Quickly, tell me the birth years of your parents …
Did you immediately know the answer? Did you have to consult a record to confirm your memory? Granted, if you are reading this article, you are surely a family history researcher. If so, those dates will roll off your tongue. Could your children handle the same question as easily, though? I’m not sure our sons could accurately recall our birth years right off the bat. Our grandchildren wouldn’t have the faintest idea.
That little quiz, strangely enough, has to do with the reliability of information on Find-a-grave. I’ve run into several errors on its website lately, and have considered writing on the topic. I asked my husband for thoughts, trying not to telegraph my own opinion.
Me: what do you think of Find-a-grave?
Gary: I like the tombstone pictures. Surely the date of death is accurate! But I’ve sometimes found problems with a birth year when I compare the tombstone to information provided by the deceased — a draft registration form, maybe. The deceased is not around to dispute his birthdate with his survivors! And some people have been known to shave a few years off their age …
(Well, that takes care of the “birthdate of your parents” issue, thought I).
Me: what else?
Gary: I think anything other than information from the tombstone image falls in the same category as online family trees. It doesn’t qualify as evidence, much less proof. It’s just a clue. My understanding is that anyone can put anything they want on Find-a-grave if they have an account. I never take information that is not on the tombstone as proved unless I can confirm it in actual records.
Me: silence …
Gary: well, except that Findagrave sometimes includes the text of an obituary. Those are often priceless. Also, other burials in the same cemetery can provide great clues.
Thanks to Gary’s talent for getting straight to the heart of the matter (with minor edits), that pretty much exhausts everything I could say about Findagrave.
Happily, that allows me to move on to a Find-a-grave error. It concerns Dr. John M. Rankin, a Union Army Assistant Surgeon from Pennsylvania who wound up in Kalamazoo County, Michigan. Ah, those multiplying, migrating, and confounding Pennsylvania Rankins! The Find-a-grave mistake is the identity of Dr. John’s parents. And the fun just begins there. Another intriguing question is the identity of his earlier Rankin ancestors.
First things first: the Find-a-grave entry for Dr. John M. Rankin starts out OK. It identifies him as having been born in 1833 and died in March 1909, and notes his service in the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry. That is all confirmed by other sources. Information added by a Find-a-grave poster, however, identifies his parents as James (no middle initial, or “NMI”) and Margaret Hull Rankin of Armstrong and Clarion Counties, PA.
Dr. John M. Rankin’s actual parents were James Huston Rankin and Margaret McCurdy Rankin of Franklin, Armstrong and Clarion Counties, PA.
The mistake is understandable. There were two James Rankins in Clarion County, and each had a wife named Margaret. There were also two John M. Rankins in Clarion county – and both were doctors. Fortunately, the two James and the two Johns can be distinguished.
- First, Dr. John M. Rankin of the Pennsylvania Infantry left Clarion Co. as a young man. He was enumerated in Arcola, Douglas Co., IL in the 1860 and 1870 census, and in Kalamazoo Co., MI in 1880 and 1900. The other John M. Rankin stayed in Clarion County and was listed there in the 1850 and 1860 census.
- The other John M. Rankin’s will in Piney Township, Clarion County was dated 1863 and proved in 1869. Further, the 1850 census for Piney Township, Clarion, lists him as age 58, born about 1792. However, Dr. John M. Rankin of Kalamazoo was born in 1833 and died in 1909.
In short, Dr. John M. Rankin of Kalamazoo, MI was definitely not the same man as Dr. John M. Rankin of Clarion County, PA. That still doesn’t prove, though, that Dr. John of Kalamazoo wasn’t a son of James (NMI) and Margaret Hull Rankin of Clarion.
Fortunately, there are Clarion County wills for BOTH James (NMI) and James Huston Rankin.
- The will of James NMI Rankin of Toby Township, Clarion Co., was dated 1862 and proved in 1863. It named his wife Margaret and children James Johnston Rankin, Joseph Rankin, and Mary Jane Summerville. The will does not name a son John M. Rankin. The 1850 and 1860 census for James NMI and Margaret both list James, Joseph, and Mary in the household … but no John.
