension application of Robert Rankin, whose patriot brother was killed there.

The pieces of this puzzle fall together quite nicely. It seems reasonable to conclude that David and Margaret Rankin of Iredell had two sons named Robert and James. James married a Miss Alexander, sister of John Alexander, and died at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill in 1780. James and Miss Alexander had children named David and Margaret (for their Rankin grandparents), as well as Jane and William. Their uncle John Alexander became their guardian.

Here is where we take a plunge off the high diving board without, we hope (as my friend Jody McKenney Thomson, a descendant of these Lincoln County Alexanders, puts it) “forcing Cinderella’s shoe to fit.” Please forgive the mixed metaphors.

I think Mystery Robert is Robert, son of David and Margaret Rankin of Iredell, and a brother of a James Rankin who died at Ramsour’s Mill.  Jody, does the shoe pinch?

Please also note that Robert Rankin, son of David and Margaret, disappeared from the Iredell and Lincoln county records after 1826 without leaving any probate records. Jody and I have long wondered where the heck he went.

There is a bit more to this story. Robert had two sons who remained in the Iredell/Lincoln area: Denny, born in 1775, and James, born about 1778. Denny and James married sisters, Sarah and Elizabeth McMinn. Two of Denny and Sarah’s proved children were named Robert A. Rankin and Samuel Rankin.

Robert A. Rankin appeared in the Gibson County records starting in 1838. Samuel Rankin began appearing in Gibson in 1837, acting as security on the bond of the administrator of a John McMinn. The fact that known members of the Iredell Rankin family and a McMinn appeared in Gibson along with Mystery Robert provides additional circumstantial evidence regarding Mystery Robert’s identity.

I believe the shoe fits quite nicely.

Finally, please note that there were other distinct Rankin lines in Gibson County beginning in roughly the mid-1800s. However, I found no evidence to connect any other Rankin line to Mystery Robert. In the 1840 census for Gibson, there was no listing for either of the two Roberts or for Samuel. Robert A. Rankin and his brother Samuel moved to Shelby County, where both died; Samuel was Robert’s administrator.

Briefly, here are some other Rankins who lived in Gibson County:

  • David F. C. Rankin (1823 – 1885) and his wife Susan Young. David was a son of David Rankin and Anne Moore Campbell of Rutherford County, TN. The senior David Rankin was a son of Samuel and Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander Rankin of Lincoln Co., NC.
  • Jesse Rankin, who was born in Kentucky about 1795, and his wife Cynthia Sellers. Some researchers think Jesse was a son of Robert Rankin of Rutherford Co., NC and Caldwell Co., KY and his second wife Leah. Other researchers think that Jesse was a son of “Shaker Reverend” John Rankin of Guilford, NC and Logan Co., KY and his wife Rebecca. Both Robert of Rutherford and Shaker Reverend John had sons named Jesse. See an article about Jesse here.

Some Rankin researchers think that Robert Rankin and his wife Isabel (maiden name Rankin) of Guilford Co., NC, McNairy Co., TN and Pope Co., AR may have also lived in Gibson County. I don’t think that is the case, and one of their descendants tells me she has no evidence for that theory, either.

Onward! Meanwhile, as my cousin Roger Alexander likes to say, “Nobody has more fun than we do!”

2 thoughts on “The Mysterious Robert Rankin of Gibson County, TN”

  1. Robin: When I see how carefully you have laid out the step-by-step evidence, I see an excellent case built by circumstantial evidence. I did say excellent!! This is probably as good as we will ever get.

    Maybe someday one of Mystery Robert’s descendants will come forward with his diary which will explain all! We can dream – meanwhile keep up the good work! And THANK YOU!

    1. You’re right, it is all circumstantial.You are also right, it is probably the best we can do. It would be nice if the descendants of Robert, son of David d. 1789, could (if they wish) prove their descent from a Rev War vet and join the DAR. Who knows what else might turn up!

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