Find-a-Grave struck again, although I was minding my own business

One of my favorite Rankin researchers sent a Christmas Eve email that began, “I was minding my own business, when …”

I was grinning by then because I knew in my bones that what followed would be some variation of “genealogy intervened.” Indeed, it was. Since you are reading this family history article, you probably also saw it coming.

Another friend zapped me when I was otherwise occupied by sending a link to a Find-a-Grave site for a cemetery in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. One of the graves purports to be that of a man who almost certainly never set foot — much less an entire corpse — in Allegheny County.

I will proceed gingerly. The last time I did anything concerning Find-a-Grave, I received an email from an angry man in a western state awash with militia. His last email said he would keep me apprised of his “confirmed kills” in the “impending civil war.”[1]

The recently received Find-a-Grave entry is allegedly the grave of the William Rankin who died in Franklin County, Pennsylvania in 1792, son of Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin. William’s wife was Mary Huston Rankin, named as a beneficiary in William’s 1792 will. According to the Find-a-Grave poster, Mary died in 1790, two years earlier.

These claims raise interesting questions. Why would a man who died in Franklin County be buried in a town 150 miles away?[2] And why would he have made his wife a beneficiary of his 1792 will if she had already died in 1790?

Someone out there must have answers to these questions, because the Find-a-Grave site for Round Hill Cemetery in Allegheny County says this unusual couple is buried there.  Here is a link to a picture of William Rankin’s tombstone (there is no image for Mary’s).[3] Please ignore the text on that entry for the time being because it is rife with errors … and please keep reading.

The tombstone is difficult to read. Other than the boilerplate “DIED” and “in the ____ year of his age,” the clearest information is the name “William Rankin.” There is no middle name. His date of death looks like 18___. It appears to be 1812 or 1813 in a sharpened and printed image. If that is correct, this is surely not the tombstone of a man who died near Greencastle in 1792, unless the trip to Elizabeth, Allegheny County, took waaaaay longer than one would expect.

There is an intestate estate for a William Rankin in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County about that time. The Allegheny Probate Proceedings Index gives the date of his Inventory and Appraisement as 1813.[4] Because the I&A is customarily done soon after an estate is submitted to probate, that establishes that a William Rankin of Allegheny County died in 1812 or 1813.

More evidence lies in the cemetery (no pun intended). The DAR did a survey of tombstones at Round Hill Presbyterian Church near Elizabeth in the summer of 1940. The DAR listed a tombstone for “Rankin, William, d. Feb. 11, 1813, aged 69 years.” We can reasonably conclude that was the same William Rankin whose inventory was taken in 1813. The DAR also lists “Rankin, Mary wife of William d. July 22, 1808 in 62nd year.” Mary definitely died before her husband, which makes it unlikely that this couple could have been William and Mary Huston Rankin of Franklin County.

William’s tombstone itself provides additional evidence. The marker is an unadorned rectangular solid with an inscription in this format:



Month, day, year

    in the ___ year of his age

There are two other extant Rankin tombstones in Round Hill cemetery with the identical unadorned shape, format, and “typeface.” One is for Andrew Rankin and another is for Mary Rankin. It appears from the hard-to-read inscriptions that both died in the 1790s. The 1940 DAR survey says that Andrew died in 1794 at age two, and that Mary died in 1795 at age 14. Find-a-Grave claims that both were children of “William and Mary Rankin.” Given the remarkably similar tombstones for William, Andrew, and young Mary, the three were clearly family.

That brings us to the family Bible of William and Mary Huston Rankin of Franklin County.[5] It identifies their children and their dates of birth as follows. Information other than names and dates is from my research, not the Bible. 

    • Adam Rankin, b. 10 Nov 1762. He was a physician. He went to Henderson Co., KY, married three times, and had many children. See more about him in the footnote links.[6]
    • Archibald Rankin, b. 10 Apr 1764. Archibald stayed in Franklin County until he died. His wife was Agnes Long.[7]
    • James Rankin, b. 20 Apr 1766. He went to Centre County, PA with his brothers William, John, and Jeremiah. All four of them inherited land there. For more information about them, see the article at the link in this footnote.[8]
    • William Rankin, b. 5 Nov? 1770. He also went to Centre County with three of his brothers. He married #1 Abigail McGinley, #2 Susannah (probably Huston).[9]
    • Betsy Rankin, b. 13 Oct 1774. No further record.
    • David Rankin, b. 5 Feb 1777. His wife was Frances Campbell, daughter of Dougal Campbell. David and his family migrated to Des Moines, Iowa. See more information about them at the link in this footnote.[10]
    • John Rankin, b. 1 May 1779. He went to Centre County with James, William, and Jeremiah.
    • Jeremiah Rankin, b. 26 Nov 1783. He also went to Centre County.