- The will of James Huston Rankin of Clarion Township, Clarion Co., was dated 1859 and proved 1872, suggesting he was either very good at planning ahead or had a dim view of his prospects for a long life.He named his wife Margaret. The will recites that he had four sons and four daughters, as does the biography of Dr. John in a history of Kalamazoo County. James H. named his children as follows:
- Eldest son James McCurdy Rankin.
- Second son Calvin A. Rankin.
- Third son John M. Rankin.
- Four daughters Sara Ann, Margaretta, Elizabeth, and Narcessa Jane Rankin.
- Fourth son Albert Brown Rankin.
The history of Kalamazoo County fleshes out Dr. John M. Rankin’s life a bit and provides information confirming that he was a son of James Huston and Margaret McCurdy Rankin. Here is what it says. My comments are in italics.
- He was born 12 Feb 1833 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. So far as I have found, the line of James (NMI) and Margaret Hull Rankin never lived in Franklin County. Instead, they first appeared in Pennsylvania in Armstrong County, then in Toby Township, Clarion Co.
- History says that Dr. John’s parents James H. and Margaret McCurdy Rankin had 4 sons and 4 daughters.James Huston Rankin’s will says the same thing.
- John married three times. First, to Harriet Sharp in 1858. She died in 1871. John and Harriet had three sons: Edmund (or Edmond), Charles, and James Rankin. Second, he married Miss Susan Rankin in 1873 (Rankin family connection, if any, unknown). He and Susan had one son, John M. Rankin.She died in 1879. In 1881, he married his third wife, Martha A. McClelland.
- He graduated from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1863.
- Rankin enlisted in the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry in February 1865. He was at the battles of Hatcher’s Run and Five Forks and the surrender at Appomattox. He was discharged in July 1865.
- He was a Presbyterian. We would have been surprised if he were anything else.
Let’s turn now to the identity of Kalamazoo Dr. John’s grandparents, i.e., the parents of James Huston Rankin.
To begin with, History tells us that Dr. John Rankin, son of James Huston Rankin, was born in Franklin Co., PA. Further, the obituaries and/or death certificates for two of Dr. John’s brothers (Calvin Alexander Rankin and Albert Brown Rankin) state that they were also sons of James Huston and Margaret McCurdy Rankin and were born in Franklin Co.
On those facts, the safest bet in genealogy is that James Huston Rankin was from the line of Adam Rankin who died in 1747 in Lancaster County and his wife Mary Steele Alexander. Adam and Mary had two sons – James and William – who lived in a part of Cumberland County that became Franklin County in 1784.Most of the late 18th and early 19th century Rankins in Franklin County descend from James or William.
Here’s the evidentiary trail. There is an obvious weak link.
First, Adam and Mary’s son James Sr. named a son James Jr. in his 1788 Franklin Co. will. James Jr. inherited the land where he was already living, so James Jr. was a grown man by 1788. James Huston Rankin was born about 1794, so he was the right age to have been a son of James Jr. The tract James Jr. inherited was adjacent to a James Huston. On the theory that James Jr. may have been the father of James Huston Rankin, I set about tracking James Jr.
There is little information about James Jr., who didn’t appear in the Franklin Co. records often. In 1803, he was named executor of his brother Jeremiah’s will. In 1818, James Jr. and his wife Mary conveyed the tract inherited from his father James Sr.
James Jr. appeared consistently in the census for Montgomery Township, Franklin County every decade from 1790 through 1820. Taken together, the census entries suggest six possible children. Both the 1800 and 1810 censuses have a male the right age to be James Huston Rankin, born in 1794.
I cannot find James Jr. in the 1820 census, although an 1821 conveyance recites that he was still living in Montgomery Township. After that deed, James Jr. disappeared from the Franklin records. He left no trace in Franklin probate records. That strongly suggests he moved away.
A man who may be James Jr. surfaced in 1830 in Clarion Township, Armstrong County. James and the elder female in his household were both enumerated in the 60 < 70 age bracket, born during 1760-1770 – the right generation to be James Jr., who was an adult living on his own tract in 1788 if he had been born in the early part of that period. In that same census, James H. Rankin was still living in Franklin County, enumerated in Metal Township immediately adjacent the entry for Mary McCurdy, his probable mother-in-law.
