Who Were the Parents of Revolutionary War Lt. Robert Rankin (1753-1837)? (Part 5A of 5)

The short answer is I don’t know. This article merely offers theories. You choose the theory you prefer. “None of the above” is a reasonable answer.

This was difficult to write because Lt. Robert’s family of origin is such a will-o’-the-wisp. Some of the people in these theories are probably phantoms who cannot be either proved or disproved. I have a nagging suspicion I’m missing something important. And this article is too long, so I shall post it as Parts 5A and 5B of the Lt. Robert series.[1]

To be clear, the subject is Robert (no middle name)[2] Rankin, a Revolutionary War officer who first appeared in Frederick County, Virginia marrying his fiancé Margaret (“Peggy”) Berry in 1781. Lt. Robert was surely from the Rankin family which spread westward from Richmond County across Virginia’s Northern Neck beginning in the late seventeenth century.[3] William Rankin (also a Revolutionary soldier) and John Rankin were his proved brothers. The three all lived in Mason County, Kentucky at one time, although Lt. Robert moved on. Theory #4 suggests another sibling, although I remain skeptical for inchoate reasons.

Here are the possibilities I’ve identified. There may be others.

… Theories #1A and #1B identify Lt. Robert’s parents as Robert William Rankin (or William Robert Rankin) and Margaret Massena Marshall (or Massena Margaret Marshall). “Massena” has various spellings.[5] This is the conventional wisdom.

… Theory #2 claims a William Rankin, wife’s name unknown, as Lt. Robert’s father. He reportedly died after 1761 in Frederick County, Virginia.

… Theory #3  says Lt. Robert’s father could have been Benjamin Rankin of Frederick County, Virginia and Berkeley County, Virginia/West Virginia.

… Theory #4 identifies John and Sarah Woffendale Rankin of King George County as possible parents.

… Theory #5 proposes that John Rankin and Elizabeth Marshall (daughter of William Marshall) of King George County, Virginia were Lt. Robert’s parents.

Theories #1A and 1B: Lt. Robert’s parents were William Robert Rankin (or Robert William Rankin) and Margaret Massena Marshall (or Massena Margaret Marshall).

Theories #1A and 1B identify the same couple, although with their first and middle names in different orders. The two theories differ only in the identity of Massena’s parents. Evidentiary and credibility problems abound.

Right off the bat, there is no woman named Margaret Massena Marshall or even Massena Marshall in any record as far as the eye can see, anytime, anywhere. It is true that colonial women can be difficult to find. That doesn’t eliminate the need for some evidence that such a person actually existed. The same is true for William Robert/Robert William Rankin. No such man seems to have manifested himself. These two people may be phantoms, or possibly figments of someone’s imagination.

The likely source for the conventional wisdom does not inspire confidence. Flossie Cloyd, a respected Rankin researcher in the early to mid-1900s, identified William Robert Rankin and Margaret Massena Marshall as Robert’s parents. The “oh, no!” here is Ms. Cloyd’s source. She was assembling an ambitious Rankin family history in collaboration with other Rankin researchers/descendants.[6] She did not do any original research regarding Lt. Robert or his family.[7] Instead, she relied on May Myers Calloway, a descendant of Lt. Robert’s.

Ms. Calloway is credited with several whoppers about Lt. Robert. No, General George Washington did not personally hand Lt. Robert Rankin his discharge papers and call him “Colonel.” Lt. Robert never served in the same company as future Chief Justice John Marshall. And Rankin County, Mississippi, was not named for one of Lt. Robert’s children.[8]

Ms. Cloyd’s papers provide no evidence about Lt. Robert’s parents that I could find. It’s reasonable to conclude that Ms. Calloway offered Ms. Cloyd no evidence except family oral tradition.

Ms. Calloway also corresponded with Louis Wiltz Kemp, a historian whose papers on Lt. Robert can be found at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in Austin.[9] Mr. Kemp’s papers don’t contain any evidence regarding Lt. Robert’s parents, either. Ms. Calloway sent Mr. Kemp some of her own poetry, for Pete’s sake![10] How about evidence? Even family oral tradition is usually supported by some evidence. Yes? No?

But wait! The most damning problems with Theories #1A and B are facts.

In Theory #1A, Massena was allegedly a daughter of Thomas Marshall and his wife Mary Randolph Keith. Both are buried in the Marshall graveyard in Washington, Mason County, Kentucky. However, Thomas and Mary’s children were too young to have included Lt. Robert’s mother. Lt. Robert was born in 1753. Thomas and Mary Marshall’s children were born during 1755-1781.[11] That would mean Lt. Robert was born before his mother. Oops!

