Revised: the most famous Rankin legend of all

A friend who reads this blog suggested bluntly that I belly up to the bar and say in no uncertain terms whether a certain famous Rankin legend is accurate. Here is what I think. I hope it will encourage a commenter to share some evidence.

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Specifically, this is about a widely claimed Rankin family history oral tradition. The legend calls to mind an old expression, possibly of Native American origin: “this story might not have happened exactly the way I have told it … but it is nevertheless true.”[1] Let’s call this Rankin story the “Mt. Horeb legend” because it is inscribed on a bronze tablet in the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church cemetery in Jefferson County, Tennessee. I have transcribed it below.

The storyteller’s caveat is tailor-made for the Mt. Horeb legend. Specific facts in the legend about some family relationships and martyred Rankins  are suspect, although the essence of the story is true for many Scots-Irish. Some Rankins were Covenanters, i.e., Presbyterian Scots who were brutally persecuted during the Killing Times.[2] Many Scots migrated to Ulster, some during the worst of the Killing Times in the 1680s.[3] Some Rankins survived the Siege of Londonderry in 1689.[4] Many Presbyterian Rankins migrated from Ireland to the Delaware River ports during the Great Migration from 1717 until about 1770. A good many Scots-Irish Rankins fought in the Revolutionary War.

The Mt. Horeb legend features every bit of that. It is a staple of many Rankin family trees. It has problems. Y-DNA results create a question mark. Traditional paper research adds others. Lack of evidence abounds. The legend is not part of the oral family history of two early Rankins descended from the Mt. Horeb immigrants. That suggests the legend was added to their family histories after their lifetimes, diminishing the credibility of what is characterized as an oral family tradition.

Having dealt with a bunch of genealogical horse hockey, I have become cynical. I occasionally suspect that some Rankin became familiar with Scots-Irish history, did some research overseas and in Pennsylvania, conflated several people having the same names, and wove a darn good story from fragments. I will probably be burned in effigy for saying that out loud.

The Mt. Horeb legend is the only family tradition I know that is actually cast in metal, so let’s look at the entire story.  To be clear, I am not presenting this as a correct factual statement. I am presenting it as a statement of what some believe their Rankin history to be. Following the transcription, I have discussed some of its claims.

Here is the tablet’s inscription, verbatim:

THIS TABLET IS TO COMMEMORATE
THE MEMORY OF

RICHARD RANKIN 1756 – 1827         SAMUEL RANKIN 1758 – 1828

THOMAS RANKIN 1762 – 1827        JOHN BRADSHAW 1743 – 1818

FOUR PIONEER SETTLERS OF DUMPLIN VALLEY

GENEALOGY OF THE RANKIN FAMILY

GENERATION 1

ALEXANDER RANKIN, BORN IN SCOTLAND, HAD THREE SONS, TWO WERE MARTYRS TO THEIR RELIGION. OF THESE ONE WAS KILLED ON THE HIGHWAY, THE OTHER SUFFOCATED IN A SMOKEHOUSE[5] WHERE HE HAD TAKEN REFUGE TO ESCAPE HIS PURSUERS. THE THIRD BROTHER, WILLIAM, TOGETHER WITH HIS FATHER AND FAMILY ESCAPED TO DERRY COUNTY, IRELAND IN 1688. WILLIAM AND HIS FATHER, ALEXANDER RANKIN, WERE PARTICIPANTS IN THE SIEGE OF LONDONDERRY, WHICH TOOK PLACE IN 1689.
ALEXANDER RANKINS NAME IS SIGNED TO THE PETITION OF THANKS TO ALMIGHTY GOD, AND WILLIAM, KING OF ORANGE, FOR HIS TIMELY ASSISTANCE IN RAISING THE SIEGE IN AUGUST, 1689.

GENERATION 2

WILLIAM RANKIN HAD THREE SONS, ADAM, BORN IN SCOTLAND, 1699. JOHN AND HUGH BORN IN IRELAND.
ADAM AND HUGH CAME TO AMERICA IN 1721, LANDING IN PHILADELPHIA. PA., AND SETTLED IN CHESTER COUNTY, HUGH WAS KILLED IN A MILL ACCIDENT. ADAM MARRIED MARY STEELE.

