WILLIS or WILLEY – A Critical Misread

Occasionally, we each run into difficulty interpreting handwriting in old documents. It comes with the territory. Modern genealogists are not the only ones affected by the problem. Decades ago, clerks who hand copied original documents ran into the same issue. Worse, publishers then printed typeset versions of those recopied texts (or abstracts of them). Once a misinterpreted word gets into print, it becomes accepted wisdom and resistant to change.

The situation is particularly vexing when the misinterpreted word is a person’s name. Willis and Willey provide a good example. Families of each surname lived close to each other in early Dorchester County, Maryland. The handwritten name Willis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often ended with a downward swooping tail on the “s,” which made it look like a “y.” [1]

The following illustrates the script anomaly. Parties to legal documents of the era often took an oath on the “Holy Evangels of Almighty God,” meaning the Christian Gospels. Here is the way that phrase appears in a Dorchester County Will Book:

 

There is no discernable difference in the “y” at the end of the words Holy and Almighty and what is supposed to be an “s” at the end of Evangels. The scribe who recopied this deed into a nicely readable volume misread a long-tailed “s” in the original, writing it as a “y.”

No harm done. We know there is no such word as “Evangely,” so we can just move on … maybe tsk, tsk-ing under our breath. But what of the poor Willis and Willey families? A similar misread could easily convert a Willis into a Willey, or vice versa. In fact, an authoritative source of marriages in early Maryland states that Francis Insley married Keziah Willey on 27 Oct 1785 in Dorchester County.[2] However, a land sale by that couple twenty years later provides evidence that the bride’s name was actually Keziah Willis, not Willey.

In 1805, the Insleys’s sold 60 acres of land called “Addition to Adventure.”[3] The Willis family had owned that parcel for four decades, dating back to Richard Willis’s purchase in 1764.[4] The 1805 Insley deed recites that Benedict Meekins and his wife Mary [nee Willis] had sold the land to Andrew Willis, who devised it to his son Andrew. The deed does not state how Francis Insley and his wife Keziah got title to the land from the younger Andrew, and there are no other deeds that explain their ownership.

Explaining the Insley’s ownership is simple, however, if Keziah’s maiden name were Willis rather than Willey. Keziah was one of four children of the elder Andrew Willis and his wife Sarah.[5] The elder Andrew willed the land to his son Andrew, Jr. The younger Andrew subsequently died without a will and without children some time after 1796. His estate therefore passed to his heirs as defined under the Maryland laws of intestate descent and distribution, i.e., his siblings and the children of any already deceased siblings.

Keziah Willis Insley and her husband possessed the land in 1805 because she was Andrew’s only surviving sibling, and her brother George and sister Mary had each died without surviving children. Dorchester records make no mention in the relevant time frame of either George or Mary — no marriage, deed, death, or migration information. Their absence from the record supports the theory that they both died young and without issue.

The circumstantial evidence is sufficient to conclude that 1) a transcriber erroneously interpreted Keziah’s last name in the marriage record, 2) that Francis Insley married Keziah Willis in 1785, and 3) she was a party to the sale of Willis family land twenty years later.

The critical misinterpretation of Keziah Willis’s name will never be corrected in most published sources, but some of us will know the truth.

 

[1]Lower case “i” and “e” are also hard to distinguish.

[2]Palmer, Katherine H., Dorchester County, Maryland: Marriage License Records, 1780-1855, 1960.

[3]McAllister, James A., Jr., Abstracts from the Land Records of Dorchester County, Maryland, Volume 42 (Liber HD No. 21), Cambridge, Maryland, 21 HD 569

[4]McAllister, Abstracts, Volume 15 (Liber Old No. 19), Cambridge, Maryland, 1964, 19 Old 163

[5]Old Trinity Church records show that the elder Andrew Willis and his wife Sarah baptized three children — Andrew, Keziah, and George — between 1768 and 1775. The couple also had a fourth child, Mary.

Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, KY (1755-1827), revised: Psalmody & other controversies

Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky is the source of some fun Rankin family history issues. He also caused considerable controversy in his denomination during his lifetime.  Genealogical issues aside, Rev. Adam’s life is a story unto itself.

Here are the major issues surrounding Rev. Adam:

  • What was Rev. Adam’s life all about? He is famous for stoking the flames of an uproar about an arcane theological issue. He was rabidly fanatic on the matter, and that may well be an understatement.
  • Who were Rev. Adam’s parents? I have found no evidence of Rev. Adam’s family of origin in traditional primary sources such as county records — deeds, wills, tax lists, marriage records, and the like. Instead, we have only secondary sources, usually deemed less reliable than primary evidence. In Rev. Adam’s case, however, the secondary sources are unusually credible.
  • What is the YDNA evidence about Rev. Adam’s line? Relevant testing is slim as of July 2019. Two descendants of Rev. Adam have tested and joined the Rankin DNA project. They are a match, although not a close one. As it stands, however, the DNA evidence casts doubt on a family oral tradition that is claimed by more than one Rankin line.

