Same Name Confusion: Thomas Rankin of East Tennessee … and What the Heck IS “Depreciation Pay?”

My Aunt Bettye’s name came up in a whining session with a friend about family tree errors. That’s because Bettye’s bogus ancestral claims are the stuff of legend. E.g., she once  floated the notion that we are descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. That claim didn’t gain any traction, even among our family’s wannabe believers.

She also maintained that our German immigrant ancestor, a tailor whose mother was a milliner, was minor royalty in the old country. However, Von Huenefeld – Bettye added the “Von” – is not a name you will find among known baronets. You get the drift. Bettye, bless her heart, was heavily invested in having a fabulous family history.

Most family tree errors are honest mistakes, or perhaps the result of copying someone else’s tree without verifying it. Others, like some of Bettye’s claims, are wishful thinking – or just plain fiction. Whatever. All one can do is analyze the evidence concerning each fact, claim, or piece of conventional wisdom. I often conclude that I just don’t know. That’s where I am with some of the oral family history of the John Rankin who died in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1749.[1]

A big “just don’t know” about that Rankin line is what I call the “Londonderry Siege” legend.[2] It is inscribed on a bronze tablet in the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church cemetery in Jefferson County, Tennessee. I reproduced the inscription in full in this article.  Is the legend true? There seems to be no evidence for most of its claims. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true. It just means they aren’t proved. A second “just don’t know” factoid about John Rankin who died in 1749 is that he had a brother Adam Rankin who died in 1747, also in Lancaster County. So far, Y-DNA testing suggests that is probably not correct.

The questions for this article are whether John’s son Thomas Rankin was a Captain in the Revolutionary War, and whether Thomas’s four eldest sons also served in the war. I concluded that three of Thomas’s four eldest sons were Revolutionary soldiers. I just don’t know about the other son, but doubt he was a soldier. I also believe that Thomas, son of the John who died in 1749, was not a Revolutionary War Captain, or even an enlisted soldier. Thomas has probably been conflated with another Thomas Rankin who was a Captain in a Pennsylvania militia in the Revolutionary War. That is the error called “same name confusion,” an easy mistake to make.

One source for these claims is the Mt. Horeb tablet. It says this about Thomas and his four eldest sons (I have omitted his other children, who aren’t relevant to this article):

“THOMAS RANKIN, 1724 – 1812,[3] MARRIED ISABEL CLENDENON OF PA. AND SETTLED IN THAT STATE. THEIR CHILDREN WERE:

JOHN 1754 – 1825 MARRIED MARTHA WAUGH

RICHARD 1756 – 1827 MARRIED JENNETT STEELE

SAMUEL 1758 – 1828 MARRIED – PETTY

WILLIAM 1760 – 1834 MARRIED SARAH MOORE

…THOMAS RANKIN … WAS A CAPTAIN IN THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR. HIS FOUR ELDEST SONS WERE PRIVATES IN SAID WAR

The question of the four sons’ service is comparatively easy, so let’s begin with them, starting with the youngest.

Son number four in that list, William, filed a Revolutionary War pension application.[4] It detailed the family’s migration from Carlisle to Juniata in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania when he was twelve years old. He testified that his father and their family moved from Pennsylvania to Augusta County, Virginia in June 1780. His wife Sarah Moore filed a claim for a widow’s pension, so there is no doubt William’s pension application was by the William Rankin named on the Mt. Horeb tablet. His service as a private is conclusively proved. I’ve transcribed his application at the end of this article.

The Revolutionary War service of Richard and Samuel, sons number two and three, is established by excellent secondary evidence: a detailed family history written by Richard D. Rankin, who apparently went by his middle name, Duffield.[5] He was a grandson of Thomas and Isabel Clendenon Rankin and great-grandson of the John who died in 1749. Duffield said that Samuel was in the battle of Cowpens and that William and Richard both served in the war. He noted that William was at the Siege of York, which is confirmed by William’s pension application.[6] The Pennsylvania Archives also lists Richard as a Cumberland County militiaman.[7]

As for John, son number one, the Pennsylvania Archives proves that some John Rankin was a member of a militia company from Cumberland County.[8] However, Duffield’s meticulous history does not say that his Uncle John was a revolutionary soldier. It is likely that the John Rankin who was in a Cumberland County militia moved to Butler County, Pennsylvania. John’s pension application from Butler County stated that he lived in Cumberland County when he enlisted.[9] He was not a son of Thomas, whose son John moved to Blount County, Tennessee.[10]The Mt. Horeb tablet assertion that Thomas’s eldest son John was a private may be another “same name confusion” error.

That addresses the four sons. What about their father Thomas? Here are some reasons that Thomas, son of John d. 1747, was not a revolutionary soldier.

  1. Duffield did not say that his grandfather Thomas had served in the war or held the rank of Captain.[11] The omission is significant because Duffield clearly knew a great deal about his ancestors, including the fact that his great-grandfather John had two sons and eight daughters. Duffield also expressly mentioned the service of three of Thomas’s four eldest sons.
  2. The Mt. Horeb tablet says Thomas was born in 1724. Thomas’s father John’s will, dated January 1, 1749, named Thomas executor.[12] That means Thomas was almost certainly born by at least 1728, confirming the general accuracy of the birth date on the tablet. By the time the war started, Thomas would have been 52 if the tablet is correct, or in any event no less than 48. Thomas was thus a bit long of tooth to have been a revolutionary soldier.
  3. A man whose father was a Captain and company commander typically served in his father’s unit. Thomas’s son Richard served in companies commanded by Captains McClelland, Hamilton, and Gibson.[13] Likewise, Thomas’s son William couldn’t remember the names of his commanders other than an Ensign George Dickey. It is clear that neither Richard nor William served in a company commanded by their father Thomas.
  4. The Pennsylvania Archives lists of militia soldiers do not include a Captain or a Private Thomas Rankin in Cumberland County. Neither does History of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.
  5. Ironically, the most compelling argument that Thomas was not an officer is a source cited in an application for the D.A.R. by Miss Mary Rankin, a descendant of Thomas Rankin and his son Richard. She cited only the Pennsylvania Archives, 5th Series, Volume IV, as proof of Thomas’s service.[14] The relevant section in Volume IV is titled “Soldiers Who Received Depreciation Pay.” Miss Rankin cited page 494 of that section, which is part of a list of “Miscellaneous Officers” who received depreciation pay. It includes the name Thomas Rankin.[15]

As usual, the devil is in the details. “Depreciation Pay” was deferred pay to compensate Pennsylvania soldiers who served during 1777-1780. Those soldiers were originally paid in “Continental bills of credit,” which quickly lost value.[16] The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission website says this:

“To make amends for such depreciation, each of these men who in 1781 yet remained in line service was awarded a substantial sum in Depreciation Pay Certificates, which were both interest bearing and negotiable.”

Emphasis added. Thomas Rankin, husband of Isabel Clendenon and father of three Revolutionary War soldiers, was in Augusta County, Virginia by mid-1780. He was not in service in a Pennsylvania unit in 1781, and was not eligible to receive Depreciation Pay Certificates awarded that year. He was thus not the same man as the Thomas Rankin listed among “Miscellaneous Officers” who received Depreciation Pay Certificates.

That leaves us with a big loose end: who was the Thomas Rankin who was an officer in a Pennsylvania militia and remained in service in 1781, long enough to receive a Depreciation Pay Certificate?

Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Website to the rescue. In 1781, a Thomas Rankin was Captain of the 5th Company in the 2nd Battalion (later the 4th  Battalion) of Washington County Revolutionary War Militia, Cecil Township.[17] The 1781 tax list for Cecil Township confirms his residence and rank, naming a “Capt. Thomas Rankin.”[18] There are also several 1782 returns of classes in “Capt’r Thos. Renkon’s Compy.” of the 4th Battalion of Washington County Militia. Each is signed “Thomas Rankin, Cpt. 4 B.M.”[19]

In short, there is no doubt there was a militia Captain named Thomas Rankin in Cecil  Township, Washington County, who was still in service in 1781. He is surely the Thomas Rankin listed in the Pennsylvania Archives as having received Depreciation Pay. Thomas Rankin and his four sons on the Mt. Horeb tablet never lived in Washington County.