GENERATION 3

JOHN RANKIN MARRIED JANE McELWEE, IN IRELAND, CAME TO AMERICA IN 1727. HE HAD TWO SONS, THOMAS AND RICHARD, AND EIGHT DAUGHTERS. RICHARD MARRIED A MISS DOUGLASS AND SETTLED IN AUGUSTA COUNTY, VA.

GENERATION 4

THOMAS RANKIN, 1724 – 1828, MARRIED ISABEL CLENDENON OF PA. AND SETTLED IN THAT STATE. THEIR CHILDREN WERE:

JOHN 1754 – 1825 MARRIED MARTHA WAUGH

RICHARD 1756 – 1827 MARRIED JENNETT STEELE

SAMUEL 1758 – 1828 MARRIED – PETTY

WILLIAM 1760 – 1834 MARRIED SARAH MOORE

THOMAS 1762 – 1821 MARRIED JENNETT BRADSHAW

JAMES 1770 – 1839 MARRIED MARGARET MASSEY

JANE MARRIED WILLIAM GILLESPIE

MARGARET MARRIED SAMUEL HARRIS

ANN MARRIED LEMUEL LACY

ISABEL MARRIED ROBT. McQUISTON

NANCY MARRIED SAMUEL WHITE

MARY MARRIED JAMES BRADSHAW

THOMAS RANKIN OF GENERATION 4, WAS A CAPTAIN IN THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR. HIS FOUR ELDEST SONS WERE PRIVATES IN SAID WAR.
 THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED IN 1930 BY
CHRISTOPHER HOUSTON RANKIN 
COURTLAND THALES RANKIN, ATTY 
REV. JOHN GRANT NEWMAN, D.D.
 MRS. ALMYRA – RANKIN – McMURRAY 
MRS. ROZEE – RANKIN TAYLOR 
FRANK WALTER RANKIN 
HARRY JAY RANKIN
 SAM HULL RANKIN

End of transcription.

I hope someone will share evidence proving that the legend is accurate in every respect. While we are waiting, here is a summary of statements in the legend that (in my opinion) are either (1) true or probably true, (2) incorrect, or (3) may be correct but lack supporting evidence.

First, here are the facts that are either supported by evidence or are so consistent with historical events that they are almost certainly true:

    • There was an Alexander Rankin whose name was on a petition of thanks to God and William of Orange for lifting the Siege of Londonderry.
    • Many Scottish Presbyterians were victims in the Killing Times in the 1680s.
    • Many Rankins migrated from Scotland to the Province of Ulster. Some may have fled to escape the Killing Times.
    • Two Rankins named John and Adam lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the second quarter of the eighteenth century.
    • Many Scots-Irish, including Rankins, entered the colonies in a Delaware River port such as Philadelphia.
    • Adam Rankin of Lancaster County married Mary Steele Alexander, widow of James Alexander.
    • John Rankin had two sons, Thomas and Richard, and eight daughters.
    • Richard, son of John, migrated to Augusta County.
    • Thomas, son of John, did “settle” in Pennsylvania for a time. His wife was Isabel Clendenon/Clendenin (various spellings).

Second, here are some statements that are either obvious error or are cast in serious doubt by county and other records:

    • If Adam Rankin was born in Scotland in 1699, then his family was not in Ireland for the 1689 Siege of Londonderry.
    • Thomas Rankin, son of John, was not a Revolutionary War Captain.
    • Three of Thomas Rankin’s four eldest sons (Richard, Samuel, and William) were revolutionary soldiers. John, the eldest son, was not.
    • John Rankin (died in 1749 in Lancaster County) and Adam Rankin (died there in 1747) were not brothers, although additional Y-DNA testing is needed to help confirm or disprove that.
    • It is unclear what it means to say that Thomas and Isobel Clendenin Rankin “settled” in Pennsylvania. It seems to imply they stayed there. Their son William’s Revolutionary War Pension Application establishes that the family moved to Augusta County, Virginia in 1780.