Rev. Adam’s theological mess

There is a wealth of evidence regarding Rev. Adam’s personality in history books. George W. Rankin’s 1872 History of Lexington describes Rev. Adam as a “talented, intolerant, eccentric, and pious man, [who] was greatly beloved by his congregation, which clung to him with devoted attachment through all his fortunes.[1]

Even more colorfully, Rev. Robert Davidson’s 1847 history of Kentucky Presbyterianism says that Rev. Adam “appears to have been of a contentious, self-willed turn from his youth … and his wranglings at last ended in a schism. Obstinate and opinionated, his nature was a stranger to concession, and peace was to be bought only by coming over to his positions … his pugnacious propensities brought on at last a judicial investigation.”[2]

An early twentieth-century Kentucky history describes Rev. Adam as “a strange, eccentric man, a dreamer of dreams, a Kentucky Luther, and, perhaps, a bit crazed with the bitter opposition his views received.”[3]

What on earth do you suppose all the fuss was about?

Ahem. The theological issue about which Rev. Adam was fanatical is the so-called “Psalmody controversy.” Psalmody, said Rev. Davidson, was “his monomania.”

The what controversy? I have a friend who is a retired Presbyterian minister, and he didn’t have a clue when I asked him about it.

An article titled “How Adam Rankin tried to stop Presbyterians from singing ‘Joy to the World’” describes the issue and its origins:

“In 1770 [sic, 1670], when Isaac Watts was 18 years of age, he criticized the hymns of the church in his English hometown of Southampton. In response to his son’s complaints, Watts’ father is reputed to have said, ‘If you don’t like the hymns we sing, then write a better one!’ To that Isaac replied, ‘I have.’ One of his hymns was shared with the church they attended and they asked the young man to write more.

For 222 Sundays, Isaac Watts prepared a new hymn for each Sunday, and single-handedly revolutionized the congregational singing habits of the English Churches of the time. In 1705, Watts published his first volume of original hymns and sacred poems. More followed. In 1719, he published his monumental work, ‘The Psalms of David, Imitated.’ Among those many familiar hymns is the Christmas favorite ‘Joy to the World,’ based on Psalm 98.

For many years, only Psalms were sung throughout the Presbyterian Churches and the old ‘Rouse’ versions were the standard. The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States convened at the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1789. One of the Presbyterian ministers of the time, a man by the name of Rev. Adam Rankin, rode horseback from his Kentucky parish to Philadelphia to plead with his fellow Presbyterians to reject the use of Watts’ hymns.[4]

You had to be a virtual lunatic on the issue to ride more than 600 miles from Lexington to Philadelphia, right? Assuming the Reverend’s horse was capable of 12-hour days at an average speed of four miles per hour, that’s a good 12-day trip each way.[5] And we must surely assume that Rev. Adam rested on the Sabbath.

The trip is even more extraordinary because Rev. Adam had no “commission” to attend the Assembly, meaning he was not an official attendee.[6] He simply requested to be heard by the Assembly on the subject of Psalmody. Specifically, he sought a repeal of a 1787 resolution allowing Watts’ hymns to be used in churches. Rev. Adam presented this query to the General Assembly:

 “Whether the churches under the care of the General Assembly, have not, by the countenance and allowance of the late Synod of New York and Philadelphia, fallen into a great and pernicious error in the public worship of God, by disusing Rouse’s versification of David’s Psalms, and adopting in the room of it, Watts’ imitation?”[7]

The Assembly listened to him patiently. Then it urged (gently, it seems to me) Rev. Adam to behave in a similar fashion by exercising “that exercise of Christian charity, towards those who differ from him in their views of this matter, which is exercised toward himself: and that he be carefully guarded against disturbing the peace of the church on this head.”[8]

You can probably guess how well Rev. Adam followed that advice:

“No sooner had he returned home than he began to denounce the Presbyterian clergy as Deists, blasphemers, and rejecters of revelation, and debarred from the Lord’s Table all admirers of Watts’ Psalms, which he castigated as rivals of the Word of God.[9](Emphasis added).

“Debarred from the Lord’s Table” means that Rev. Adam refused to administer communion to his parishioners who disagreed with him about Watts’ hymns. It is hard to imagine a more radical punishment in a Presbyterian church short of, I don’t know, burning dissenters at the stake.[10]

Rev. Adam didn’t mince words. He verbally abused his Psalmody opponents in ways that would make even some partisan politicians cringe. He called them weak, ignorant, envious, and profane, compared them to swine, said they bore the mark of the beast and that they were sacrilegious robbers, hypocrites, and blasphemers. It makes Newt Gingrich’s instruction to his House colleagues circa 1986 to call members of the opposing party “traitors” and the “enemy” seem almost collegial, doesn’t it?

In 1789, several formal charges were brought against Rev. Rankin before the Presbytery to which his church belonged. One charge was that he had refused communion to persons who approved Watts’ psalmody. Apparently attempting to dodge a trial, he made a two-year trip to London. When he returned, his views unchanged, his case was tried in April 1792. Rev. Adam simply withdrew from the Presbytery, taking with him a majority of his congregation.[11]

He then affiliated with the Associate Reformed Church, although that also ended badly. Rev. Davidson wrote that Rev. Adam “was on no better terms with the Associate Reformed than he had been with the Presbyterians; and his pugnacious propensities brought on at last a judicial investigation.” In 1818, he was suspended from the ministry. He and his congregation simply declared themselves independent.