To which Rankin family did Captain Thomas of Cecil Township belong? That’s a tough question that I haven’t sorted out yet. Washington County was awash with Rankins in the latter part of the eighteenth century. There were four (I think) different men named Thomas Rankin in records from 1769 through 1781: one in Strabane Township, one in Nottingham Township, and two in Cecil Township, including Captain Thomas. I will leave that question for another article because this one is already overlong.

In sum, Thomas, son of the John Rankin who died in 1749 in Lancaster, was almost certainly not a Captain in the Revolutionary War. The pension application of Thomas’s son William establishes that the family did not live in Washington County, where a Thomas Rankin was Captain of a militia company. Having left Pennsylvania in June 1780, Thomas (son of John) was not eligible to receive a Pennsylvania Depreciation Pay Certificate. “Same name confusion” about the Thomas Rankins probably explains the erroneous information about Thomas on the Mt. Horeb tablet.

And that’s it from me on this topic. See you on down the road. But first, here is William Rankin’s pension application.

Robin

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Source: Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804. Images of application for Pension Number W.1,081, pages 11-15. https:www.fold3.com/image/13615051 through 13615054.

I have transcribed the application verbatim except for correcting obvious misspellings, ignoring some capitalization, and adding occasional punctuation for clarity. When I could not read a word, I substituted underscores.

“State of Tennessee               §

Greene County                         §                      October Session 1832

On this 23rd day of October 1832 personally appeared in open court before the Justices of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions for the county aforesaid William Rankin a resident citizen of Greene County aforesaid aged seventy four years the 27th of January  arriving who being first duly sworn according to law doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain the benefit of the Act of Congress passed 7th June 1832.

That he was born in Cumberland County Pennsylvania five miles below Carlisle and raised there til twelve years of age and then moved to Juniata in the same county where he continued until the war of the revolution had progressed some time.

He entered the service of the United States under the following named officers and served as herein after stated. To wit, in the year 1779 in the month of August he volunteered and served a campaign against the Indians and British who had taken Freelands Fort and committed much depredation in that quarter of the country and pursued the enemy some fifty and more miles and after considerable scouting and fateague (fatigue?) returned to the place from whence he started and was out two weeks and perhaps three weeks or more.

Shortly after that campaign perhaps in one month or less he was drafted to serve two months in the same section of the state against the same enemy and was stationed at or near Freelands Fort and was continued in that campaign his full time ranging the country and guarding the frontier settlements. His officers names on the campaigns he cannot state except he believes Ensign George Dickey was in command who was from the neighborhood of Carlisle.

In the summer of 1780 in the month of June his father Thomas Rankin and family and this applicant moved to Augusta County Virginia near Staunton and soon after perhaps in the fall he was drafted to serve three months and after they rendezvoused he was selected to drive and take charge of a baggage wagon and team and was then marched to Richmond with the troops the officers and men all being strangers to him and for which reason he cannot now name the officers under whom he entered the service at that time. When the troops marched to Richmond Virginia this applicant was present and continued in the baggage wagon department and performed a trip with warlike stores to Staunton River on the border of North Carolina and after unloading at Staunton River they returned to Richmond and then were discharged and returned home having been out seven weeks or more. He remembers he arrived home on Christmas day.

In the summer of 1781 he was again drafted for twenty days and during that time was the battles of Hot Water and Jamestown in June and July. He was one of the detached party who made the assault on the British picket at Jamestown and brought on the battle under Major Ruckard a continental officer tho his name may have been Rickard and after the battle was brought on he was during the battle on the right wing and he was one of the last men who left the ground. Genls Lafayette and Wayne commanded in that battle.

About the first of September 1781 he was appointed by Quarter Master Hunter at Staunton a quarter master to take charge of the baggage wagons to take provisions to Richmond and after conducting the wagons with provisions to Richmond he was then reappointed to the same command by Major Claiborne Quarter Master at Richmond to continue on with the provisions to the Army having had eight wagons under his command. From Richmond he went with his wagons to Williamsburg where he received fresh orders from Colo. Carrington.

He then loaded his wagons with military stores and marched to Yorktown and was then in the main army at the siege of Yorktown with his wagons and was then under the command of Capt. Stuart wagon Master General and remained there in that service until eight days after the surrender of Ld Cornwallis after the surrender he assisted to haul the munitions _____ to the Wharf from there he was sent in charge of a wagon loaded by Major Claiborne to Richmond and then returned to Staunton which ended his military career having served in that service two months or more.

Near Yorktown Genl Washington halted say about five miles from the town and the wagons under the command of this applicant and ammunition lay within about ten rods of his tent until the Army droves in the British outposts. He served nine and a half months altogether to the best of his knowledge.

He has no witness to prove his service except the affidavits of Francis A. McCorkle & James McGill hereto annexed and he has not any documentary evidence to prove his service as he never recd any written discharges and he hereby relinquishes every claim to a pension whatever except the present and declares that his name is not on the pension roll of any state or its agency.

Sworn to and subscribed in open court this 23rd day of October 1832. Signed William Rankin and M. Payne.

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[1] John Rankin d. 1749 in Lancaster is the earliest proved Rankin ancestor for Lineage 2A of the Rankin DNA Project. https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/rankin/about/results

[2] The “Londonderry Siege” legend begins with Rankin Presbyterian martyrs in Scotland’s “Killing Times” during the 1680s. Surviving family members supposedly escaped to Ireland in time for the 1689 Siege of Londonderry. Three sons of a survivor, allegedly including John d. 1749, reportedly migrated to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. A descendant of John’s has found no supporting evidence for the legend’s basic facts and family relationships, despite having done research overseas. There were probably Rankins among the Presbyterians who died in the Killing Times. Many Scots Rankins undoubtedly migrated to the Irish Province of Ulster. At least one of them, an Alexander Rankin – the purported but unproved patriarch of the Londonderry Siege family – is confirmed as a survivor of the Siege.

[3] The Mt. Horeb tablet actually says that Thomas died in 1828, which would have made him 104. His death date was corrected to 1812 in a second bronze marker.

[4] Image available at Fold3.com. See transcription, above.

[5] Richard D. Rankin, “History of the Rankins” in Chapter IX, “Ancestors of Jane Rankin Magill,” in Robert M. Magill, Magill Family Record (Richmond, VA: Whittet & Shepperson, printers, R. E. Magill, publisher) 129. Online at this link: at this link.

[6] See the transcription of William Rankin’s pension application, above.

[7] Thomas Lynch Montgomery, Pennsylvania Archives, 5th Series, Vol. VI (Harrisburg, PA: Harrisburg Publishing Co., 1906) 27, 243, 250, 260, 472, and 619.

[8] See id., Vol. IV  242-43, 260.

[9] Virgil D. White, Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files, Volume III: N-Z (Waynesboro, TN: The National Historical Publishing Co., 1992); Paul W. Myers, Revolutionary War Veterans Who Settled in Butler County, Pennsylvania (Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1985) 11. For his information about John Rankin, Myers cites the History of Butler County, the Pennsylvania Archives, and NARA Federal Pension Application, Soldier S5965. See History of Butler County, Pennsylvania, Volume II (R. C. Brown & Co., Publishers, 1895) (Apollo, PA: reprint published by Closson Press, 2001),  “John Rankin, a native of Ireland, settled here in 1804 or 1805. He came from Maryland, raised a large family, and lived to a ripe old age.” A descendant of Butler County John is a participant in the Rankin DNA Project and belongs to Lineage 2U. The line of John d. 1749 and Butler County John are genetically related, although their most recent common Rankin ancestor is almost certainly in Scotland or Ulster.

 [10] Richard D. Rankin, “History of the Rankins,” see Note 6.

[11] Duffield did not mention the Londonderry Siege legend, either. He described what he wrote as “a history of our family.” It contains considerable verifiable detail. It is hard to imagine he would have omitted the story of the Killing Times and the Siege of Londonderry if those had been a part of his oral family tradition.