Third, here are some of the evidentiary issues. There is no evidence that …

      • … any Rankins were executed during the Killing Times or are on lists of known martyrs. However, a John Rankin from Biggar Parish, Lanarkshire, is known to have drowned off Orkney in a ship loaded with Covenanter prisoners.
      • … Alexander Rankin, grateful survivor of the Siege of Londonderry, had a son William and grandsons John, Adam, and Hugh.
      • … a William Rankin was present at the Siege.
      • … a Hugh Rankin migrated to the colonies and died in a mill accident. There is evidence that Jeremiah, a son of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin, died in a mill accident.
      • … William Rankin’s wife was Dorothy Black and their sons were John, Adam, and Hugh.
      • … the Adam Rankin who died in Lancaster in 1747 had a wife prior to Mary Steele Alexander.
      • … John Rankin, whose widow was named Margaret, was married to a Jane McElwee.

I would not be surprised to learn, for example, that some John Rankin married a woman named Jane McElwee in Ireland. What we need is evidence that the John Rankin who married Jane McElwee (for example) was the same man as the John Rankin who died in 1749 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, leaving a widow named Margaret, eight daughters, and two sons.

Surely, there is someone out there who has proved some of the facts in the Mt. Horeb legend. Halllloooooo?????? If you will marshal the evidence, I invite you to write a guest column for this blog. Or provide the evidence to me and I will write the article.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] That saying is a charming way to distinguish narrative from bare facts.

[2] “Covenanters” were originally signers of the “National Covenant” at Greyfriars Church in 1638, although the term expanded to include all Presbyterians  who objected to the requirement that they conform to the liturgical practices and governance of the Church of England. Sources disagree about the precise time period called the  “Killing Times,” when Covenanters were brutally persecuted. I am doing research for an article about Covenanters, a difficult period in Scottish history.

[3] Migration from Scotland to Ireland in substantial numbers began around 1610, when James I encouraged settlement of appropriated land in the province of Ulster. A second large wave of migration occurred during the 1680s, when persecution of Covenanters was intense. See an article about Scots-Irish migration here.

[4] William R. Young’s book The Fighters of Derry (originally published 1932) allegedly lists Alexander Rankin, his sons John and Alexander, and his granddaughter Martha (daughter of the younger Alexander). I have never seen a copy of the book, which isn’t available locally.

[5] A smokehouse is a building where meat or fish is cured with smoke. In Britain it is called a “smokery.”

15 thoughts on “Revised: the most famous Rankin legend of all”

  1. Love reading your articles. Thank you for your time spent doing the research and writing. I had backed away from doing my family research but ready to crank it up again.

  2. Thanks fopr the post. I enjoy reading them. My thanks to you and Hazel Townsend for all the information that I have gleaned on the Rankins. I am still trying to get info on Robert “Rutherford” Rankin from Caldwell County, Kentucky. I am waiting for more Rankin folks to take a DNA test. On my Moore side, I am about to submit a supplemental application to the SAR for my patriot Matthew Moore of Cumberland County, North Carolina. Seems my lines form both sides of the family come from North Carolna. The courthouse in Bladen County Where Matthew started out was burned three times, so Good Luck with getting research there. I have some secondary evidence like census, land abstracts and tax tables and I am submitting them in the hope that I can prove my line that way, but it would be nice to have DNA backup.

    Thank you for your efforts. Mike Moore

    1. Thank you, Mike! I have on my Rankin “to do” list finding a living descendant of Rutherford Robert to test. As far as I can tell (not everyone in the Rankin DNA project identifies his Rankin ancestor), no one in the Rankin DNA project is a descendant of his. I’ve been trying to talk someone into helping recruit new members to test — I’m an abject failure. How are your salesmanship skills? 🙂
      Robin

  3. When I was a young fellow I worked for the Rankin brothers, Will and Walter, at Augusta Ky. Will was married to Sue and Walter was single. They ran a dry goods store and Walter wrote local history books. I can only find one book on the internet but he wrote others for I typed some of them. He paid very well I might add. They never had children that I’m aware of but I do know a veterinarian whose mother was kin to the Rankin’s or to Mrs Sue. I’m searching for Walter’s books and may have to go to the copyright which I know nothing about. Goodnite… M

  4. I’m a Rankin born in lancaster pa a relative has the Rankin family bible am told 2 brothers came from cork Ireland in the 1700s I myself have not seen the Bible but my sisters did

    1. Patrick, thanks for sharing that! How great to have a family Bible. If you don’t mind my asking, who is your earliest known Rankin ancestor? I might have some information.