So … what is the evidence of a connection between James of Clarion Township, Armstrong Co., and James Huston Rankin of Franklin Co.? Land records to the rescue: a deed provides a link between the two men. It concerns a tract in Clarion Township, Armstrong County which James Rankin owned. In February 1839, James promised to convey the tract to James Huston Rankin, whose middle name is spelled out several times in the deed. The consideration was that James Huston Rankin would “keep and maintain the said James Rankin and his wife” for the remainder of their lives. James failed to make a deed for the tract during his lifetime, so James Huston petitioned the court to obtain a deed from the administrator of James’s estate. James died intestate, so all of his heirs were required to answer the petition. The heirs agreed that the promise to convey the tract was genuine and that James Huston had performed. The administrator made the requisite deed.
All of that is recited in the deed from the administrator to James Huston Rankin. You would think (hope!) it would also recite the relationship between James and James Huston Rankin. No such luck. Nonetheless, the deed is clear and convincing evidence that James Huston Rankin was a son of James Rankin.
Now for the obvious leap of faith. Namely, one must conclude that James Rankin, father of James Huston Rankin, was the same man as James Jr., son of James Sr. who died in 1795 in Franklin. In light of the leap of faith, James Huston Rankin’s ancestry is not conclusively proved, although … it’s good enough for me.
Here is my view of Dr. John M. Rankin’s line in outline descendant chart format:
1 Adam Rankin d. 1747, Lancaster Co., PA, and wife Mary Steele Alexander.
2 James Rankin Sr., b. circa 1725, Cecil Co., MD or Lancaster Co., PA. Died 1795, Franklin Co., PA. Wife Jean MNU.
3 James Rankin Jr., b. abt 1760, Cumberland Co., PA, d. before 1850, Clarion Township, Armstrong Co., PA. Wife Mary MNU. It is unproved that James Rankin of Clarion Township is the same man as James Jr., son of James Sr. of Cumberland/Franklin.
4 James Huston Rankin, b. 1794, Montgomery Township, Franklin Co., PA, d. 1872, Clarion Township, Clarion Co., PA. Wife Margaret McCurdy.
5 Dr. John M. Rankin, b. 1833, Franklin Co., PA, d. 1909, Kalamazoo. MI.
And that’s it from me on Dr. John M. Rankin and James Huston Rankin. See you on down the road.
* * * * * * *
 See his tombstone image on Find-a-grave.
 Dr. John M. Huston’s death certificate (image available at Ancestry) identifies his mother as Margaret McCurdy. A History of Kalamazoo County says Dr. John’s father was James H. Rankin and his mother was Margaret McCurdy. David Fisher and Frank Little, Compendium of History and Biography of Kalamazoo County, Michigan (Chicago: A. W. Bowen & Co., 1906) 323 (hereafter, “History”). James Huston Rankin’s will identifies his third son as John McGinley Rankin. Clarion Co., PA Will Book B: 216. The will also recites that he had four sons and four daughters, which is precisely what History says about Dr. John’s family of origin. John M. was listed with James H. and Margaret Rankin in the 1850 Clarion Co. census, age 17 (born 1833), along with a presumed sister Sarah Rankin (who was enumerated in 1860 and 1870 as “Sarah A. Rankin”). In the 1880 census, Sarah A. Rankin was living with Dr. John and identified as his sister.
 Clarion Will Book B: 126. The Clarion County probate index identifies him as Dr. John M. Rankin, although the will itself does not. The 1850 census for Piney Township showed his profession as “Dr. of [unreadable].
 Clarion Co., PA Will Book A: 381.
 Clarion Co., PA Will Book B: 216.
 Fisher and Little, History and Biography of Kalamazoo County.
 Compare the names in the will with the 1850 census for Clarion, which omits Calvin Alexander Rankin. The household enumerates James H. Rankin with Margaret Rankin and seven children: James, Sarah, J. M. (male, John M.), A. B. (male, Albert Brown), Margretta, Mary (Arcessa in the 1860 census), and two females named M. E. The 1850 census taker or transcriber may have been getting careless about the younger children, but he nailed the names of first five.
 Fisher and Little, History and Biography of Kalamazoo County 323, online here.
 1900 census, Richland, Kalamazoo Co., MI, John M. Rankin, physician, b. Feb 1833, age 67. Evidence that he was born in Franklin Co. is the biography in History and the death certificate and/or obituaries for his brothers Calvin Alexander and Albert Brown. They establish that Calvin (older than Dr. John) and Albert (younger than Dr. John) were also born in Franklin and were sons of James Huston and Margaret McCurdy Rankin.
 John M. Rankin married Hattie S. Sharp on 29 Jun 1858, in Coles Co., IL. “History” incorrectly says they were married in PA.
 Harriet S. Rankin’s tombstone in the Hillside Cemetery in Plainwell, Allegan Co., MI is inscribed “died 11 Jul 1871.”
 This biography says Edmond was born about 1856 in Pennsylvania. That conflicts with the 1870 and 1880 censuses, both of which state he was born in Illinois. The bio identifies him as a son of Dr. John Rankin. It also says that he was a dry goods merchant, engaged in the insurance business, and was mayor of Kalamazoo in 1902. He died in 1924 and is buried in the Mountain Home Cemetery in the city of Kalamazoo.
 Death certificate for Dr. Charles E. (Everett) Rankin, Grand Rapids, Kent Co., MI. The certificate says he was b. 2 Jul 1863, Arcola, IL, d. 24 Feb 1937, and that he was a son of Dr. John M. Rankin and Harriet Sharp. Buried in the Oakhill Cemetery, Grand Rapids, MI.
 1880 census, Richland, Kalamazoo Co., MI, John M. Rankin, 47, physician, b. PA, Susan C. Rankin, 47, PA (had cancer), with son Charles E. Rankin, 16, b. IL, son James S. Rankin, 9, b. MI, son John Rankin, 6, b. MI (Susan’s only child), and Sarah A. Rankin, sister, age 52, b PA. James S. (possibly Sharp) may be the James S. Rankin, M.D., buried in the Fairview Cemetery, DeKalb, Dekalb Co., IL, whose tombstone gives birth and death dates as 1870 – 1950.
 Michigan death certificate for John M. Rankin, d. 22 May 1898, age 24. Born in Michigan; son of John M. Rankin (b. PA) and Susan C. Rankin (b. PA). Certificate signed by his father Dr. John M. Rankin (Sr.) Buried in the Hillside Cemetery, Plainwell, Allegan Co., MI.
 Her tombstone identifies her as “Martha Ann McClellan, wife of John M. Rankin.” I haven’t found marriage date information other than the date provided by History and the 1900 census, which says they had been married 18 years (census taken June 1900).
 There are several more articles about the line of Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin on this blog.
 Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin also had a son Jeremiah, see Lancaster Co., PA Will Book J1: 208, will of Adam Rankin dated and proved in 1742. Jeremiah died in Cumberland in 1760, and all of his probable children moved to Kentucky. Thus, only Adam and Mary’s sons James and William are likely candidates to be James Huston Rankin’s ancestor. William’s line is fairly easy to trace, despite numerous opportunities for the same name confusion error.
 Franklin Co., PA Will Book A: 345, will of James Rankin Sr. dated 1788, proved 1795.
 Franklin Col., PA Will Book B: 167, will of Jeremiah Rankin of Montgomery Twp., Franklin Co., PA dated 13 Jun 1803, proved 1 Aug 1803.
 Franklin Co., PA Deed Book 12:28, deed dated 27 Mar 1818 from James Rankin (Jr.) and wife Mary to Jacob Klein. 107 acres of the conveyance was part of a tract surveyed in 1742 to Adam Rankin which was devised to James Jr. by James Sr. by his will dated 25 Mar 1788, see Note 19. James J. Huston was a witness.
 1790 census, Montgomery Township, Franklin Co., James Rankin Jr., 12300; 1800 census, Montgomery Township, James Rankin, 11110-11110; 1810 census, James Rankin, Franklin Co., 00211-01201.
 Franklin Co., PA Deed Book 12: 710, deed dated 8 May 1821 from James Rankin Sr. to David Donwoody or Dunwoody, both of Montgomery Township, Franklin Co. James Jr. became known as James Sr. after his father died in 1795.
 Clarion Co., PA Deed Book 6: 371-72.
 Virginia Shannon Fendrick, American Revolutionary Soldiers of Franklin County Pennsylvania (Chambersburg, PA: Historical Works Committee of the Franklin County Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1969). Available online. It states that Margaret McCurdy (b. 19 Sep 1803) married James H. Rankin in 1823.