William’s family Bible records the birth of neither a son Andrew nor a daughter Mary. William named each of the above children, and his wife Mary, in his 1792 will.[11] The Andrew who died in 1794 and young Mary who died in 1795, both buried in Round Hill Cemetery in Allegheny County, were not the children of the William who wrote his will in 1792. According to the family Bible, William died on October 25, 1792.

Unfortunately, all of the information about William at the Find-a-Grave link is unsourced. That is normal. Much of it is clearly erroneous. You’ve got to laugh, and then try to guess how the Find-a-Grave poster strayed so far from the facts. A reasonable guess is “same name confusion” between two of the numerous William Rankins in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. That’s a common and understandable error.

Here is what Find-a-Grave says about William, shown in italics. My comments are in normal typeface. If anyone has evidence supporting the Find-a-Grave claims, please share it.

Birth 1713. There is no evidence for an exact birth year that I have found for William Rankin, son of Adam, husband of Mary Huston. William’s first appearance in the records seems to have been a 1749 warrant for a tract in Antrim Township, Franklin Co.[12] That doesn’t provide much of a clue.

 County Antrim, Northern Ireland. There is no evidence for William’s exact place of birth. If Mary Steele Alexander Rankin was his mother, he must have been born in the colonies because Adam and Mary married there.[13]  

Death 30 Nov 1792 (age 78 -79). That is the date William’s will was proved in Franklin County. The odds that someone’s will was presented in court the exact day he or she died are virtually nil. The family Bible says that the William whose wife was Mary Huston died on Oct. 25, 1792. Submitting a will to probate about four weeks after the testator died falls within a normal range.

Franklin County, PA. That is surely correct. William, son of Adam and husband of Mary Huston, lived and owned land in Franklin, and his will was probated there.

 Burial Round Hill Cemetery, Elizabeth, Allegheny Co.” Well. Some William Rankin who died in 1812-13 is buried in Round Hill Cemetery. I will bet a huge pile of genealogical chips that it is not William Rankin, son of Adam and husband of Mary Houston Rankin. In fact, I would place real money on that wager.

Continuing with Find-a-Grave information:

“William Steele Rankin was born in 1713 in County Antrium (sic) in the Northeast part of Northern Ireland. He was the son of Adam Rankin, born 16 Jul 1688 in Stenhousemuir, Stirlingshire, Scotland and died 4 May 1747 in Lancaster Co., PA and his wife Mary Steele, born about 1692 in Lancaster, Lancaster Co., PA and died 21 Sep 1747 in Somerset Co., PA.”

Let’s take this one alleged fact at a time.

… there is no evidence in a county or Bible record, or county history books, that William Rankin, son of Adam, ever used a middle initial — much less a middle name. It would have been highly unusual for a man born in the early 18th century to have a middle name. They didn’t come into common usage until the 19th century. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had no middle name, for pete’s sake.

… If William were in fact a son of Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin, he was undoubtedly born in what is now Pennsylvania. Adam and Mary married in the colonies sometime between August 1718 and Sept 1724.[14] On the other hand, if William were a son of Adam and a wife prior to Mary Steele, it is possible that he was born in what was then the Province of Ulster in the northernmost part of Ireland. There was no such country as “Northern Ireland” until May 1921.

… there seems to be no evidence for either Adam Rankin’s birth date or place. If family oral history about their migration and birth year are correct, he was probably born in Scotland. We would all dearly love to see evidence of a precise date and/or location. For a discussion of what is and is not evidence, see the article at the link in this footnote.[15]

… Adam’s will was dated 4 May 1747 and proved 21 Sep 1747 in Lancaster County. The odds that he wrote his will the day he died are almost zero, particularly since the will wasn’t presented for probate until September. The only thing the probate records prove is that Adam died sometime between 4 May 1747, when he wrote his will, and 21 Sep 1747, when it was submitted to the court.

… Adam’s wife was definitely Mary Steele Alexander, widow of James Alexander. If anyone has any evidence for her dates or places of birth and death, I hope you will share.

Whew! Here’s hoping you are now convinced that the Find-a-Grave poster erred when he or she identified the William Rankin buried in Round Hill Presbyterian Cemetery as William (wife Mary Huston Rankin), a son of Adam and Mary Steele Alexander.

But that raises the obvious question: who the heck are the William and Mary Rankin buried in Round Hill Cemetery? Jess Guyer and I have concluded they are William and Mary Stewart Rankin, who were married in Franklin Co., PA on 28 Feb 1774.[16] A follow-up article on that family will follow. Eventually.

See you on down the road.Robin

[1] See an article about it at this link.

[2] The Franklin County Rankins lived on Conococheague Creek near Greencastle, Franklin Co., PA. The distance from Greencastle to Elizabeth, Allegheny Co. by the fastest current route is about 150 miles.