  5. Hi! I’ve seen online trees connecting my Rankin ancestors to this family, but I’ve never seen any actual sources other than people citing other online trees.

    My Rankin line is as follows

    Catherine Rankin (1850-1933) of Conestoga, PA, was the daughter of
    Joseph Rankin (1816-1903) of Conestoga, PA, who was the son of
    James Rankin, who died in 1831 in Conestoga, Pennsylvania, whose father was allegedly one of six brothers who came to Pennsylvania from Ireland shortly before the Revolution.

    I think the family was originally of Scottish origin, and settled in Ireland during the 1600s.

    1. If you can find anyone citing sources other than other online trees, it will be a miracle!

      I’m not familiar with your Lancaster Rankins, although I have heard the story about the six brothers from Ireland. All the research I’ve done in Lancaster has been later than your line. I’ll go dig around and see what I can find and get back to you via email if I find anything that might be of interest.

      You are undoubtedly right about the Rankins going from Scotland to Ireland during the 1600s. Arriving 1760-ish would also be consistent with Scots-Irish migration patterns.

      Nice to meet you, and thanks for the comment!
      Robin

      1. Thank you! For what it’s worth, my Rankins were Mennonite, which seems unusual for Scotch-Irish people.

        1. I just got through looking at the Conestoga Township census records for your Rankins, and was surprised to learn they were Mennonites. You are right, that would be VERYout of the ordinary for Scots-Irish, who were Presbyterian to their toes. Do you have any evidence of the religion of the early immigrants? Did any of the six supposed immigrant brothers fight in the Revolution? If they were Mennonites, they probably didn’t. Also, if they were Memmonites when they immigrated, someplace other than Ireland would seem a more likely county of origin!

          You have an interesting Rankin family.

          1. What I suspect is that James Rankin was Scotch-Irish, born Presbyterian, and married into the Pennsylvania Dutch community. A contemporary biographical article about his grandson says that James’s father was one of six Rankin brothers from Ireland, and some censuses identify James’s sons as having a father born in Ireland (when it was actually their grandfather who was from Ireland)

            In the lower right-hand corner here (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSNG-13TL?i=137&cat=224489) is a deed documenting James Rankin’s death in 1831.

  6. Just found out my lineage comes from Samuel-Rankin in North Carolina
    This was an interesting read

    1. Erika, I see you are commenting on the famous Rankin legend. There are a couple of articles on this blog specifically about Samuel Rankin of NC … and you and I are cousins! I’m also descended from Samuel and Eleanor Alexander Rankin of Lincoln Co., NC. I assume that is who you are talking about?

  7. Was delighted to discover this site! I am doing some research into Rev John Rankin, abolitionist, Ohio. Am I right in concluding that he is descendant of James Rankin I of Kinrosshire Scotland, father of Sargent Alexander Rankin from Ayrshire. Also – do you know where in Ayrshire Alexander was born? (I’ll dig around – I hail from Kilmarnock and taught in Galston in the Irvine Valley where there were many, many Rankins on the school register and indeed in what we call the ‘Valley’ towns.
    Look forward to hearing from you.

    1. Helen, good to hear from you! It is always nice to make contact with another Rankin researcher. If you are related to Rev. John the abolitionist, YDNA testing establishes that we are distant Rankin cousins.

      Rev. John is a conclusively proved descendant of a John Rankin who died in 1749 in Lancaster Co., PA leaving a will (2 sons, 8 daughters). His origins are UNPROVED, or at least there seems to be no one with any conventional primary evidence. Family legend is that John d. 1749 was a son of William Rankin of Ulster. According to further family oral history (again, no known evidence), William was a son of Alexander Rankin who was present during the Siege of Londonderry. Alexander and William reportedly fled from Scotland to Ireland during the Killing Times, the worst of which took place during 1679-1688.

      I am not familiar with James Rankin I of Kinrosshire or his son Sargent Alexander Rankin from Ayshire. I haven’t done research overseas, but I’m betting you have some records in Scotland about that family. Would love to hear about them! Will send a private email to make discussion easier.

      Robin

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