Rev. Adam wasn’t merely stubborn and pugnacious. He may also have been somewhat deluded. He claimed early on that he was guided by dreams and visions, convinced that “God had raised him up as a special instrument to reinstate ‘the Lord’s song.’” Eventually, he was led by a dream to believe that “Jerusalem was about to be rebuilt and that he must hurry there in order to assist in the rebuilding. He bade his Lexington flock farewell, and started to the Holy City, but, on November 25, 1827, death overtook him at Philadelphia.”[12]

I find myself wishing he had made it to Jerusalem just to see what happened. Of course, there is no telling what additional trouble we might now have in the Middle East if he had done so.

Rev. Adam’s widow eventually moved to Maury County, Tennessee along with her sons Samuel and Adam Rankin Jr.  She died there, and her tombstone in the Greenwood Cemetery in Columbia reads simply “Martha Rankin, consort of A. Rankin of Lexington, KY.”[13] It was probably no picnic, being a planet in Rev. Adam’s solar system.

Moving on to the next issue …

Who were Rev. Adam’s parents?

As noted, there appears to be no primary evidence available on Rev. Adam’s family of origin. The family oral tradition is that he was a son of Jeremiah and Rhoda Craig Rankin of Cumberland Co., PA. Jeremiah, in turn, was one of the three proved sons of the Adam Rankin who died in 1747 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and his wife Mary Steele Alexander Rankin.

Family tradition also says that Jeremiah died young in a mill accident. There are no probate records concerning his estate, so far as I have found. Likewise, I haven’t found any guardian’s records, although Jeremiah’s children were underage when he died. Nor did I have any luck looking for probate records on a Craig. In fact, the only reference I have found to Adam’s son Jeremiah in county records is Adam’s 1747 Lancaster County will.[14]  I may have missed something, and it wouldn’t be the first time.

Fortunately, there are at least two pieces of credible secondary evidence about this family: (1) Rev. Robert Davidson’s History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky and (2) personal family knowledge and oral tradition preserved in an 1854 letter written by one of Rev. Adam’s sons. Both provide evidence concerning Rev. Adam’s family of origin.

Here is what Rev. Davidson wrote about Adam (boldface and italics are mine):

“The Rev. Adam Rankin was born March 24, 1755, near Greencastle, Western Pennsylvania [sic, Greencastle is in south-central PA]. He was descended from pious Presbyterian ancestors, who had emigrated from Scotland, making a short sojourn in Ireland by the way. His mother, who was a godly woman, was a Craig, and one of her ancestors suffered martyrdom, in Scotland, for the truth. That ancestor, of the name of Alexander,[15] and a number of others, were thrown into prison, where they were slaughtered, without trial, by a mob of ferocious assassins, till the blood ran ancle [sic] deep. This account Mr. Rankin received from his mother’s lips. His father was an uncommon instance of early piety, and because the minister scrupled to admit one so young, being only in the tenth year of his age, he [Rev. Adam’s father] was examined before a presbytery. From the moment of his son Adam’s birth, he dedicated him to the ministry. He was killed in his own mill, when Adam, his eldest son, was in his fifth year. [Rev. Adam] graduated at Liberty Hall [now Washington & Lee University], about 1780. Two years after, Oct. 25, 1782, at the age of twenty-seven, he was licensed by Hanover Presbytery, and, about the same time, married Martha, daughter of Alexander McPheeters, of Augusta county [Virginia].”[16]

The most important thing Rev. Davidson said about Rev. Adam was in a footnote: “[t]his sketch of Mr. Rankin’s early history so far is derived from his autobiography, prepared, shortly before his decease, for his friend, Gen. Robert B. McAfee, then Lieut. Governor of the State.” Rev. Davidson obtained his information information straight from the horse’s  mouth, so to speak, establishing its credibility. Several facts stand out in Rev. Davidson’s sketch:

    • The death of Rev. Adam’s father in a mill accident confirms the family oral history. The date of death is established at about 1760, when Rev. Adam was five.[17]
    • Rev. Adam’s mother was, as the family history says, a Craig.
    • There was a Presbyterian martyr among Rev. Adam’s ancestors, although the murdered man was his mother’s ancestor, not his father’s.
    • Rev. Adam was born in Greencastle, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The county was created in 1750 from Lancaster, where Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin lived. Adam and Mary’s sons James and William began appearing in Cumberland in the 1750s. Rev. Adam’s birth in Greencastle is consequently good circumstantial evidence that he was a son of Jeremiah and grandson of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin.

The other significant piece of evidence regarding Rev. Adam’s family is an 1854 letter written by John Mason Rankin, Rev. Adam’s youngest son. John Mason obviously wrote from personal knowledge of his father’s generation and their children, all of whom lived in Fayette and Woodford counties, Kentucky. He also had information from the family’s oral tradition regarding his earlier ancestry. Because I have been unable to find anyone who had ever seen that letter, I had serious reservations about its authenticity. Fortunately, Susan Faust, a Rankin researcher, located and communicated with one of the two Rankins had personal knowledge of the letter and other materials. The original of the letter is supposedly in the custody of a museum in San Augustine, Texas. I cannot find a museum there, so perhaps the reference is to a local library or genealogical society.