[12] Will of John Rankin dated 1 Jan 1749. Lancaster Co., PA Will Book J: 211.

[13] Montgomery, Pennsylvania Archives 5th Series, Vol. VI, 27, 243, 250, 260, 472, and 619.

[14] Daughters of the American Revolution (Indiana), Roster of Revolutionary Ancestors of the Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution, Vol. II (Evansville, IN: Unigraphic, Inc., 1976) 263. Mary Rankin’s D.A.R. application cites as her only proof of Thomas’s service a page in the Pennsylvania Archives. See Montgomery, Pennsylvania Archives, 5th Series, Vol. IV 494.

[15] Montgomery, Pennsylvania Archives, 5th Series, Vol. IV. The list on p. 494 states neither the county militia in which the named officer served nor his rank.

[16] You may have heard the expression “not worth a Continental.” It refers to the Continental Bills of Credit. The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Website discusses “depreciation pay” under the Archives tab  at this link.

[17] See http://www.phmc.pa.gov/Archives/Research-Online/Pages/Revolutionary-War-Militia-Washington.aspx. Thomas was the Captain of 5th Co., originally 2nd Battalion, then 4th Battalion, Washington Co. Militia. Cecil Township. See also Pennsylvania Archives, 6th Series, Volume II 129.

[18] Raymond Martin Bell and Katherine K. Zinsser, Washington County, Pennsylvania Tax Lists for 1781, 1783, 1784, 1793 and Census for 1790 (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 1988).

[19] Montgomery, Pennsylvania Archives, 6th Series, Volume II at 130, 136, 143, 145. “Cpt. 4 B.M.” likely stands for “Captain 4th Battalion Militia.”

Two Revolutionary War stories: Robert and William Rankin of Virginia (part 2 of 5)

By Robin Rankin Willis and Gary Noble Willis

Sometimes military experience is essential. I enlisted former USAF Captain Gary Willis to help untangle the Revolutionary War records of two brothers from the Northern Neck of Virginia: Robert and William Rankin. They took wildly different tracks in the war, although they enlisted in the same company in 1776.

Our initial objective was to examine the accuracy of family oral history about Robert’s war experience. Somewhere along the research trail, we fell in love with the Rankins’ war stories and the underlying military history.[1] Here they are.[2] This post will be one of three posts (with parts 3 and 4) on the Rankin brothers’ military history. Part 5 will conclude with the vexing last question: the identity of their family of origin.

Background: Hugh Stephenson’s/Moses Rawlings’ Independent Rifle Regiment

The history begins in June 1775, when the Continental Congress directed the raising of ten independent companies of riflemen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. “Independent” means that the companies reported to national rather than state authority and were not attached to another state regiment. Two Virginia companies were raised in Berkeley and Frederick Counties, a stone’s throw from where the Rankins lived. They were commanded by Hugh Stephenson and Daniel Morgan, whose names appear in the pension applications of the two Rankins.[3]

Rifle companies had different equipment and roles than other units. Regular infantry soldiers carried British-made smooth bore “Brown Bess” muskets having a range of about 100 yards.[4] They were not very accurate even within that range. However, they were deadly when fired en masse at an oncoming enemy formation. They could be reloaded rapidly: a trained soldier could load and fire one three to four times in a minute. For the conventional warfare of the times – successive massed formations advancing toward opposing massed formations – the Brown Bess was made to order.

In contrast, the rifle companies were equipped with American long rifles (AKA Kentucky long rifles). They were accurate up to 200 yards, but could not be reloaded as rapidly as the Brown Bess. The rifle’s advantages in range and accuracy were also offset by the fact that it could not mount a bayonet and was therefore not effective in close combat.

The rifle companies’ role was different than the musket companies. Riflemen normally provided scouting duties and guarded the main army’s flanks or fixed encampments such as Valley Forge. They were especially effective in patrols that remained out of musket range and harassed enemy foraging parties seeking supplies. As you might expect, rifle company recruits were skilled sharpshooters.

One rather florid history describes the Virginia riflemen and their uniforms like so:

“Volunteers [in the original 1775 Virginia rifle companies] presented themselves from every direction in the vicinity of [Shepherdstown and Winchester, VA]; none were received but young men of Character, and of sufficient property to Clothe themselves completely, find their own arms, and accoutrements, that is, an approved Rifle, handsome shot pouch, and powder-horn, blanket, knapsack, with such decent clothing as should be prescribed, but which was at first ordered to be only a Hunting shirt and pantaloons, fringed on every edge, and in Various Ways.”[5]

In July 1776, the Continental Congress authorized raising six new independent rifle companies. A total of nine companies, including three remaining from 1775 and those raised in 1776, comprised the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. Five of the nine companies were from the area where the Rankins lived in Virginia.

The regiment was originally commanded by Col. Hugh Stephenson and was commonly called “Stephenson’s Regiment.” When he died in August or September 1776, Lt. Col Moses Rawlings assumed command and the regiment became known as “Rawlings’ Regiment.” Captains Thomas West, William Brady, Gabriel Long, William Blackwell, and Abraham Shepherd commanded the five Virginia companies.

The company commanders are significant because our family history objective required identifying the companies in which William Rankin, Robert Rankin, and John Marshall (the future Chief Justice of the USCT) served. Two of them were easy. One of Capt. Blackwell’s junior officers when the company was formed in 1776 was Lt. John Marshall.[6] Documents in William Rankin’s pension application file state he was in Capt. William Brady’s company.[7] Only Robert Rankin’s company took some digging. Payroll and muster roll records establish he was in Capt. Brady’s company with his brother.[8]

 The rifle regiment’s first significant engagement was the Battle of Ft. Washington on November 16, 1776.[9] The fort was located at a high point near the north end of Manhattan Island. It overlooked the Hudson River to the west, providing an ideal vantage point for artillery harassment of British ships.[10]  Rawlings’ Regiment occupied an outpost north of the main fort. The riflemen repelled several bayonet charges by massed German mercenaries throughout the day. Vastly outnumbered, Rawlings ordered their retreat to the fort. About 2,800 surviving defenders, including 235 in Rawlings’ Regiment, were surrendered. It was a devastating loss in George Washington’s defense of New York. Shortly thereafter, he retreated from a position across the Hudson and began moving his army to northern New Jersey.

Prisoners taken at Ft. Washington suffered horribly. British treatment was brutal. Prisoners were initially crowded into jails, churches, sugar houses, and other large buildings in New York, including Columbia College.[11] Some were transferred to British ships, where conditions were also notoriously bad. By the end of 1776, the British held about 5,000 prisoners (including those from Ft. Washington) in New York City.[12] Approximately four out of five did not survive captivity. Most died of starvation or disease.

 Two of Rawlings’ five Virginia rifle companies did not participate at Ft. Washington.  Capt. William Blackwell’s company (with Lt. John Marshall) didn’t complete recruiting in Virginia until early 1777.[13] By the time Blackwell’s company arrived at the army’s winter camp near Morristown, it was assigned to the 11th Virginia Regiment. It never fought as part of Rawlings’ Regiment.[14] Most of Captain Gabriel Long’s company were still in Virginia on Nov. 21, 1776, days after the battle.[15]

They were fortunate, because the rifle companies which fought at Ft. Washington were decimated.[16] Roughly 90% of the participating riflemen (including men from both Virginia and Maryland companies) were either killed or captured.[17] Captains West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s companies were in New York by November 13, 1776. All three were in in the battle[18].

Capt. William Brady is of particular interest because both William and Robert Rankin were in his company.  He was a bad choice for a commander. Brady was not in the battle himself. He resigned his commission in disgrace in March 1777. A mid-1777 report by Col. Daniel Morgan, who then commanded the regiment that included the remnants of Rawlings’ Regiment, said that Brady “had never done any duty,” “absented himself without leave,” and “is said to have behaved in an infamous manner.”[19] The only reason we can imagine he wasn’t court martialed is that he was back in Virginia.