Perhaps recognizing this problem, some researchers backed up a generation and proposed Theory #1B. In this view, the elusive Massena Marshall was a sister rather than a daughter of Thomas Marshall. Massena’s parents would then have been John Marshall (known as “John of the Forest”) of Westmoreland County, Virginia and his wife Elizabeth Markham.

John of the Forest’s will is not helpful.[12] John named his daughters. No Massena. None of his three married daughters had husbands named Rankin. Only his youngest unmarried daughter, Peggy (whose given name was presumably Margaret), is a remote possibility to have been Robert’s mother.[13] However, Peggy/Margaret reportedly married a Hugh Snelling.[14] And she was probably too young to have been Robert’s mother in any event. The Marshall website puts her birth year as 1745, making her eight years old when Lt. Robert was born.[15]

Here is the pièce de résistance:  an extraordinary old chart of descendants of John of the Forest, available at this link. A label states that the chart was “drawn by W. M. Paxton, Platte City, Mo.” He was William McClung Paxton (1819 – 1916), whose mother was Anna Maria Marshall Paxton. Her great-grandfather was John of the Forest. Mr. Paxton was an attorney and family history researcher who published a book about the Paxtons in 1903.[16] This is one of those cases when I am comfortable relying on someone else’s research because he has good creds.

Mr. Paxton’s chart is circular, making it difficult to read. The print is small and faded, increasing the degree of difficulty. If you persevere and squint, you will find no Rankins and no one named Massena on the chart. John of the Forest’s daughter Peggy is listed, with her husband’s surname given (as best as I could tell) as Smellan, close to the Snelling identified on the Marshall website.

My take on Theories #1A and 1B as described above is that they zoom past “speculative” and land squarely on “highly improbable.” If Lt. Robert’s mother was in fact named Marshall, proponents of that notion need to look in a different Marshall line. For that option, please see Theory #5.

However, if you decide the Margaret Massena/William Robert theory is the best available option, you have plenty of company on internet trees.

Theory #2:  Lt. Robert’s father was a William Rankin who died after 1761 in Frederick County.[17] William’s wife isn’t identified.

 This theory appears on the Marshall website which (along with Mr. Paxton) identified Margaret “Peggy” Marshall’s husband as Mr. Snelling/Smellan.[18] The Marshall website says that William Rankin’s father — Robert Rankin (wife Elizabeth Rozier) — left a will in King George County identifying his children.[19] This gives Theory #2 heightened credibility right off the bat. It at least deals with people whose existence can be proved: William Rankin, son of Robert and Elizabeth Rozier Rankin of King George. And it has geographic appeal, because it says William Rankin died in Frederick County after 1761. That is where Lt. Robert first appeared in 1781 and where his brother William moved after the Revolution. It is also comforting that William doesn’t have a highly improbable middle name.

There are some rocks in this road. Evaluating the theory runs into a “too many William Rankins” issue. That is just a research problem, though, and doesn’t diminish the theory’s credibility. Having said that, the only William Rankin(s) I can find in Frederick after 1761 are (I believe) from the line of David and Jeanette McCormick Rankin,[20] plus a family which lived there too late to matter and moved to Missouri in any event.[21] Y-DNA tests negate any genetic relationship between Lt. Robert’s line and David’s line. If you have a dog in this hunt, you need to do a deep dive into Frederick, Berkeley, and Morgan County records, because I might be wrong again.

The only William I can identify in Frederick County after 1761 who does not fall into the two irrelevant lines (David and Jeanette’s family and the Missouri family) is Lt. Robert’s brother William. He reportedly moved to Frederick County “not long after the war”[22] (presumably the early 1780s) and was definitely a resident of Frederick by 1792.[23]

 A William Rankin who died in Frederick after 1761, if one can be found, definitely has more cachet than the spectral Massena Marshall. However, that qualifies as “damned by faint praise.” This theory should probably be considered speculative.

That is it for Theories #1 and #2. Part 5B in this series will attack the remaining three theories. Here’s hoping there are some comments on this article that provide some helpful grist for this mill.

See you on down the road.

Robin

 [1] Part 1 of the “Lt. Robert series” was an Introduction.   Part 2 discusses Revolutionary War history relevant to both Lt. Robert and his brother William. Part 3 tells William’s amazing war story. Part 4 has Lt. Robert’s story.

[2] At least one source identifies Lt. Robert as Robert Marshall Rankin. Another identifies him as Robert Richard Rankin. In the hundreds of records Gary and I reviewed while researching Lt. Robert and his family, we have never seen him identified with either a middle initial or middle name. Those middle names are fictional.

[3] E.g., Richmond Co., VA Order Book 1692-1694: 10, order dated 4 May 1692, John Rankin, who married the Executrix of John Overton, to appear and give security. If this John Rankin was the patriarch of the Northern Neck Rankins (I do NOT know if that is the case and am NOT saying it is!), it would help explain the appearance of more than one John Rankin at a time in King George Co. in the mid-1700s.