You can find a transcription of the 1854 letter  here. There are a couple of interesting things about the letter, in addition to the wealth of genealogical detail. There are also some minor and unsurprising errors.

First, John Mason identified the original immigrants in his Rankin family as the brothers Adam (his ancestor), John, and Hugh. This precisely echoes information contained on the famous bronze tablet in the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Cemetery in Jefferson County, Tennessee. The tablet has a colorful story about the Rankin family in Scotland and Ireland that is worth reading. A transcription can be found  in this article.

The Mt. Horeb tablet also identifies the original Rankin immigrants as the brothers Adam, John and Hugh, and names Adam’s wife Mary Steele. That makes it certain that John Mason Rankin and the Mt. Horeb tablet were dealing with the same immigrant family. John Mason says he descends from Adam and Mary Steele Rankin. The Mt. Horeb Rankins descend from the John Rankin who died in 1749 in Lancaster, Adam’s brother according to both family traditions.

The John Mason and Mt. Horeb tablet histories diverge prior to the Rankin immigrant brothers, however. John Mason’s letter does not include the colorful stories of Alexander and William Rankin in Scotland and Ireland. That part of the Mt. Horeb legend was apparently also omitted from Rev. Adam’s autobiography, or Rev. Davidson would surely have mentioned it. This raises an inference that the Mt. Horeb stories about the Killing Times in Scotland and the Siege of Londonderry in Ireland may not have been a part of Rev. Adam’s family’s oral history.

In the interest of full disclosure, here are some of the minor errors or discrepancies in John Mason’s 1854 letter:

  • Adam Rankin (wife Mary Steele Alexander) died in 1747, not 1750.
  • John Mason identified the father of the three Rankin immigrant brothers (John, Adam and Hugh) as Adam. The Mt. Horeb tablet identifies their father as William Rankin. So far as I know, there is no evidence regarding the identity of the immigrant Rankins’ father.
  • What John Mason called “Cannegogy Creek” usually appears in the colonial records as “Conogocheague” Creek. In later records, it is spelled “Conococheague.” In any event, John Mason was clearly talking about the creek where Jeremiah’s mill was located. Two Presbyterian churches on or near that creek are the churches attended b y Adam and Mary Steele Rankin’s sons William and James. That puts the three proved sons of Adam – James, William and Jeremiah – in close geographic proximity, a nice piece of circumstantial evidence of their family relationship.
  • Jeremiah Rankin, Rev. Adam’s brother, had four sons, not three: Adam, Joseph, Andrew and Samuel.

And that brings us to the last issue …

YDNA evidence concerning Rev. Adam’s line

A proved male descendant of Rev. Adam Rankin – who was almost certainly a son of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin’s son Jeremiah – has YDNA tested is a participant in the Rankin project. He has a 67-marker match with a genetic distance of 5 to a man who is a proved descendant of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin’s son William. That isn’t a particularly close YDNA match. However, their paper trails indicate with a good degree of confidence that Adam is their common Rankin ancestor.

Six proved descendants of the John Rankin who died in 1749 in Lancaster have also YDNA tested and participate in the Rankin DNA project. They are a close genetic match to each other, and their paper trails are solid.

Here’s the problem. The descendants of John are not a genetic match to the descendants of Adam. Unless some other explanation can be found, the mismatch means that John and Adam were not genetic brothers. Let’s hope that more research and/or YDNA testing will shed further light on that issue.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] George W. Rankin, History of Lexington, Kentucky (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1872), 108-110.

[2] Rev. Robert Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky (New York: R. Carter, 1847), 95. For “The Rankin Schism,” see p. 88 et seq. The book is available online as a pdf at this link.

[3] John Wilson Townsend and Dorothy Edwards Townsend, Kentucky in American Letters (Cedar Rapids, IA: The Torch Press, 1913), 17.

[4] Staff of the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, March 20, 2015, “How Adam Rankin Tried to Stop Presbyterians From Singing ‘Joy to the World,’” published online by the Aquila Report here.

[5] Average horse speed stats here.. Distance at Google maps.

[6] Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church, 82.

[7] Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Volume One: 1607-1861 (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1963), 115-116.

[8] Id. at 218-219.

[9] Id.

[10] I was baptized and confirmed in, and currently belong to, a Presbyterian church. I am, after all, a Scots-Irish Rankin. A frequent message at my church, including on its LED marquee, is “ALL ARE WELCOME.” That phrase has several layers of meaning in this era of immigrant hatred, but its most fundamental meaning is that everyone is invited to participate in communion.

[11] Rankin, History of Lexington, Kentucky, 108-110.

[12] Townsends, Kentucky in American Letters,17.

[13] Fred Lee Hawkins, Jr., Maury County, Tennessee Cemeteries with Genealogical and Historical Notes, Vol. 1and Vol. 2(1989).

[14] Lancaster Co., PA Will Book J: 208, will of Adam Rankindated 4 May 1747 proved 21 Sep 1747. To son James Rankin, £ 5 “pencelvaney currancy” plus the “place he is now in possession of being fully given over to him.” Daughter Esther Rankin alias Dunwoody, £ 5. Wife (name omitted), 2/3rd“of all my worldly substance.” Sons William and Jeremiah the remainder, including the plantation to be equally divided betweenthem.