William Rankin was one of Capt. Brady’s men who was taken prisoner at Ft. Washington.[20] He was 17 or 18 at the time.[21] His brother Robert was not in that battle, although payroll and muster records prove he was also in Brady’s company.[22] Ironically, the fact that William was a Ft. Washington prisoner but Robert was not is the decisive factor that led the Rankins’ war stories to take divergent paths.

With that background, it is time to turn our attention to the two Rankins individually. Parts 3 of 5 (William) and 4 of 5 (Robert) will cover their histories.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] This article is based on information obtained primarily from these sources: (1) muster roll and payroll records from the National Archives and Records Administration (digitized images available at FamilySearch.com); (2) Tucker F. Hentz, Unit History of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment (1776–1781): Insights from the Service Record of Capt. Adamson Tannehill (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2007) at this link; (3) Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown (Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company, 1910) online here; (4) Robert K. Wright Jr., The Continental Army (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2006); and (5) the original Revolutionary War pension files of Robert/Peggy Rankin and William Rankin.

[2] Neither Gary nor I are historians. As the list of sources in Note 1 suggests, we assemble what we think is credible information from actual histories. The only primary sources we had were payroll, muster, and other records from NARA.

[3] Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, p. 78-79. Hugh Stephenson’s name appears in the pension applications of both Robert and William Rankin. Daniel Morgan’s name appears in William’s. Both Stephenson and Morgan were acquaintances of the Rankins and lived in the same general area as they did.

[4] Information on rifles and muskets is from websites here and here.

[5] Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, p. 79.

[6] Lt. Marshall was consistently listed on Capt. Blackwell’s pay and muster rolls until Blackwell resigned in January 1778. United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, Familysearch.org, FHL film/fiche number 7197155, image 274 (cited hereafter as “United States Revolutionary War Rolls, FHL film/fiche number ______, image ____.”). Marshall became the commander of Blackwell’s former company by no later than August 1778. United States Revolutionary War Rolls, FHL film/fiche number 7197156, image 223.

[7] Pension Application file of William Rankin, No. 25274, contains notes on the second page in official handwriting that William was a private in Capt. Brady’s company in a regiment commanded by Hugh Stephenson. William’s sworn statement made in Mason Co., KY in 1833 also states he enlisted in Capt. Brady’s company in Stephenson’s Regiment. William Rankin’s Pension Application, Fold3.com at pp. 1, 3. So far as I know, Fold3.com is the only online source for original pension file images. Accessing them requires a premium subscription to Ancestry.com.

[8] See, e.g., muster roll dated 16 May 1777 for Capt. Gabriel Long’s company at camp near Bound Brook, NJ, with detachments from Capt. West’s, Shepherd’s and Brady’s companies, in the 11th VA Regiment commanded by Col. Daniel Morgan. Sergeant Robert Rankin is listed as a member of Capt. Brady’s company, attached to Long’s company. United States Revolutionary War Records, FHL film/fiche number 7197155, image 551. We found no muster or pay rolls for 1776 naming individual soldiers. By May 1777, the remains of Rawlings’ Rifle Regiment were assigned to the 11th Virginia Regiment. The remaining riflemen after Ft. Washington had been assigned to either a composite rifle company (such as the one in which Sgt. Rankin is listed, above), or a provisional rifle company. Both were commanded by Captain Gabriel Long.

[9] There were about 3,000 defenders at Ft. Washington against 8,000 British troops. There is an old painting of Ft. Washington overlooking the river at this link. Gary and our sons Burke and Ryan would put this painting in a general category they call “Ships on Fire.” See, e.g., Édouard Manet’s painting painting  of the 1864 battle between the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama off the Cherbourg Peninsula, which is the origin of that “category.” It is part of the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[10] The site of Fort Washington is now Bennett Park on Fort Washington Avenue between West 183rd and 185th Streets, a few blocks north of the George Washington Bridge. The locations of the fort’s walls are marked in the park by stones. Nearby is a tablet indicating that it is the highest natural point on Manhattan Island, a prime reason for the fort’s location.

[11] Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, p. 166-67.

[12] For a discussion of prisoner of wars facts, see  this link.

[13] Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, p. 16, Note 67, which says the company “had difficulty recruiting even close to full strength, with the effort extending into early 1777.” Blackwell’s Company did not join the Main Army until April 1777, when the army was still in winter quarters near Morristown. Id. at p. 15.

[14] Id. at p. 16, Note 67. Blackwell’s company arrived at Morristown as the sixth company of the 11th Virginia Regiment, having never “taken up arms” as part of Rawlings’ Regiment.

[15] An advance element of 13 men from Long’s company reached New York ahead of the rest and was captured at Ft. Washington. A muster roll of Long’s company in April 1778 states those 13 men were captured. United States Revolutionary War Rolls, film/fiche number 7197155, image 551.

[16] We found no list of all Ft. Washington prisoners by name. However, a 1778 report by Col. Moses Rawlings about his regiment names company officers who died or were taken prisoner. Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, p. 13 (hereafter, “Rawlings’ Report”). The report establishes that West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s Companies were in the battle, as was part of Long’s Company.

[17] Based on information in Rawlings’ Report, Gary estimates that 264 out of 297 riflemen engaged at Ft. Washington were killed or captured.

[18] Rawlings Report states that West’s three junior officers were all taken prisoner, as were Capt. Shepherd and two of his three junior officers. One of Brady’s three junior officers was killed and one was captured. After Ft. Washington, the men in those three rifle companies who were neither killed nor captured were initially attached to a composite rifle company commanded by Capt. Long.

[19] United States Revolutionary War Rolls, FHL film/fiche number 7197160, image 275.

[20] William Rankin’s Pension Application, Fold3.com at p. 3.

[21] Id. William stated he was age 74 when he applied in November 1833.

[22] It isn’t clear why Robert Rankin was not in the battle at Ft. Washington. He may have been across the Hudson River at Ft. Lee. All three of the Virginia companies who fought at Ft. Washington (West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s) were at Ft. Lee on Nov. 13, 1776. A return of Rawlings’ Regiment on that date indicates that 48 out of 293 enlisted men were sick. Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, p. 12, Note 50. In any event, it is virtually certain that Robert was not in the battle despite having been in Capt. Brady’s company because (1) was not taken prisoner there and (2) his widow Peggy did not list Ft. Washington as a battle in which Robert participated. Nevertheless, payroll and muster roll records prove he was in Brady’s company.

Online family trees: are you dead or alive?

I started a message on Ancestry a few nights ago to a man I don’t know. I was making a tongue-in-cheek offer to send him a crisp, new $50 bill if he could produce any legitimate evidence whatsoever that a person named Margaret Masena Kendall Marshall Rankin ever existed. While defining “legitimate evidence,” I realized the message sounded unkind and might make him angry. I also remembered yet again that I (like every other genealogist) don’t always find all the available evidence. Moreover, I sometimes misinterpret evidence that is right under my nose.

I cancelled the message. He may have missed out on an easy $50.

I turned my frustration with the elusive Mrs. Rankin into a project. I sent an email to the five best family history researchers I know: John Alexander, Roberta Estes, William D. (“Bill”) Lindsey, Jody McKenney Thomson, and Gary Noble Willis. I asked them to share examples of humorous or common mistakes they have seen in family trees.

Our stories identified seven categories of common and/or funny errors:

  • biologically impossible
  • are you dead or alive?
  • invent your own facts
  • proving the wrong thing
  • geographic hopscotch
  • same name confusion
  • GEDCOM in, GEDCOM out (“GIGO”)

Here they are, illustrated by my friends’ stories.

Biologically impossible

John started our conversation like so:

“It’s hardly even worth writing about the cases of a child who was born when his or her parents were eight years old (or less) and of the parents who came back as ghosts to have children.”

John provided a link to a WikiTree site that analyzes a “shared” family tree for members who participate in an error assessment program called “Data Doctor.” A recent posting said that “Data Doctor analysis has found 21,635 men on our shared tree who became fathers before age 10 … 1,223 women who had children after age 100 … 2,134 who married before they were born and 2,904 who married after death.”

Talk about common errors! If you haven’t made one, you are apparently a rare breed.

