Breaking Down a Brick Wall: a Researcher’s Thrill

by Jessica Guyer

Note: the last guest author on this blog was such a success we’re doing it again. Jessica Guyer is one of the two best Rankin data mining researchers I know. When I first “met” Jess, she wasn’t acquainted with deeds. I suggested she take a look at deeds in Pennsylvania counties relevant to her brick wall, telling her only that deed images are available at FamilySearch.Org. I didn’t explain grantor/grantee indexes, how to navigate the Family Search catalog, or what constitutes meaningless deed boilerplate. Next thing I knew, she had blitzed through deeds in a half-dozen counties looking for clues on her brick wall. This article is a story about the trail of clues that finally knocked it down. Enjoy!

Robin

 Introduction

This is a story about Don D. Rankin’s brick wall. The story includes a rich old 19TH century man who was apparently popular with the ladies, some bigotry that probably prevented sharing important information, and a clue that finally allowed me — his great-great niece — to correctly break down the brick wall and fix his very public error.

A California schoolteacher, Don had to travel cross-country to conduct family history research on his Pennsylvania Rankins in the 1970s and ’80s — the pre-internet dark ages.  His goal was to identify the parents of his great-grandfather, Chambers Rankin (1805-1835). He dubbed his trips “High Adventure Genealogical Safaris” and wrote humorous letters to relatives about his finds.

After decades of work, Don did something every family history researcher has done at least once. He identified the wrong couple as Chambers Rankin’s parents. That is usually a “so what?” Unfortunately, Don typed up his conclusions and sent copies to every relative, friend, library, genealogical association, and historical organization in Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney Phil probably received a copy.  What ensued is predictable: Don’s error became the conventional wisdom. It can now be found in 99% of the family trees on Ancestry.com or Familysearch.org that include Chambers Rankin.

We’re going to follow his excellent detective work. However, we will identify the correct parents of Chambers Rankin: David (1776-1857) and Martha Culbertson Rankin of Westmoreland County, PA.

Road to Error

   Lee Rankin in 1954 at the gravesite of his grandfather, Chambers Rankin

Don’s father, Lee Rankin, took him to visit Chambers’ grave in the Old Log Church cemetery in Schellsburg, Bedford County, Pennsylvania. Lee’s father was Franklin Rankin; Chambers was Lee’s grandfather. Chambers had died when Franklin, his only child, was about 9 months old. Above are some 1954 pictures Don took of Lee by Chambers’ tombstone.

During Don’s visit, Lee shared an old velvet photo album of family pictures. One photo in the album was a very old tintype of a woman Lee called an “Indian Lady” — a Native American. When Don asked questions, Lee refused to discuss her further. Don’s daughter Marjorie subsequently asked Lee about her. He became agitated and said only, “she is one of your great great grandmothers” and told her not to ask any more questions.

That silence was probably a result of prejudice and misplaced family shame. It is a pity on several levels. Among other things, surely Lee had some information about her.[1] After all, she was his grandmother – the mother of Chambers Rankin’s only child, Lee’s father Franklin R. Rankin.  The family has never determined whether she and Chambers were married or any other circumstances about their relationship — not even her given name.

Don didn’t have much to go on in his quest for Chambers’ parents. All he knew for certain was that Chambers (1) fathered a son (Franklin) with a Native American woman, (2) died in 1835 about 9 months after Franklin’s birth, and (3) had a brother named J. C. Rankin of Harrison City.  The brother is proved by Chambers’ gravestone, which is engraved “Chambers Rankin died Mar. 16, 1835. Aged 30 years. Erected by his brother J. C. Rankin, Harrison City.”[2] This brotherly kindness will prove to be the clue that ultimately led to breaking down Don’s brick wall.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Don connected with a mother and son from Pitcairn, Allegheny County. On his behalf, the pair visited a number of cemeteries and sent Don information and photos of Rankin gravestones they came across. One of these was J. C. Rankin’s grave in Harrison City. His stone mentions his wife, Nellie Rankin, a name that Don remembered from his father’s old photo album. At the foot of J. C.’s grave is a marker for his sister, Martha Rankin Bisel. The proved nuclear family was growing: it now including Chambers, J. C., and Martha Rankin Bisel. Her stone was also purchased by J. C. This should have been a step in the right direction for Uncle Don, who already suspected that J. C. was “the long missing link” towards uncovering the mystery.

What Went Wrong?

The mother and son duo had ancestral ties to the Bisel family (Martha Rankin Bisel’s inlaws). So instead of focusing on researching J. C. and the Westmoreland County area, they followed the trail of the Bisel family, which took them to Bedford and Fulton Counties. Upon finding Rankins buried at the Big Spring Cemetery in Fulton County, they convinced themselves that those burials were Chambers’ parents – with literally zero evidence. Don accepted their conclusions and considered them his “Big Breakthrough.” In January 1985, he excitedly typed up his “case-solved-here-is-our-lineage” piece, now memorialized as the conventional wisdom.

Don claimed Chambers Rankin’s father was John Rankin (1754-1829) buried in Big Spring Cemetery in Fulton County. But he confused that John Rankin with a different John Rankin, born the same year, who married Martha Waugh, and moved to Tennessee.  Don used the Tennessee John’s lineage for the remainder of his erroneous Rankin lineage write up.

There were so many red flags (such as a father who was only 13 when a son was born) that the people in his chart might as well have been fictional. Instead, the erroneous information spread like a virus.

Uncle Don’s excitement was short lived. He passed away in May, just five months after completing and distributing his work. Perhaps he was worried about his health, which contributed to his acceptance of unvetted information to finish his life’s work before it was too late. This feeling is a relatable anxiety for researchers – hoping to “finish” our work before we die with our findings only in our minds and scribbled on mountains of notes that would make no sense to anyone else.

Setting the Record Straight

To begin, I went back to the place where evidence was pointing – Chambers’ siblings J. C. Rankin and Martha (Rankin) Bisel in Harrison City, Westmoreland County.  I spent hours of research hoping to find them in a will or deed pointing toward their family of origin. The only thing I found was another sibling – Culbertson Rankin of Somerset County, for whom J. C. also purchased a gravestone that was identical to Chambers’ marker. This find was interesting because it turns out J. C.’s given name was John Culbertson Rankin. That made two Culberson names among the siblings.

I began corresponding with one of J. C.’s descendants who shared her theory that the parents of the Rankin siblings were David and Martha (Culbertson) Rankin of Westmoreland County. Based solely on the importance of the Culbertson maiden name, the theory that they were Chambers’ parents seemed far more plausible than anything else I’d come across.  In her theory, David Rankin was the son of another David Rankin (Sr.) who died in Westmoreland County in 1790.

Our Rankin siblings didn’t fit in with any other Rankin clan in Pennsylvania, so I decided to research the David Rankins of Westmoreland County to search for clues.

David (Sr.) was a Westmoreland County innkeeper whose land was located in Unity Township along the Loyalhanna Creek. He died in 1790, leaving a will for which there are two transcriptions.[3] One leaves his estate to his “well beloved wife James” (obviously a transcription error) and which subsequently identifies his wife as Mary. The second transcription wrongly identified James as David’s son. However, estate records prove that James Rankin was actually David Sr.’s brother. Estate records also provided the names of David and Mary’s children: Daniel, David (Jr.), Jane, William, Matthew, Margaret, Martha, and Chambers.[4]YES, CHAMBERS! No, this wasn’t my Chambers, but it WAS another clue. Family names can be important circumstantial evidence, particularly in the case of unusual names such as “Chambers” and “Culbertson.”

Further down the rabbit hole, I learned that this Chambers died when he was in his teens. It seemed plausible that his brother, David Jr., would name one of his sons (my Chambers) after a deceased brother.  I gathered enough information about David Sr. and his wife Mary Cochran (and her family) to create a detailed timeline for him.[5] Unfortunately, I can’t find additional records about his son, David Jr. The only known detail about his life is that he married Martha Culbertson by 1800.[6] She and her family moved to Westmoreland County around 1785 from “Culbertson Row” in Franklin County.[7]

I changed direction to focus again on Chambers’ brother, John Culbertson Rankin. He married near Culbertson Row in Franklin County. In 1840, he moved his family to Westmoreland County, where he purchased coal and timberland and founded Harrison City. He also ran a store and a hotel. In the process, he became incredibly wealthy: many of the landowners in Westmoreland County wound up sitting atop thick seams of anthracite coal.

Researchers originally believed that his wife died shortly after their 9th child was born. That is because J. C. was married by 1850 to a second wife with whom he had three children. She was around the same age as his oldest daughter. However, his first wife was still very much alive. That first marriage evidently ended in divorce, as did his second marriage. Around 1865, he married a third time, to a woman named Nellie who was nearly 45 years younger. He conforms to an old cliche:  a rich guy who keeps getting divorced and marrying younger women – add a silk robe and smoking pipe for a stereotypical 19th century image.

God bless his heart, though, because he did something caring and useful with his overflowing money pot. He bought gravestones for his siblings that included his own name, without which this brick wall might have stood forever. And for that, Uncle J. C., we thank you.[8]  J. C.’s gravestone itself was about to provide another clue!

After COVID allowed, I was finally able to visit J. C.’s enormous gravestone. It was engraved “J.R. Oursler, Latrobe” – presumably, the tombstone engraver. I took note, hoping it would lead to something. I still lacked any direct evidence that David (Jr.) was the same David who married Martha Culbertson. And that David and Martha’s children were John C., Chambers, Martha, and Culbertson.

Serendipity Rewards the Prepared

That proof came in a way I least expected. I happened upon a single newspaper article that tied together all the random notes and circumstantial evidence I had collected for two years.  I said out loud to my laptop, “oh my god, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL THIS TIME, ARTICLE!?” It conclusively proves that J. C.’s family lived along Loyalhanna Creek near Hannastown, and the only Rankin family documented in that area is David (Sr.).

The Latrobe Bulletin newspaper reported that, in 1891, J. C. Rankin was in town meeting with John R. Oursler for ordering a cemetery monument. During this visit to Latrobe, J. C. stopped to visit the newspaper, which reported this:

“In the course of conversation, we learned that Mr. Rankin was one of the pioneers of this section of the country, being at the present time 87 years of age. He is a large, fine looking specimen of manhood, and not withstanding his advanced age, is as sprightly and active as a man of 45 or 50 years. He informed us that all his relatives were raised along the Loyalhanna and that his [father was[9]] at Hannastown the time it was besieged and burned by the Indians. They were forced to flee for their lives and escaped. He said that the town or fort was thickly surrounded by hazel bushes. These were cut off, piled up and burned. The stumps of these bushes were sticking out of the ground and had been burned to needle-like sharpness by the fire. In making his escape, his father was compelled to run over these spear-like points in his bare feet and in doing so, his feet were terribly lacerated. At the time of his death having a number of holes in the soles in which Mr. Rankin said he often inserted his fingers. He is blessed with excellent eyesight and an elegant memory and related many stirring scenes of early days.”

Hannastown was attacked and burned in July 1782. David Rankin (Jr.) would have only been around 6 years old at the time. The Rankin family home along the Loyalhanna was only a few miles away from Hannastown. So … why would the David Rankin (Sr.) family have been in Hannastown that day?  More direct evidence provides the answer.

Quarterly Court was in session the day of the attack, and on the docket was business regarding tavern keepers and selling “spirituous liquors in small measure.” Twelve tavern keepers attended, although they weren’t identified. David (Sr.) had been an innkeeper since at least 1781, per court records.[10] Surely he was there with the other county innkeepers.  Perhaps he brought his son, David Jr., with him on the trip – or maybe even the whole family, since it wasn’t safe yet on the homesteads due to continuing Native American attacks.