[15] Interestingly, it isn’t clear whether Alexander was her ancestor’s given name or surname. Both occur frequently among the Scots-Irish..

[16] Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church,95.

[17] I only say “about” 1760 because of the difficulty a small child might have in pinpointing his exact age when his father died.

Where are you from? Here’s a great source for Anglo names …

A couple of decades ago, my first cousin Butch Rankin[1] posed this question to me: “where are we from, anyway?” He didn’t specify which of our many shared ancestral lines he meant, but he was clearly asking about Rankins.

Hmmmm… there were some Rankins who came to the colonies from England, often Quakers. For example, there was a James Rankin in York Co., Pennsylvania in the 1770s, a Tory, whose estate was confiscated and who fled back to England.[2] But the vast majority of Rankin immigrants to the colonies during the 18th century came from Ireland. They were overwhelmingly Scots-Irish, Presbyterian, and Patriots.

Sometimes, names, locations and religion can reveal a great deal, and this is a good example. Butch’s and my earliest known Rankin ancestor first appeared in colonial records in Rowan County, North Carolina, smack dab in the middle of the Scots-Irish settlements of the Piedmont Plateau. Moreover, our ancestor Samuel Rankin – known as  Old One-Eyed Sam  – married  Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander. As nearly as I can tell, “Alexander” is the Scots-Irish equivalent of “Smith.” Samuel and Eleanor are buried in the Old Goshen Grove Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Belmont, NC. There was once a marker on the wall of Goshen Cemetery “in memory of the following Revolutionary soldiers,” including Robert Alexander (Eleanor Alexander Rankin’s brother), William Rankin (eldest son of Samuel and Eleanor), and Samuel Rankin  – Old One-Eyed Sam himself, who was too old to fight, but who was deemed a “patriot” by the DAR because he contributed supplies.[3]

OK, Scots-Irish, Presbyterian, and patriot: check, check, check. The correct answer to Butch’s question is that we came to the colonies from the province of Ulster in northernmost Ireland. And before our Rankin ancestors migrated to Ulster, they lived in Scotland.

But where in Scotland? I’ve done no research there because I hadn’t a clue where to start. Many Rankin researchers claim the highlands of northwest Scotland, reciting a frequently reported connection between the Rankins and the Maclean Clan of Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull. It is a popular story, although I’ve never seen a reference to evidence in any records. However, I never found a credible alternative opinion on the issue.

Until this week. There is a book at Clayton Genealogical Library that is new to me: The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, published by the Oxford University Press.[4] If you have Anglo ancestors, you might want to check this source, because it has some interesting information. Also, Oxford University has a certain aura of credibility.

This is what the Dictionary says about Rankin, in part (emphasis added):

“Rankin. Variants: Rankine, Ranken, Ranking

Current frequencies: GB 6341, Ireland 1281. GB frequency 1881: 4297

Main GB location 1881: widespread in Scotland and England, chiefly SW Scotland; Lancs; Northumb

Main Irish location 1847-64: Ulster: esp.Derry, Donegal, and Antrim    

Scottish, English: relationship name from Middle English Ran(d)kin, a diminutive of Ran(d), a pet form of the personal name Ran(d)ulf. See Rand, Randolph, Randall.

Further information: this name was brought to Northern Ireland (Derry) from Scotland in the 17thcentury.

Early bearers: given names: Rankin de Fowlartoun, 1429 in Ayr Charters (Ayr, Ayrs).”

I’m a bit foggy about what “Ayr Charters” are, although this article is helpful.  But I am quite clear about the counties Derry, Donegal and Antrim in the province of Ulster, Ireland, to which many Scots migrated during the 1610-1690 period. (See a map of Irish provinces and counties comprising them  here). Google Maps is also unambiguous about Ayr, a city on the Firth of Clyde in the province of Ayrshire in southwest Scotland. As the crow flies, Ayr to Londonderry (or Derry, depending on your politics)  in Northern Ireland is about 120 miles. Just for fun, there is a Rankintown about 12 miles southeast of Ayr.

Based on just the numbers, there is a decent chance that your Scots-Irish Rankin ancestor lived in Ayrshire, Scotland before migrating to Derry, Donegal or Antrim county in the province of Ulster  – and then arriving in the Colonies during the “Great Migration” of the 18th century. I like the odds.

To check the Dictionary’s source for identifying “Rankin de Fowlartoun” as a resident of Ayr in 1429, just Google “Ayr Charters.” You will find a mind-boggling text in both Latin and English. The document says it is the full text of “Charters of the royal burgh of Ayr.”

The relevant text in Latin is described in the heading as a “Notarial Instrument concerning the Rendering of Accounts by the Bailies of Ayr,” dated 17 November 1429. It’s been more than half a century since I wrestled with Virgil’s Aeneid, so the only things I recognize are dates and names. The latter includes “Johannes de Bathcate” and “Thomas de Carrie,” who were the “bailies” (Bailiffs? Sheriffs? Tax collectors?) of the Burgh of Ayr.