Jody has a somewhat related story, although the error in question has an Oedipal twist:

“… years ago, I found an Ancestry tree that had my father, James Wilson McKenney (1908 – 1976), married to his mother, Edna Mae Durfey (1885 – 1969).  Grandpa was completely left out of the story! I wrote to the owner of the tree telling him that I knew both Wilson and Edna intimately and that it just was not so. I asked nicely if he would please change the error and gave him the correct relationships. A year later he had not made the change so I implored him, pointing out how ludicrous this was. It took him FIVE years to make the correction.”

Jody subsequently found a great alternative. Rather than contacting the owner of a tree containing an error, she attaches a “note” to the tree  and provides accurate information. Mission accomplished: correct information is available to anyone viewing the tree. No imploring required. I will use that approach henceforth.

Are you dead or alive?

Roberta’s story is surely one of a kind. In her own words:

“My favorite one is that I’m dead. I wrote to the person assuring them I’m not, and they accused me of being a crook, to put it nicely. (They were anything but nice.) They told me they knew me and I’m dead. It was the most bizarre discussion I’ve ever had. I told them I’ve never heard of them and they said “of course not, you’re dead.”

I finally had to contact the company and ask them to remove my death information from that person’s tree because the fact that I was “dead” allowed my private information to be shown to others.

Multiple times. They kept killing me off again. Seriously.”

John asked if the person was just trying to be funny. Roberta’s response:

“Nope, they were dead serious, pardon the pun. They were angry with ME for wanting them to remove my death date in their tree. I suggested that perhaps it was another Roberta Estes and they very condescendingly said, ‘No, that’s not possible, I know you and you’re dead.’”

I was compelled to ask Roberta if she was already dead when she and I met about twenty years ago in Halifax, Virginia for research in the county courthouse. I would love to be able to say that I met an actual ghost in the flesh, so to speak.

Invent your own facts

Bill’s story would be funny if it didn’t involve unalloyed meanness. To wit: he had a long exchange with the administrator of a certain DNA project about an ancestor issue. He provided reams of documentation to the administrator. (For the record, it was NOT the Lindsey/Lindsay DNA project administrator.) The administrator had written an article about one of Bill’s collateral relatives named Thomas “Doe” of South Carolina.

Bill describes the administrator’s article as “entirely divorced from reality.” Attempting to connect Thomas Doe of South Carolina to a John Smith in Mississippi (where Thomas Doe never set foot), the administrator claimed Thomas changed his name in Mississippi from Thomas Doe to John Smith. I probably don’t need to add that there was no evidence of any name change. The administrator also claimed Bill had provided no support for his argument, thoroughly insulted him, and threw him out of the DNA project with a false claim that he was sharing DNA results.

Bill’s story probably wins some kind of prize for the administrator’s mendacity and petty cruelty. The apparent lesson: if the facts don’t support your argument, invent some facts. Get out your Sharpie and alter the weather map.

Proving the wrong thing

Gary’s story wins the trifecta category for awards because it qualifies as “proving the wrong thing” as well as two other categories described below, “geographic hopscotch” and “same name confusion.”

Here it is. Having exhausted available records in the library and the Family Search website, Gary looked on Ancestry for any evidence of the children of a Hugh Rimer/Rymer and Mary Willis of Dorchester County, Maryland. Voilà! Gary found a tree including Hugh Rymer and wife Mary of Maryland. The only problem was the supporting record proved Hugh and Mary Rymer had eight children who were all born in England. The English couple could not possibly have been the same Rymers as the Maryland couple. Oops!

Geographic hopscotch

Gary’s story would have a Maryland couple repeatedly crossing the Atlantic to have children. One example I found concerns a man whose Revolutionary War pension application (and his widow’s) say that he was born and died in Pennsylvania. Census and other records establish that most of their eight children were born in Tennessee. You’ve either got to smile – or be amazed. That was one busy woman, going back and forth from Pennsylvania to Tennessee eight times. I wonder if she took all the kids with her on those trips.

When you see a lot of intra-generational geographic moves, be alert … you’re often on the trail of some bad genealogy. Those eight children were probably just attached to the wrong parents.

Same name confusion

This is a common error which we have all undoubtedly made. I’ve written articles about it a number of times on this blog, including articles about Lyddal Bacon Estes,  Edward Buxton Lindsey, Robert Rankin  — two different Robert Rankins, including Robert Rankin of Gibson Co., TN  and Robert Rankin (died 1795),  Jeremiah Rankin, and David Rankin of Franklin Co., PA. One of those “same name” stories taught me that people do not like hearing they are wrong, even in the context of family history – where we all make errors!

Here’s what happened. I “met” a close match through FTDNA autosomal tests. Both of us have Rankin ancestors. We compared notes and learned we share Rankin great-great-grandparents. We had a pleasant exchange of emails sharing personal info and family histories. I looked closely at his tree, and found that it showed one of our shared ancestors – Lyddal Bacon Estes – married to two different women at the same time. This is a common error for Lyddal. It is really  understandable in light of his unusual name(s).

I sent my distant cousin information about our ancestor’s one-and-only wife. I included citations to county records. The email was not rude or unkind, and didn’t suggest he change his tree … it was just an “FYI, here is another view” message. Not only did I never hear from him again, he barred me from viewing his tree. That’s pretty angry.

GEDCOM in, GEDCOM out (“GIGO”)

Bill recalls a woman he met decades ago at an LDS family history center. Her research consisted of printing GEDCOM after GEDCOM on a dot matrix printer. She then painstakingly inserted the information from the printout into her own family tree. That takes almost as much effort as doing the original research, although it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Bill calls her approach “GEDCOM in, GEDCOM out,” or GIGO for short – meaning “garbage in, garbage out.” If you ever worked with computers, you are familiar with that acronym.

It is now absurdly easy to import GEDCOMs having thousands of names and to merge them with your own tree. One cannot possibly confirm all that information. This is a great way to construct a tree that shows you as a descendant of, say, a Mayflower pilgrim, Sitting Bull, Charlemagne, and the Buddha. More power to you if that’s what you want from this hobby. As we like to say in the south, bless your heart.

Instead of starting a rant, here is my view and Roberta’s of  evidence and proof with respect to online family trees. Both articles (mine contains a link to Roberta’s) assert that they are not genealogical evidence. If you want to argue with that assertion, please send me a crisp $50 bill. Then we can talk.

It is unquestionably true that many online trees are conscientious attempts to construct an ancestry through research into actual evidence. It is also true that many online trees are simply GIGO, like the tree constructed by the woman who printed GEDCOMs.

GIGO trees contain a plethora of errors. We will all run into them. As for me, I have sworn off contacting anyone about bad information on a tree. If you are thinking about doing that, please send me a message first. I will do my best to dissuade you.

See you on down the road.

Robin

Reprise: what is “proof” of family history?

This is a repost of an article from 2018. It has received more views on this website than any article I’ve written except the one about the the Scots-Irish. The title indicates the topic is genealogical proof , which is a slight misdirection. The article is initially about what is, and is not, genealogical evidence. Then it attacks a tougher question: how much evidence is needed to say we have proof. Now, back to the original article.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I have a distant cousin (seventh cousins, maybe?) named Roberta Estes. We “met” online via Estes research some twenty years ago.  We finally met in person, spending a week together in Halifax County, VA doing nitty-gritty research among records in the basement of the Halifax courthouse. I knew I had found a kindred spirit when I learned she likes tax and deed records as much as I do.

Roberta writes an excellent blog called “DNA Explained.” A great many of her posts are about DNA “science.” When I have a question about DNA, the first place I go is to her blog and search her Archives.

Roberta’s post today is on a topic that will interest all family history researchers: what is, and what is NOT, genealogical “proof,” as she uses that term. Here is a link to  her post. 

What resonated most with me was her list of things that do NOT constitute “proof.” I have copied part of it below, with my comments and modifications in italics (the numbering has changed from her original list since I deleted a few items):

  1. Proof is not an oral history, no matter how much you want to believe it or who said it. Oral history is a good starting point, not an end point.
  2. Proof is not, not, 1000 times NOT someone else’s tree. A tree should be considered a hint, nothing more.
  3. Proof is not a book without corresponding evidence that can be independently corroborated. Being in print does not make it so. People make mistakes and new information surfaces. Unfortunately, there are also genealogical frauds – see, e.g., Gustave Anjou.
  4. Proof is not a man by the name of Jr. [taken to mean] that he is the son of a man by the same name with the suffix of Sr. “Sr.” often means older and “Jr.” means younger, but not necessarily related. In fact, the suffix can change over time for the SAME MAN: a Robert Rankin who initially showed up in Guilford, NC records as “Robert JUNIOR.” became “Robert SENIOR” after Robert the elder (his father) died.
  5. Proof of a father/son relationship is not just two men with the same name in the same location.  I have a copy of a 1762 Lunenburg Co., VA deed, Thomas Winn grantor, witnessed by John Winn, Daniel Winn, John Winn, and John Winn. Nothing to distinguish between the John Winns. Some of those colonists clearly had a sense of humor. Lunenburg Deed Book 7: 227. 
  6. Proof is not just a will or other document … without evidence that a person by the same name as the child named in the will is the RIGHT person.

The lawyer in me, retired though she might be, feels compelled to expand on Roberta’s discussion of “proof.” Namely, I want to draw a distinction between “proof” and “evidence,” and the amount of evidence that is needed to produce a certain standard of proof. 

The definition of “evidence” takes up a full page in Black’s Law Dictionary. Fortunately, the essence of the meaning of “evidence” as it relates to genealogical research is pretty easy to distill. Try this on for size: EVIDENCE is anything that is offered to prove the existence or nonexistence of a fact. In genealogy, evidence includes deeds, will and other probate records, tax lists, church birth and death records, census records, tombstone inscriptions, and so on. It does not include a family tree posted at the FHL or Ancestry websites, nor does it include a compiled family history, which is how trees were published in the pre-internet era.

Notice that the word “prove” appears in the definition of evidence. Here is what Black’s has to say about that: PROOF is the effect of evidence.

Boiling both definitions down, evidence is what supports a belief that a fact is proved (or disproved).

If you have ever served on a jury, you already know there are different “standards of proof.” In a Texas criminal trial, the standard of proof requires a defendant’s guilt to be established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a Texas civil case, the standard of proof is usually “preponderance of the evidence.”

Another standard of proof lying somewhere between those two is “great weight and preponderance of the evidence.” Law students, who like to boil things down to something understandable, may view it like this:

  • Beyond a reasonable doubt: at least 95% of the facts compel a certain conclusion.
  • Great weight and preponderance: 65-85% of the evidence supports a conclusion.
  • Preponderance of the evidence: a conclusion is more likely than not – it has the weight of at least 51% of the evidence.

Naturally, there are parallels in family history research, or I wouldn’t be carrying on about this.

You frequently see the phrase “conclusively proved” in family history articles. This is roughly equivalent to “beyond a reasonable doubt.” For example, my paternal grandmother’s identity – Emma Brodnax Rankin – is conclusively proved by my birth certificate, my father’s birth certificate, his mother’s will naming him as a son, census records naming him as a son, ad infinitum. There is also my recollection of all those awful holiday dinners in her grotesquely overheated house in Gibsland, Bienville Parish, Louisiana. A court would call my testimony about those dinners at Ma Rankin’s “direct evidence” based on personal knowledge. If I’m a credible witness, THAT case is closed.

When you see the phrase “conclusively proved,” it means there is really no reasonable argument to the contrary. That is how I use the phrase on this blog. There is no reasonable argument that anyone other than Emma Brodnax Rankin was my paternal grandmother.

Use of the word “probably” in family history articles seems to equate with “preponderance of the evidence.” Namely, a conclusion is more likely than not.

Similarly, the phrases “most likely” or “almost certainly” are somewhere in between the other two. There may be a reasonable doubt, but the weight of credible evidence strongly points one way.

The “eye of the beholder” obviously plays a role in this determination. I may deem a conclusion “most likely;” you might find it only “probable.” This is a good reason why one would want to know the evidence for another genealogist’s conclusion … you might not find the evidence sufficiently compelling to justify accepting the conclusion.

We also need to talk about “circumstantial” evidence, because sometimes there is no other proof of a family relationship. That is particularly true in counties where records have been lost and documentary evidence is limited. “Circumstantial evidence” just means facts that lead to a reasonable inference.

For example, the fact that a 65-year old man named Jedediah Rankin is listed in the 1860 census in a household immediately adjacent to 40-year old Jacob Rankin constitutes circumstantial evidence of a relationship. You can reasonably infer some family connection between the two men because such an inference accords with common sense and experience. If Jacob and Jedediah witness each other’s deeds, that would provide additional circumstantial evidence of a family relationship. If Jacob named his eldest son Jedediah, and Jedediah Sr. was security on Jacob’s marriage bond, those facts would also be circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence such as this can establish a compelling web of family connections suggesting only one reasonable conclusion: Jacob was Jedediah’s son. It is a powerful tool in serious research.

One last red flag about “proof:” beware the passive voice, a grammatical form that frequently signals lack of evidence. Keep an eye out for these phrases, which appear in many compiled family histories: “it is thought that …” or “it is believed that …”  or “it is reported that ...”  Hmmmmm…. who believed or reported? And what is his or her evidence? Those phrases rightfully justify a jaundiced eye unless the writer provides evidence supporting the “belief.”

In all fairness, I do need to point out one thing about those old compiled family histories. Academic writers routinely cite evidence supporting factual assertions in their books, papers, and articles. Historically, family history researchers have not done so. No telling why — perhaps because genealogists, unlike academics, aren’t writing to burnish a reputation or (usually) to make money. We do this because it’s fun, or we want to share, or we’re just curious about our history. Or all of the above. 

Fortunately, more family history researchers now seem willing to share evidence and provide citations to county and other records. As a cautionary note, though, here’s a piece of advice I received from a woman researcher I had been peppering with questions via email back in the ’90s. She had obviously reached the end of her rope. “Honey,” she said, “if you really want to find answers to all those questions, I suggest you go dig around in the records of Middlesex County, Virginia. Your library has a bunch of good abstracts.” <grin> I took her advice.

Finally, back to Roberta’s list of “not proof,” item #2, someone else’s tree. It may be a fact that “many online trees” show Jedediah Rankin as Jacob Rankin’s father. Those online trees are not even evidence of a relationship between those two men. All they might prove is that many online trees are copies of other online family trees. Or that many people believe Jedediah was Jacob’s father. But … evidence? Nope.

See you on down the road.

Robin

 

Heads up: a genealogy scam

We learned about a new genealogy scam today. It seems unlikely that many people would fall for it, but … just in case, here’s a heads up. Here’s how the scam works:

  • The scammer hacks someone’s account at Ancestry.com (or at least finds their Ancestry password and accesses the account). From there, he can view any tree on Ancestry and send messages to any tree owner via the Ancestry messaging system.
  • He sends the message quoted below to anyone on Ancestry who seems a likely target. In the email below, the scammer is targeting a man named Willis, attempting to peddle Willis family records.
  • The name of the message sender is genuine: it is the name of the person whose account has been hacked. The account owner is unaware of the scam.
  • The scammer tells the potential victim to contact him directly, rather than the actual account owner (see boldface sentences in the message).

Bottom line: the scammer tries to sell alleged family history documents to the message recipient. 

Here’s an actual scam message, verbatim except for names at the beginning and end. Some of the information about William Willis in the second sentence may be genuine. I didn’t check. It would certainly make the scam more credible if it included accurate info, although that sounds like too much work for a grifter.

“A message from John Doe [name of person whose Ancestry account was hacked]

Good Afternoon [name of potential victim], I am writing you because I recently acquired a box full of genealogical information on your family from an auction in Sykesville, MD. Documents are mostly from the 1920-30s by William Nicolas Willis (1879-1939), a noted author, poet, genealogist and historian. This is a true treasure trove of family history that goes back at least 7 generations from his perspectives. There are some interesting photographs of family members, family properties, tomb stones, several trees illustrating the connections, many dozens of letters to & from his desk, journals, contemporaneous newspaper articles, etc. it appears from how William Willis drew his family tree there is a solid connection to George Washington during the 1600’s timeframe. There is even two photos of a family Elm tree from the John Willis plantation that is most suiting for this project of his. It appears that William had only one son, William, Jr. … so perhaps with his death the papers co no longer be passed to a next generations, so I ended up with them at an auction that would have thrown it all away otherwise. Please contact me so that I can go into detail and see if you would be interested in acquiring this tribe which I am definately certain will beef up your family tree on this site. I am using my nephew John Doe’s page on Ancestry so please write to me at {email address} If you respond on this site my nephew (in Ohio) will receive it but not know why as this is not his project. I look forward to hearing from you. [name of person who will receive the responsive email]”

End of message.

We don’t know whether the person who originally received this message reported it to Ancestry (we don’t know who he/she is – just that he is a Willis researcher). If you get something similar, please do report it.

Anyone who reads carefully would probably not fall for this. It was plainly written by someone for whom English is a second language, not unlike those emails from a “Nigerian Prince” that we have all received. However, it’s hard to overestimate the appeal of all those alleged family history records, supposedly establishing a connection to the line of George Washington.

Also, based on the amount of obvious errors one finds in online trees, perhaps there are naïve possible victims for this scam on Ancestry. 

Here’s my latest experience with bad trees, also passed on as a caution.

I recently took Ancestry’s autosomal test, and then learned that I really needed to post a tree to make it useful. That is no fun at all. Here’s why.

If you have worked on building a family tree at their website, you know that Ancestry provides “clues” every time you enter a name. For example, I added to my tree the name of an ancestor born in the early 1800s. Up popped a “clue” to the name of his parents. The suggested parents were so far out in left field that I couldn’t even imagine how someone invented them. I’d never heard of them.

Fortunately (or not), Ancestry lets one connect to the source of the information in its clues. When I went to one of the trees sourcing that bad clue, I found a host of Ancestry trees having a picture of my mother. Several of them gave her an inaccurate name or a nonexistent middle initial. 

A number of friends have told me how upset they get by the bad information posted online about their families. I am not usually among them. Still. This was my mother. Golly gee, if someone can post my mother’s picture, he or she could at least get her name right! I realize that is a minor error that won’t lead anyone down the wrong ancestor trail, so it is really of no consequence.

NONETHELESS: I promptly fired off a cranky message to one of the portrait/wrong name posters (who also had the error about an ancestors’ parents, a meaningful one), implying that she was giving serious genealogists a bad name by copying other peoples’ info without verifying it. Upon further examination of the tree, I figured out the identity of the tree owner and her relationship to me. Unfortunately, it’s a close kinship, despite the fact that I didn’t recognize her married name.

Gee, I wish I hadn’t fired off that cranky message!

Takeaways from that experience …

  • Don’t accept information posted on other family trees without confirmation in ACTUAL records. I’ve said this before, and will undoubtedly say it again: online trees don’t prove anything except how easy it is to construct and copy other people’s family trees that may be full of errors. Look closely at posted trees, and you will find, say, a 9-year-old women having children. Or a woman marrying a man who was already married. My favorite: a 120-year-old woman who was still reportedly having children, nontwithstanding that she had been dead for 60 of those 120 years. I’ll bet you have one that can top it. If so, please share.
  • Likewise, don’t accept Ancestry’s “clues” at face value. Check them out. Just because Ancestry provided the will of some William Rankin, that doesn’t mean it is your  William Rankin — an error called “same name confusion.” At least take the time to read the damn will, where you might learn that the testator wrote the will in Franklin Co., PA in the 1790s, while your ancestor William Rankin died in 1850 in Lackawanna Co. You wouldn’t believe how many wills, S.A.R. applications, church and other records are attached to the Ancestry profile of a person who has no family connection whatsoever to the attached “source.” They might not even share a given name, which really boggles the mind.
  • Don’t be an old grouch who attempts to correct someone else’s tree, as I did. You will be wasting your time. They probably won’t give a fig if their info is wrong, especially if they just copied it from someone else’s tree – or blindly accepted an Ancestry clue. Furthermore, errors on Ancestry multiply faster than Tribbles: exponentially. Trying to correct them is a losing battle. Finally, don’t send a cranky message to the owner of the erroneous tree because you might wind up regretting it.

That’s it for now. More Rankins are calling. Also Burkes, Trices, Estes, Winns, and Lindseys. Oakes, Odoms, Stubbs, and Hubbards. Powells, Vaughans and Perrymans. As a distant Alexander cousin likes to say: NOBODY HAS MORE FUN THAN WE DO. <grin>

See you on down the road.

Robin

Query: Ann Winn Webber of Northam Parish, Goochland, VA

A recent comment on a Winn post on this blog asked the following (lightly edited):

“I am wondering if you, or anyone else reading this blog, might have run across an Ann Winn who married William Webber III on 1 August 1764 in Goochland County, Viriginia. The marriage is recorded in the Douglas Register. The family seems to have resided in St. James Northam Parish, where William Webber died in August 1794. William Webber III and his wife Ann Winn had at least the following children: Philip (named for William Webber III’s father), Benjamin, John, Mary , Keturah, Susannah Winn, Charles, William IV, and Archer. I’ve also seen a son named Archibald attached to this family, although Archer and Archibald may be the same person. Ann Winn Weber is sometimes identified as a daughter of John Winn and Mary Pledger of Hanover County, but my impression is that their daughter Ann was married to Nathaniel Holman and no one else. Any information, thoughts, theories, or suggestions on who this Ann Winn was and where she fits in the Winn family would be much appreciated. Thanks.”

OK, Winn experts, please weigh in! Either post a comment on this blog or communicate directly with Jeff Duvall, who is looking for this information, by email at jduvall@iupui.edu. Sissy? Bill? Anyone?

Hope this gets some results! Thanks in advance …

Robin

Rankin, Upton County, Texas

Want to see two characters from Lonesome Dove taking a selfie? Get yourself to Rankin, Texas. The town is perched atop the Edwards Plateau in the Middle of Nowhere, population 778.[1]

 

I have no idea what the town is best known for, but I’ll put my money on an old corrugated tin building decorated with a funky Texas flag and portraits of Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow F. Call of Lonesome Dove. Someone with a puckish sense of humor painted the pair on horseback, with Call taking a selfie.[2] Tommy Lee Jones would probably approve.

 

Google says the town is named for F. E. Rankin, a “local rancher.”[3] In fact, F. E. did receive a grant of 640 acres in Upton County in 1911.[4] However, he apparently never lived in Rankin. Instead, he and his family lived in Midland County. He is listed in the 1910 census there as “Finis E. Rankin” with his wife Eliza and son Porter, age 20 (born about 1890). The name Porter Rankin rang a tiny bell, but I wasn’t sure why. Finis, Eliza and Porter were born in Tennessee, and the couple’s parents were also born in Tennessee.[5] The 1900 Midland census reveals that F. E. was born in January 1856 and was a “cattle raiser.”[6]

Findagrave.com website often has errors in its unsourced obiter dicta, but the tombstone pictures and obituaries posted there are pretty good evidence.[7] The Fairview Cemetery in Midland has a tombstone for F. E. Rankin (“father”), 1856 – 1916, and Eliza Rankin (“mother”), 1862 – 1953.[8] Better yet, there is a Midland County death certificate for Robert Porter Rankin (1890 – 1 Nov 1962). It identifies him as a son of F. E. Rankin and Eliza Smith. Best of all, it says Porter was born in Belt Buckle, TN. That town is in Bedford County, telling us where to go look for Finis et al. before they came to Texas.