There were no other Rankins with land along the Loyalhanna except for David Sr. and his children, who remained in the area after his death.

Good ‘ol Uncle J.C….. that “fine looking specimen of manhood”…. irresistible to the younger ladies…and with money to burn….. once again came through in our quest to break through this brick wall to tell us that the earliest known Rankin ancestor in our line is undoubtedly David Rankin (Sr.) who died in 1790.

That brief celebration was interrupted by the realization that I’ve just left one brick wall (Chambers) only to hit another (his grandfather David.)[11]  Nevertheless – progress! I hope Uncle Don would be thrilled with this discovery, and not upset that his conclusion turned out to be error. Surely he was accustomed to the twists and turns — and errors — along our “High Adventure Genealogical Safaris.”

[1] She was probably Shawnee, the prevalent Native American tribe in the area.

[2] This gravestone was an 1890s replacement of Chambers’ original stone.

[3] Westmoreland County Pennsylvania Probate Records, Will Book Vol.1, Pg. 101.

[4] Children’s names are documented in the following records: 1.) OC Vol.A, Pg. 59   2.) OC Vol.2B, Pg.27 and Pg.31   3.) OC Vol.A, Pg.92   4.) Deed Book Vol.17, Pg.186   5.) Deed Book Vol.6, Pg.53.  6.) Undocketed estate papers for David Rankin and his father-in-law William Cochran in Records Management storage at the Westmoreland County Courthouse.

[5] This timeline document can be found on Ancestry when searching for David Rankin (1750-1790) or at this link: https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/8318305/person/112357108913/media/943c87d8-493e-4e44-81bc-07c40a879728?_phsrc=jHG7&usePUBJs=true&sort=-created

[6] Deed Book Vol.6, Pg.35

[7] Culbertson Row refers to a large area of land in Letterkenny Township, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, settled by several members of the Scots-Irish Culbertson family in the early 1700s.

[8] There is one more very likely sibling in this family. His name was also David Rankin, and he died in 1866 in Grapeville, Westmoreland County.

[9] The article actually reads “parents were” but I believe there was slight error to the way the story was printed. His mother would have only been a baby. Further, her Culbertson family didn’t come to Hannastown until at least three years later.

[10] Documentation includes: 1.) The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Volume 7, Issues 2-3, Pg. 172-174 and 2.) History of the County of Westmoreland, Pennsylvania: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men, Volume 1 Pg. 136.

[11] Information on David Rankin (d.1790) remains elusive. The lack of any documents helping to reveal the origin story for he and his brother James, has nearly convinced me they were dropped there by aliens. I kid,…

3 thoughts on “Breaking Down a Brick Wall: a Researcher’s Thrill”

  1. Congratulations on success.
    I enjoyed this article just as I have all the pieces on “Digupdeadrelatives.” Conclusions are backed by data found during investigation, and there are explanations for those for which the evidence is only “beyond reasonable doubt.”
    I am not related to the Rankins except distantly to Robin’s branch, but I like learning about other people’s digging for ancestors. Thanks.

    1. Good to hear from you, John! I hope you and Val are doing well. We are recovering from that nasty virus …

      And thanks for the kind comments. It is fun working with Jess.

      Cuz Robin

  2. Well done! Shame does hinder history when searching our “Trees”. But as Henry Gates likes to state the flipside of that is many “want” to believe they have Native American Heritage. How proud that should make one feel! And sad at the same time. I have heard for over 50 years there is a Native American on my Mother In Laws side, but many years of searching and many DNA tests don’t prove it so. Then on my Father-In-Laws side, a daughter still alive, is certain of Native American Heritage on her side. My husband never lived to hear a resolution of facts but I still work that brick wall for him and our children and grandchildren… And then my own, just wishing to find the path my very brave Great Grandmother took from Ireland has been quite the challenge and no living relatives able to help. Still I climb!!

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