The other Latinized names in the text include Henrico Forrestar (Henry Forrest or Forrester, the Chamberlain’s deputy), Rankino de Fowlartoun, Alexandro de Cragy, Thoma[s] Crotteche, David Glassynwricht, Macolmo de Qulchone, Johanne Litster, Johanne Gray, Johanne Bannezour, Gilberto Askirk, and Thomas Hakete, the notary.

Fortunately, there is an abstract of the Latin text at the same link, although it omits all names except for the two bailies and the Chamberlain’s deputy. Here is what it says, in part:[5]

“Notarial Instrument narrating that John of Bathgate and Thomas of Carrick, bailies of Ayr, being charged to render their account for the past year by Henry Forestar, depute of the chamberlain, in the manner and form contained in a certain instrument accepted by the said depute;

They having advised with the best men of the burgh of Ayr declared that they were never before the past year charged or required to make such account … Done in the Tolbooth of Ayr, about eleven o’clock on 17th November 1429.”

Taking into account both the Latin text and the abstract, it appears that “Rankine of Fowlartoun” was among the “best men of the Burgh of Ayr” with whom the bailies consulted about how and when to render accounts in 1429. Nice – perhaps an offsetting balance to my Rankin ancestor who was a Civil War deserter.

Now I will run, because I must call Butch and tell him that our Rankins most likely came originally from Ayrshire Province in Southwest Scotland before they wound up in Ulster. Then I will head back to the library to look up Brodnax, Lindsey, Winn, Estes, Bacon, Lyddal, Harkins, Hubbard, Stubbs, Odom, Rivers, Whittaker, et. al.…

Hope you also find interesting information in the Dictionary.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] “Butch” is not his actual given name, of course – it was his nickname as a kid. Now he is stuck with it, so far as the Rankin cousins are concerned. I still wonder briefly who the hell his wife is talking about when I hear her call him by his “real” name. I am quite fond of Butch, with whom I talk on the phone often.

[2] Franklin Ellis and Samuel Evans, History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Evets & Peck, 1883), 752-53: “Rankin’s Ferry was established a few years prior to the Revolution by James Rankin, who resided in York County. The Rankins were Tories. James Rankin was a Quaker, and was appointed a justice of the peace for York County prior to the Revolution. He was one of the most prominent men in the country.  … Being suspected of secret machinations against the patriots he suddenly went over to the British when Howe had possession of Philadelphia, and thence to England … several farms were confiscated … in 1790, James Rankin and Dr. Robert Harris owned the ferry and the land at the eastern end. It became the subject of litigation, which very likely grew out of the confiscation of Rankin’s estate.”

[3] Family History Library Film # 0,882,938, item 2, “Pre-1914 Cemetery Inscription Survey, Gaston Co., prepared by the Historical Records Survey Service Division, Works Progress Administration.”

[4] Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, and Peter McClure, The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 2214.

[5] For the record, the bailies were arguing about the form of and timing to submit the accounts, and not the need to render them.

Foster Willis, Maryland to Missouri, 1804-1850

One rewarding aspect of genealogy is meeting wonderful people while digging up those pesky dead relatives. I had that privilege several months ago when the Reverend Charles Covington introduced himself via the Internet. The Rev (as he asked to be called) and I are related by marriage. One of his Covington ancestors married a descendant of my ancestor John Willis of Dorchester County (d. 1712). The Rev previously documented the descendants of his earliest known Covington ancestor down to the present and gifted the finished product to his children. He proposed that we do the same thing, generation by generation, with the descendants of John Willis. This joint project has led to many discoveries I would not have found on my own.

Case in point is the subject of today’s article. Foster Willis has always been of interest because he is the twin of my great-great-grandfather Zachariah Willis. This project forced me to focus on Foster for the first time. Deed, probate, and census records tell most of Foster’s story. The tale is typical of an early nineteenth century farmer/craftsman who achieves some success, raises a large family, and moves west seeking other opportunities. However, like most stories constructed after the fact, there are gaps and mysteries.

Born into a Farming Family

Two days after Christmas in 1804, Foster and Zachariah were born in Caroline County, Maryland, to Richard (1759-1823) and Britannia Willis, née Goutee (1765-1826). Richard was a successful farmer who amassed several hundred acres of land on the upper reaches of Hunting Creek northeast of the present town of Preston. He willed adjacent parcels of land to his four surviving sons Senah, Foster, Zachariah, and Peter. Foster’s share of the land was about 75 acres, part of a tract called Battle Hill.[1]

On 23 Mar 1826, Foster married Sarah Emerson. They had one child, Thomas Foster Willis born 16 Nov 1827. Tragically, Sarah died 15 Dec 1827, most likely from complications of that birth. Foster remarried 12 Jul 1828 to Anna Andrews who lived on adjoining land. Over a period of twenty years, they would have ten children, six of whom reached maturity.

Move to Town

Foster grew to some prominence in the county, but not as a farmer. The 1830 and 1840 censuses list his occupation as “manufacturing & trades” indicating he was a craftsman, although the exact trade is not specified.[2]His craft probably dictated his move from the countryside into a population center providing more access to customers for his services. Foster and Anna sold small pieces of Battle Hill in 1831 and 1832, including one-half acre as the site for the Friendship Methodist Church and a schoolhouse.[3]In 1834, they sold the remaining seventy acres to their neighbor Caleb Bowdle for $250 and bought a house in the town of Federalsburg where five of their children would be born.[4]

In Oct 1829, his elder brother Senah declared insolvency, and under a Deed of Trust Foster took control of all Senah’s assets except his wearing apparel. This was an unusual development, especially since Senah had only four months earlier sold his inherited land for $300 to Caleb Bowdle.[5]We do not know where Senah’s money went.

Foster was appointed Justice of the Peace for Caroline County, serving two terms in 1835 and 1836. However, the next year, he and Anna sold their house and lot in Federalsburg to Steven Andrews, presumably a relative of Anna, and moved to Cambridge in Dorchester County.[6]Deed records do not indicate Foster and Anna purchased property in Cambridge, so they must have rented a home.

Foster last appeared in Maryland records in the 1840 census for Dorchester. That census shows Foster as head of household with his wife and six children.[7]The household also includes a young couple, possibly Foster’s younger brother Peter W. Willis and his wife Susan.  A William P. Flint and his wife Sarah were neighbors of Foster and Anna Willis in the Dorchester 1840 census. Flint owned several lots and houses in Cambridge and in Church Creek. Flint was a likely doctor and quite possibly Foster’s landlord.[8]

Move to Missouri

In 1843, Flint and his wife sold their Cambridge properties. In 1845, they were noted as being “of Buchanan County, Missouri” when they sold the Church Creek land and houses. It is possible that Dr. Flint attended the Willis family and was there at the birth and the death of two Willis children born in 1842 and 1843 in Cambridge. It is further likely that the families migrated together to Missouri in the 1843-1845 timeframe.

In Missouri, Foster Willis applied for and was granted a quarter section of land located a few miles southeast of St. Joseph, Missouri.[9]Not coincidentally, William P. Flint and his wife Sarah owned adjoining land. In 1849, the Willises had their last child, a daughter Sarah E. A. Willis, probably named in part for their friend Sarah Flint. However, tragedy befell the Willis family during this period. Eldest son Thomas Foster Willis died in November 1849, and Foster died in April 1850 without leaving a will.[10]

The widow Anna Willis probably did not outlive her husband by more than a year or two. She appears as head of household in the 1850 census in Buchanan County with real estate valued at $3,000 and personal property of $1,000.[11]However, Anna never appeared in the probate records. She never received any moneys from the estate, leading to the conclusion she passed away during the probate period.

Probate of Foster’s Personal Estate

After Foster died intestate, the court appointed Erasmus F. Dixon administrator of the estate on 3 June 1850. The probate records are extensive, but in many ways unrevealing. The records do not include an inventory of Foster’s personal property. A list of his tools might have defined Foster’s tradecraft. A list of crops in the field, livestock, or farm implements would provide an understanding of his life on the land. Without this detail, we are left to wonder if he maintained his tradecraft. In fact, one wonders if even his tradecraft in Maryland were successful. If it were, why would he move to Missouri and acquire farmland? Did he plan to entirely depend on farming, at which he previously had not shown success? A clue to the answer may be that the 1850 census lists his widow Anna as a farmer, and the 1860 census lists each of his sons as farmers. Whatever Foster’s craft, he did not hand it down to his sons.

Furthermore, the probate record lists about 50 claims against the estate, many of them filings by claimants directly in the county court.[12]However, few claims indicate the basis, such as a note, an account at a store, or a time purchase of equipment or inventory. The few details that are available paint a picture that is fuzzy around the edges.

Take for example the following three items. First, one asset of the estate in 1851 was an “Amount against William P. Flint … $116.34.” Second, Flint filed a demand against the estate in 1853 for $136.00, which the court allowed to offset the estate’s claim. Third, Buchanan County in 1852 had entered its claim against the estate for $138.63 for the unpaid balance of Foster’s quarter section of land. We can conclude from these items that Foster and Flint each signed a bond ensuring payment for the other’s land purchase, and that those two obligations offset in probate. The record also shows Foster still owed money for his land. This makes sense because the sale did not become final until 25 Dec 1850, eight months after Foster had died. The balance due became an obligation of the estate.

The record also shows claims of $120.60 against the estate by a firm named “Donnell, Saxton, and Duvall,” a retail mercantile enterprise. Another firm, “[illegible]tor & Riley,” claimed $137.69. To have $160 debts outstanding to a couple of stores seems excessive. However, Foster died in the Spring. These debts may have been related to farming during the upcoming season, such as the purchase on credit of seed and equipment. Additionally, Foster owed money to numerous individuals. Several individuals claimed amounts ranging from $25 to $80, which may have been personal loans.

In the final analysis, Foster owed a lot of money to a lot of people. His personal property was valued at $991.52 in October 1851 but proved insufficient to satisfy the estate’s debts, resulting in the need to sell some of the estate’s land. In 1854 and 1855, the administrator sold with the court’s permission a total of about 40 acres of land, netting an additional $880 to the estate. Despite that, the final personal estate settlement in April 1855 does not show any residual amount paid to the heirs, nor does it even list the heirs.