[3] Here is an image of the tombstone.

[4] Allegheny County, PA Probate Records, 1683-1994, Proceedings Index 1778-1971, Vol. 30, page 305, Block 5. It notes an Inventory and Appraisement, estate of William Rankin, dec’d, in 1813. Film No. 877053, Image No. 775, Block 5.

[5] Disc 4, Cloyd tapes. Unfortunately, I have lost my reference to the Cloyd disk page numbers, for which I apologize. Wading through those disks is a challenge. The information in the Bible appears in the form of chart accompanying a letter dated May 6, 1954, from Rev. J. O. Reed, pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Opelousas, LA, to Flossie Cloyd. Rev. Reed, a descendant of William and Mary Huston Rankin, was the owner of the Bible and drew the chart.

[6] Here is the first article and here is a second.

[7] Records of the Upper West Conocochegue Presbyterian Church show Archibald Rankin’s marriage to Agnes Long on 9 March 1790 and his death on 24 Jun 1845 at age 81.

[8] Here is an article about the children of William and Mary Huston Rankin.

[9] Id.

[10] An article about the two David Rankins is here.

[11] Franklin Co., PA Will Book A: 256, will of William Rankin of Antrim Township, Franklin Co., PA, dated 20 Oct 1792 and proved 28 Nov 1792.

[12] Land Warrants for Lancaster County, PA are online  here. See page 183.

[13] The country of Northern Ireland wasn’t established until May 1921. See an article about Scots-Irish history here. The Find-a-Grave poster probably meant what was then called the Province of Ulster in the northernmost part of Ireland. For the marriage of Adam and Mary Steele, widow of James Alexander, see the next footnote.

[14] For conclusive proof, see the citations in Notes 4 through 7 and the accompanying main text in this article. My gratitude again to Floyd Owsley.

[15] Re: genealogical proof.

[16] Records of the Upper West Conococheague Presbyterian Church, Franklin Co., PA.

3 thoughts on “Find-a-Grave struck again, although I was minding my own business”

  1. I came to exactly the same conclusion several months ago that Wm Steele [sic] Rankin and Mary Huston never set foot in Allegheny Co. My guess is that they might be buried in the Moss Spring Cemetery in Greencastle, since it is very close to “the old mansion” or perhaps buried some place on the mansion grounds. I agree that the Wm and Mary Rankin in Round Hill Cemetery (mentioned in the DAR survey) are the Wm Rankin 1744-1813 and Mary Stewart 1746-1808 who married 1774 in Franklin Co before moving to Allegheny Co.

    I claim Mary Stewart is the daughter of Andrew Stewart and Mary Dinwiddie. In his 1813 will [Franklin Co, Vol C, p. 124] Mary’s brother James leaves bequests to 3 nephews John, Wm and James, sons of sister Mary Rankin. These match the 3 sons still living among graves at Round Hill Cem added by Arthur Ridley, claimed to be 8 of the children of Wm and Mary Rankin: Andrew (d. 1791), David (d. 1812), Eliz, James, John, Margaret, Mary Ann, and Wm. I believe Mr. Ridley (or somebody!) must have primary sources so he would be the one to contact. I have more info to back this up from the Stewart Clan Magazine that I can send you. I stand by you 100% if you should get any flack about what you have uncovered in this latest blog.

  2. I wanted to comment more broadly on your “Find-a-Grave Struck Again” article and note a few things I’ve observed. I’ve been doing genealogy for years and I’ve witnessed how the Find-a-Grave website has really grown in popularity. In fact, started interfacing with Find-a-Grave a few years ago and now includes this website’s data in their own database. Unfortunately, and as this article alludes to, far too many of the memorials on Find-a-Grave contain erroneous, misleading, and even preposterous information. Worse, many people are taking this information at face value. These memorials have now become a venue through which bad data is proliferated, as evidenced by many “tree owners” on various websites. I make comments regularly either on the Ancestry site or on the memorials themselves whenever I encounter information that I know is blatantly incorrect, but this seems to be a “battle” that can’t be won. I acknowledge that documenting old gravesites, particularly those that are “endangered,” is a worthwhile endeavor and that the photos of old tombstones can be helpful to researchers. However, I think more people need to be aware that without tombstone photos and/or PRIMARY SOURCE evidence to support the dates and other accompanying “facts” entered on the memorials, these memorials are of little genealogical use. I wish the Find-a-Grave website was designed to force memorial creators to enter bibliographical information in a standardized format, particularly when they add biographies and other information to the memorial itself and to require source citations in the absence of tombstone photos. Perhaps this might help prevent the creation of so many non-factual memorials. More generally, I think more website owners of all kinds need to take responsibility for controlling the spread of disinformation and misinformation, of whatever ilk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *