The Mysterious Robert Rankin of Gibson County, TN

Thanks to a winter storm and black ice on the road, Gary and I abandoned a planned trip to the North Carolina Archives. Instead, we u-turned to head home and then impulsively turned north at Birmingham toward the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. With no research plan for Tennessee, I began mucking about in county abstracts. When I stumbled over a passel of unfamiliar Rankins in Gibson County, I had a mission.

What caught my eye was the Revolutionary War pension application of a Robert Rankin.[1] He applied in Gibson County in September 1832. He served in the North Carolina militia. His sworn statement is replete with military detail; it reads as though he had a sharp mind and memory. Unfortunately, he did not identify the county where he enlisted, which might have led quickly to his family of origin. I didn’t have a clue who Robert might be, so he presented a fun puzzle to be solved.

The Gibson County records don’t reveal much about Robert. He was born about 1748 and lived in North Carolina when he was an adult.[2] He first appeared in Gibson County in 1827 when he was almost seventy years old.[3] He had no land, but owned one enslaved person.[4] He had a daughter named Margaret Finley.[5] He probably died between 1837 and 1840.[6] None of that helped identify his family of origin.

The thing that led to solving Robert’s puzzle was this: his pension application says that his brother (not named) was killed by Tories at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill.[7] Robert also fought in that battle in June 1780. About 40 Whig patriots died there, although it was not easy to determine which dead soldiers fought for which side. That is because the combatants wore no uniforms. Loyalist Tories stuck a spring of greenery in their hats; the patriot Whigs had a piece of white paper in theirs. Those identifiers were sometimes missing from the bodies.

The largest number of patriot troops came from Iredell County. About thirteen of the forty dead patriots were members of Capt. Sharpe’s 4th Creek Company, Statesville, Iredell County, North Carolina.

Family history research rarely involves certainty, especially when dealing with records more than two centuries old. Sometimes one must play the odds. The best bet here is that Robert Rankin of Gibson County was originally from Iredell County.

A possibility appears as soon as you hit the Iredell records. Probate records include the will of a David Rankin. It was dated 1781 and proved in 1789.[8] It names his wife Margaret, son Robert, and three grandchildren: (1) David McCreary, (2) James Rankin, expressly identified as the son of Robert Rankin, and (3) David Rankin. The will does not say that grandson #3 David Rankin was Robert’s son. Grandson #3 must have had a father other than Robert. David and Margaret apparently had a second son who died before David wrote his will.

It wasn’t hard to find a candidate to be the second son. There was a James Rankin who died before January 29, 1782. James owned land in Burke County,[9] where his estate was administered. He had four minor children for whom a guardian was appointed in Lincoln County.[10] Here are the relevant records:

    • A Lincoln county guardian’s bond identifies John Alexander as guardian of minors David Rankin, Jane Rankin, Margaret Rankin and William Rankin, orphans of James Rankin.[11]
    • A Burke County administrator’s bond dated 29 January 1782 named Robert Rankin as administrator of the estate of James Rankin.[12] John Alexander was one of the securities on the bond.

On those facts, Robert and James Rankin were near kin, most likely brothers. John Alexander was part of the same extended Rankin family. Either (1) John Alexander married a Miss Rankin, or (2) John Alexander had a sister who married James Rankin. My friend Jody Thompson, a descendant of John Alexander’s brother, says that John Alexander was not married to a Rankin. Thus, John Alexander must have had a sister who married James Rankin, making John the uncle of his four Rankin wards.

Here is the critical piece of evidence. The Iredell County Genealogical Society has a collection called the “Philip Langenour papers.” They contain Mr. Langenour’s collections of stories about local families. He mentioned a Miss Alexander (no given name stated) who married a Mr. Rankin (ditto) who died in the 1780 Battle of Ramsour’s Mill.

This is the only evidence I have seen that a Rankin died at Ramsour’s Mill … other than the Gibson County pension application of Robert Rankin, whose patriot brother was killed in that battle.

The pieces of this puzzle fall together nicely. It is as good a bet as you can find in genealogy that James Rankin died in 1780 at Ramsour’s Mill, his wife was Miss ______ Alexander, and they had a son named David Rankin. Miss _____ Alexander Rankin’s brother John Alexander was guardian for his nephew David and his three Rankin siblings. The James Rankin who died at Ramsour’s Mill must have been a son of David and Margaret Rankin of Iredell and a brother of the Robert Rankin who was administrator of James’s estate.

Here is where we take a plunge off the high diving board without, we hope (as Jody puts it), “forcing Cinderella’s shoe to fit.” (Please forgive the mixed metaphors.)

Robert Rankin of Gibson County, Tennessee, who fought at Ramsour’s Mill and lost a brother there (and had a daughter named Margaret), is almost certainly the same man as Robert Rankin, son of David and Margaret Rankin of Iredell, and the brother of James Rankin who died at Ramsour’s Mill.

Thanks to Philip Langenour, the shoe fits quite nicely.

There is a bit more to the evidentiary trail. Robert Rankin, son of David and Margaret, disappeared from the Iredell records after February 1826 without leaving a will or estate administration there.[13] Robert Rankin of Gibson County made his first appearance on a tax list there in 1827. Jody and I had long wondered where the heck Robert went after he left Iredell. Had it not been for some black ice on I-20 a few miles east of Oxford, Alabama, we would probably still be wondering.

There is another connection between Gibson and Iredell County Rankins. Robert (proved son of David and Margaret) had two sons who remained in the Iredell/Lincoln area. One of them was Denny Rankin, who married Sarah McMinn. Robert A. Rankin and Samuel Rankin were Denny and Sarah McMinn Rankin’s sons.[14]

Robert A. Rankin began appearing in the Gibson County records in 1838.[15] Samuel Rankin was there by 1837, when he was security on the administrator’s bond of a John McMinn.[16] In the 1840 census, neither Robert of Iredell/Gibson nor his grandsons Robert A. and Samuel Rankin were enumerated in Gibson County. Robert A. and his brother Samuel had moved on to Shelby County, where both died; Samuel was Robert A.’s administrator.[17]

Finally, please note that there were two other Rankin lines in Gibson County. I found no evidence to connect any of them to the Rankins from Iredell County. Briefly, here are the other Rankin families:[18]

    • 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, Tennessee. The senior David Rankin was a son of Samuel and Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander Rankin of Lincoln/Gaston County, North Carolina.
    • Jesse Rankin, who was born in Kentucky about 1795, and his wife Cynthia Sellers. Some researchers believe Jesse was a son of Robert Rankin of Rutherford County, NC and Caldwell County, KY. Other researchers think Jesse was a son of “Shaker Reverend” John Rankin of Guilford County, NC and Logan County, KY. Both Robert of Rutherford and Shaker Rev. John had sons named Jesse.

On that note, it must be time to write an article about Jesse and Cynthia … moving on from North Carolina and Tennessee to Kentucky.[19]

See you on down the road.

Robin

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[1] See a transcription of Robert Rankin’s pension application here.

[2] Id. Robert Rankin was 84 when he applied for a pension in 1832 and was thus born about 1748. He was in the North Carolina militia, so there is virtually no doubt that he lived somewhere in North Carolina when he enlisted.

[3] Familysearch.org, Gibson Co., TN, “Tax Lists, Box 1, 1824-1835,” DGS #102863906, 1827 tax list included Robert Rankin with 1 black poll, no land.

[4] Id. The 1820s and 1830s tax lists included Robert Rankin, although he did not appear on the lists each year. He was never taxed on any land. The tax lists show a black poll with Robert in at least 1827, 1828 and 1830. I haven’t checked thereafter.

[5] The 1830 census for Gibson County had Robert as a head of household in the 80 < 90 age bracket, born 1740–50. His household included a female born 1780–90, a male born 1815–20, and one male enslaved person born 1800-06. Robert gave an enslaved person named Solomon to his daughter Margaret Finley in 1837. Gibson Co., TN Deed Book F: 55. Robert’s daughter may be and probably is the Margaret D. Fenly listed in the 1840 census for Madison County, Tennessee, born 1780-90, with an enslaved male born 1785-1804.

[6] Robert was not enumerated in the 1840 federal census for Gibson Co. and probably died between the 1837 gift deed to Margaret Rankin Finley and the census. I found no probate records for him.

[7] Here is a link to information about Ramsour’s Mill..

[8] NC State Archives and Library Search Room, File Box No. C.R.054.801.11, file folder for Rankin, David, 1789. David’s will is recorded in Iredell Will Book A: 200.

[9] North Carolina Grant No. 211, Grant Book 28: 211, Patent Book 98: 211. Grant dated 14 Mar 1780 to James Rankin, 450 acres on the south side of the Catawba River.

[10] Burke was adjacent to Lincoln County on the northwest when James Rankin obtained a grant in 1780. Iredell was created in 1788, adjacent to Lincoln on the north. See North Carolina county formation maps.

[11] Anne William McAllister & Kathy Gunter Sullivan, Civil Action Papers 1771-1806 of the Court of Ps & Qs, Lincoln County, North Carolina (1989). Bond of John Alexander dated 4 July 1793.

[12] NC State Archives and Library Search Room, File Box No. C.R.014.508.45, Burke County Estates Records, 1776 – 1934, Queen – Ritchel, file folder for Rankin, James, 1782. The file contains the original bond of Robert Rankin as administrator of the estate of James Rankin, dec’d, securities John Alexander, Joseph Steele, and Francis Cunningham. See also Familysearch.org, “North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979,” Burke County, Rankin, James, 1782. If you look closely, you can see the notation “Robert Rankins Admin Bond” penciled in to the left of the signatures on the second page of the bond.

[13] Iredell Co., NC Deed Book M: 271, deed date April _____, proved 1826, witnessed by Robert Rankin. That is the last “in person” appearance by Robert I found in the Iredell records.

[14] See Iredell Co., NC Deed Book T: 394, Robert A. Rankin a grantor in a deed conveying interest in estate of Dennis (sic, Denny) Rankin; NC Probate Records, Iredell Co., Wills 1808-1845, Volume 2: 274, image 149, will of Sarah Rankin naming children Robert and Samuel et al.

[15] See Gibson County Will Book B: 258, Robert A. Rankin was guardian of two Liggett children.

[16] See Gibson County Will Book B: 150.

[17] See loose probate papers, Shelby Co., TN, 4 Nov 1844 bond of Samuel Rankin as administrator of Robert A. Rankin.

[18] 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 disagree. One of their descendants says she has seen no evidence the couple lived there, and I don’t see any room for them in the Gibson records.

[19] The article is i titled “Jesse and Cynthia Sellers Rankin of Gibson County, TN: Who Was His Father?” See it here.

4 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!

  2. This is exciting: I will be eagerly awaiting your article on Jesse Rankin and his wife Cynthia Sellars. They are my 3rd great grand parents. It is a mystery to me that their son Robert W. Rankin b. 1826 in Tn and married Mary Cedona Terrill in Gibson County in 1844. He disappeared in the 1850 census where his wife Mary Cedona lived next to Jesse and Cynthia Rankin. Then he shows up with Mary and children in the 1860 census in Dunklin County, Missouri.
    If I could find out where he dissappered to may be I could get a
    Rankin supplemental to Robert Rutherford Rankin for the SAR.
    Thank you for all your research.
    Mike Moore

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