In fact, Foster’s widow Anna does not appear in the probate record. Instead, the couple’s eldest surviving son, James R. Willis, filed a $195.00 claim against the estate. We can conclude that Anna died shortly after her husband and that James became head of household at age 20 or 21. Logically, he received money from the estate to support his younger siblings.

Disposition of the Land

By 1860, all the heirs resided outside Buchanan County. Each apparently still owned a share of the remaining family homestead of 118 acres. Even eleven year-old Sarah is listed in the census as owning $900.00 worth of real estate. Five heirs were in three households in Doniphan County, Kansas Territory, just across the river from Buchanan County[13]One heir, Harriett, was with her husband in Andrew County, Missouri, just north of Buchanan.[14]

Sarah Willis’s $900 interest in the land represented one-sixth of its total value in 1860. Therefore, the whole parcel was worth $5,400. Regardless of Foster’s success or failure as a craftsman or farmer, his and Anna’s investment in the land proved a good legacy for their children.[15]

I have not yet located the final sale of the land by the heirs of Foster Willis. However, they likely sold it to a Mr. A. M. Saxton.  An 1877 atlas of Buchanan County shows him as owner of the former Willis land and the quarter section north of it. The atlas states Albe M. Saxton operated a mercantile partnership in St. Joseph with Robert W. Donnell.[16]Foster’s estate owed their firm $130.60 back in 1850. Saxton became extremely wealthy from the store and other ventures, including banking, steamship building, and land holdings of more than 1,000 acres. Saxton not only owned the Willis property but also the Flint lands, since the atlas states he married in 1856 “Mrs. Sarah Emeline Flint originally of Dorchester County, Maryland.”[17]

As the story circles back to a connection with Maryland, it seems like a good place to end this discussion of my great-great-great-uncle Foster Willis.

[1]Caroline County Will Book,Liber JR-C, Folio 465 and subsequent Deeds

[2]Manufacturing and Trades would include cobblers, blacksmiths, silversmiths, wheelwrights, wood carvers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, etc. Other occupation categories in the 1840 census were Mining; Agriculture; Ocean Navigation; Canal, Lake, River Navigation; and Learned Professions & Engineers.

[3]Caroline County Deed Books, Liber Jr-R, Folios 115 and 130.

[4]Caroline County Deed Book Liber JR-S, Folios 340 and 402

[5]Caroline County Deed Book Q: 259.

[6]Caroline County Deed Book T: 524.

[7]The age ranges in the census indicate the children are Thomas F. Willis from Foster’s first marriage, and James R. born 1830, Harriett A. born 1832, Peter M. born 1835, John F. born 1837, and William H. H. born 1840, from the second. Deceased are Foster and Anna’s eldest son John W. born in 1829 and their daughter Louisa born in 1833. The couple had two more sons who died as infants: Charles E. born 1842 and Samuel A. A. born 1843.

[8]Flint’s occupation in the 1840 census for Dorchester County, MD, was “Learned Professions and Engineers.”

[9]The southwest quarter of Section 19, Township 57, Range 34, surveyed at 158 acres priced at $1.25 per acre for a total cost of $198.00. The land transaction completed on 25 Dec 1850.

[10]Thomas F. Willis may have been married. There is no marriage record and no probate record, which argues against there being any heirs at law. However, a Rebecca J. Willis, age 26, appears in the 1860 census in brother James Willis’s household. She is possibly the widow of Thomas, although she would have been age 15 at the time of his death.

[11]Living with Anna, age 44, are James, age 20; Harriett, age 18; Peter, age 15; John, age 13; William, age 11; and Sarah age 1. Sarah, by the way, is listed as Sarah E. H. (sic} A. Willis in a later census. I originally thought she was the daughter of Foster’s deceased son Thomas Foster Willis, who named the child after his mother Sarah Emerson Willis. However, the 1880 Cole County, MO, census of her brother James R. Willis’s household lists her as “Lizie A. Willis, age 31, sister.” She is clearly the child of Foster and Anna, and her full name is likely Sarah Elizabeth Anna Willis.

[12]Volumes A and B, Buchanan County, MO, Probate Records

[13]The Doniphan County, Kansas census shows the following, including the value of their real estate: James R Willis, age 30, $3,000, Married with four children; Peter M. Willis, age 25, $2,500, Single; John F. Willis, age 23, $1,000, Single, residing with the following two: Wm H. H. Willis, age 20, $1,000, Single, and Sarah E. Willis, age 11, $900, Single. Curiously, Peter and Sarah are listed a second time in James’s household.

[14]The Andrew County, Missouri census lists John Speed S. Wilson, age 36, $3,200, and Harriett A. Wilson, age 28, Married with four children.

[15]As a final comment regarding the estate administrator, there is no apparent familial relationship between Erasmus F. Dixon and the Willises. He served as a court appointed administrator for the estates of several unrelated parties. In any event, James R. Willis clearly held him in high regard for his handling of the estate and support of the family. James named his first son Erasmus D. Willis, obviously honoring Mr. Dixon.

[16]Published online by The State Historical Society of Missouri, “An Illustrated Historical Atlas Map of Buchanan County, MO, 1877,” p. 31

[17]The atlas does not state that Mrs. Flint was a widow, but we can presume that to be the case.