[5] One of Lt. Robert and Peggy’s daughters is identified as Mathina, Marsena, or Masena McComb in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 Polk Co., TX censuses, respectively. I use “Massena” because that is how it is spelled in Peggy’s will.

[6] Ms. Cloyd never published a book, but her voluminous research materials are available on CDs from the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

[7] The Cloyd CDs are a long, painful slog. I reviewed the CD cited by Linda Kay Starr for Ms. Cloyd’s conclusion about Lt. Robert’s parents. I found only information provided by May Myers Calloway.

[8] Rankin County was named for the Christopher Rankin who served in the U. S. House as a Representative from Mississippi. See information about him at this link. His will was probated in Washington, D.C, see “Washington, D.C., U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1737 – 1952” on Ancestry. The will recites that Christopher was “a native of Washington County … Pennsylvania” but was then “a Citizen of the State of Mississippi and Representative of said state in the Congress of the United States.”

[9] Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas, Austin, papers of Louis Wiltz Kemp, Box 2R232, General Biographical Notebooks, Ranb-Reavis. Viewed Feb. 8, 2020.

 [10] Ms. Calloway’s poetry is so gosh-awful that I wish I had taken notes so I could share.

[11] See the birth years for Thomas Marshall’s children at this link.. This website is owned by Mike Marshall and has a number of researchers and contributors, as well as extensive footnotes and sources. See also the will of Thomas Marshall, Mason Co., KY Will Book B:212.

[12] Will of John Marshall of the Forest dated April 1, 1752, recorded in Westmoreland Co., VA Deed & Will Book 11: 419. Transcribed here.

  [13] Those of us who wonder where crummy information originates might speculate that the name of John of the Forest’s youngest daughter Peggy inspired someone to put Margaret in front of the standard Massena Marshall for the name of Lt. Robert’s alleged mother.

[14] See the Marshall website  here for the birthdate and husband of Peggy Marshall, daughter of John of the Forest.

 [15] Id.

[16] W. M. Paxton, We Are One (Platte City, MO: Landmark Press, 1903). See image of the book cover and other information about Mr. Paxton on his Find-a-Grave memorial  here.

 [17] Rankin data mining bulldogs, here’s a juicy one. The Marshall website’s information about William Rankin’s death in Frederick County — “after 1761” — implies that William was known to be alive that year. That is, there must be at least one record for William in Frederick County specifically in the year 1761. I haven’t found one. If anyone can, she is named Mary Buller or Jess Guyer.

 [18] The Marshall website adds several siblings to Lt. Robert, William, and John. As far as I can find, there is no evidence for the relationships. In all fairness, the webiste’s focus is on Marshalls, not Rankins.

 [19] King George Co., VA Will Book 1-A: 201, undated will of Robert Rankins proved 4 Mar 1747/48. Sons William, John, and James, all my land. Daughter Mary Green and sons Moses, George, Benjamin, and Hipkins, one shilling each. Wife Elizabeth Rankins. Witnesses William Rankins and James Rankins. NOTE: if you ever wrestle with the King George Rankins, please pay particular attention to this will. Keep in mind that beneficiaries do NOT witness wills — unless someone wants the will to be invalid. So who the heck were the witnesses William and James? Definitely not testator’s sons William and James, who were beneficiaries. I don’t know the answer.

[20] David Rankin died in Frederick in 1757, leaving a will naming children William (Sr.), David, Hugh, and Barbara. Frederick Co., VA Will Book 3: 443. William Sr. moved to Washington Co., PA and left a 1793 will stating that his son William (Jr.) was living in Virginia where William Sr. formerly lived. Washington Co. Will Book 1: 206, will of William Rankin, wife Abigail, leaving to William Jr. the place in Virginia where William Sr. formerly lived. William Sr. and Abigail’s land in Virginia was located in Berkeley County. Berkeley Co., VA DB 3: 386, 390, 1775 deeds from William and Abigail Rankin of Berkeley County.

 [21] The 1810 Frederick census has a William Rankin and Matthew Rankin, probably kin, in the same age group. The line disappeared from Frederick after the 1830 census and moved to Cooper Co., Missouri.

 [22] Deposition of John Kercheval in support of the Revolutionary War pension application of William Rankin of Mason Co., KY.

 [23] Frederick Co., VA Deed Book 24A: 152 conveyance from Denny Fairfax, the Northern Neck proprietor, to William Rankin of Frederick, lease for lives of William, wife Mary Ann, and son Harrison. This is Lt. Robert’s brother William, who moved to Mason Co., KY.

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