With a name like “Finis” and the additional information, tracking this line was a piece of cake. There is a marriage record for F. E. Rankin and Elizabeth Smith for 27 Jul 1879 in Bedford County, TN. At age 5, Finis and his younger brother Porter were listed in the 1860 census for Bedford County with their presumed parents Robert and Matilda Rankin.[9] The 1850 Bedford census adds a middle initial: his name was Robert D.Rankin, and there was a David G. Rankin, a child, in the household.[10] The 1880 census identifies David G. Rankin as a son of Robert D. and Matilda.[11]

At this point, bells began to ring in earnest. The names David G. Rankin and Porter Rankin are firmly planted in my memory … and in my family tree software. A different (and older) David G. Rankin was a son of Samuel and Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander Rankin of Lincoln Co., NC – my ancestors. I have written several article about Sam and Eleanor: here is one. The elder David. G. Rankin’s wife was Anne Moore Campbell, and they had a son, Rev. James Porter Rankin, who died at age 26.[12]

David G. and Anne Rankin migrated from Lincoln Co., NC to Rutherford Co., TN. A deed there identifies a Robert D. Rankin as a resident of Bedford Co., TN; other records make it clear that Robert D., father of Finis, was a son of David and Anne.[13]

And that’s enough for Rankin, TX. I’ve just written more words than there are people in the town. And whoda thunk I’d find relatives near there.

See you on down the road.

Robin


[1] Rankin’s population of 778 is per the 2010 census.

[2] A friend who writes a travel blog called Wanderwiles took these two pictures and kindly sent them to me.

[3] See Note 1.

[4] Texas Land Title Abstracts, Certificate No. 982, file No. 85690, 640-acre grant to F. E. Rankin dated 26 Oct. 1911.

[5] 1910 federal census, Midland Co., TX, household of Finis E. Rankin, age 54, b. TN, parents b. TN, with wife Elisah (sic, Eliza), 48, TN/TN/TN, and son Porter Rankin, 20, TN/TN/TN.

[6] 1900 federal census, Midland Co., TN, T. E. or F. E. Rankin, b. Jan 1856, age 44, married 20 years, cattle raiser. Household includes wife Eliza, b. Feb 1862, who has had 3 children, all living; daughter Maud, b. Apr 1880, son P. B., b. Dec 1881, and son Porter, b. Feb 1890.

[7] The deceased isn’t ever around to give his/her date of birth, and my experience is that children often haven’t a clue what year their parents were born. Tombstones are subject to that possibility. AND, once in a while, people have been known to fib about their age, a frequent occurrence in census records.

[8] Tombstone for Finis E. Rankin.  

[9] 1860 federal census, Bedford Co., TN, District 4 has household of Robert Rankin, 45, farmer, $16,500 realty, $15,000 personalty, b. TN. Also listed in the household (all born in TN, and all with the surname Rankin), were Matild (sic, Matilda) 35, Nancy 21, David 19, Thomas 17, Jame 16, Ellen 13, Susanah 11, Malinda 9, Virginia 7, Finis, 5, and Porter, 1. 

[10] 1850 federal census, Bedford Dist. 4, Robert D. Rankin, farmer, $7,000 real property, b. TN. Matilda Rankin, 33, Nancy A. Rankin, 10, David G. Rankin, 9, William Thomas Rankin, 8, Janes? C. Rankin, female, 6, Martha E. Rankin, 4, and Susannah M. Rankin, 1. 

[11] 1880 federal census, Bedford Dist. 5, David G. Rankin, 38, farmer, b. TN, parents b. TN, wife Laura T. Rankin, 30, NC/NC/NC, sons Robert E. Rankin, 12, Wm A Rankin, 10, Leon Augustus Rankin, 7, Albert E. Rankin, 2, and Osman G. Rankin, 1.

[12] Rev. James Porter Rankin, born May 10th, 1805, died Sep 11th, 1831, aged 26 years 1 mo. & 1 day. Obit in the National Register & States Gazette, Sept. 17, 1831, says Rev. J. P Rankin died in Rutherford Co., TN. His tombstone in the Old City Cemetery in Murfreesboro, TN shows dates of birth and death as May 10, 1805 – Sep 11, 1831. His parents David G. and Anne M. C. Rankin are buried in the same cemetery.

[13] Rutherford Co., TN Deed Book Z: 93, bill of sale dated 15 Jan 1842 from Robert Rankin of Bedford Co., TN to Martin Alexander of Rutherford, an enslaved person. See also Rutherford Co., TN Deed Book 1: 523, Robert D. Rankin and William C. Rankin, administrators of the estate of their sister Mary (Rankin) Montgomery. Mary M. Rankin married Joseph A. Montgomery in Rutherford County on 10 Sep 1831.

Poking a Snake With a Stick

OK, I’m a city girl … if you count Shreveport, LA, located in northwest Louisiana (aka East Texas) as “city.” I learned some good rural stuff, though, at Camp Fern, Marshall, Harrison Co., TX. I was a camper or a counselor there for a decade.

FYI, Harrison County, Texas is home to all four poisonous snakes resident to the US of A: water moccasins, rattlesnakes, copperheads, and coral snakes.

In my ten summers at Camp Fern, I saw them all. Nobody was ever bitten in all that time. I came to accept snakes as fellow occupants of God’s good green earth. Sometime in the late 1950s, a copperhead was hanging around on a rock near my cabin. I reported it to my counsellor. “Honey,” she said, “it won’t hurt you if you just don’t poke it with a stick.”

Live and let live: a good piece of advice.

But a snake is still a snake.

I actually remembered my counsellor’s advice with respect to the administrators of a certain FTDNA family DNA project. I failed to follow my gut hunch. Instead, I poked the snake, and wound up being defamed in an email (sent to gosh knows how many people), and two good friends of mine were tossed out of that DNA project for totally meretricious reasons. My friends are understandably upset.

That is a sad story that is probably about power and control. The project administrators in this case are (in my personal opinion) snakes, and they are out of control. That’s a damn shame.

THE PURPOSE OF THIS POST: if you are a member of a family DNA project, make sure that your administrators remain kosher. There are a zillion DNA projects, and FTDNA cannot possibly monitor everything the administrators do (although I think FTDNA does its best). The administrators are all volunteers, and most (in my experience) are committed to furthering family research in their particular family line. Most don’t punish people they don’t like by making up phony reasons to kick them out of a project. However, it is primarily up to us, as project members, to make sure that administrators do their jobs. There is no excuse for administrators to violate FTDNA ethical standards and/or to abuse their power over their members. So please keep an eye on ’em. Poke the snake, if need be. Report them to FTDNA.

Surname DNA Projects: Protecting Your Tree From a Meddling Administrator

The names in this post have been changed to protect the innocent.

Here’s what happened to me as a member of a family surname DNA project. I have taken the “Family Finder” (autosomal) DNA test with FTDNA, and have joined several surname DNA projects.

  • On January 9, I received an email from FTDNA telling me that I had been added to the family tree of (let’s call him) John Doe. I was already aware that John Doe and I are an autosomal match. The co-administrator of the Doe Surname DNA project had pointed the match out to me in recent email correspondence about other issues.
  • I checked out John Doe’s tree that he has posted at FTDNA. I can do that from my FTDNA account by going to my Family Finder matches, locating John Doe in the list, and clicking on the chart icon to the right of his name. Lo and behold, there I was on John Doe’s tree — a living person, not supposed to be shown to the public on MY tree. My Doe line was also on John Doe’s tree.
  • I emailed the man who manages John Doe’s account — let’s call him Younger Doe — and asked him to please remove my name from John Doe’s tree since I am, last time I checked, alive. I didn’t ask him to remove my entire Doe line. I did point out one misspelled name in the line.
  • He replied, saying, in essence, “huh?” He hadn’t checked John Doe’s account lately. He had NOT added my Doe line to John Doe’s tree.
  • I emailed the co-administrator of the project. I told her Younger Doe and I hadn’t a clue what was going on, and could she please fill us in as to how my Doe line might have found its way into John Doe’s family tree at FTDNA?
  • She (in my opinion) ducked and ran for cover. She said perhaps the Doe project administrator might have added my line to John Doe’s tree. She copied the administrator on her email to me and Younger Doe.

I replied and said I was outraged that a DNA project administrator would alter a project member’s posted family tree.

The reply from the administrator said my line “has been removed” from John Doe’s tree. Don’t you just love passive voice? It’s as though some ghostly apparition removed my info, rather than an identifiable person. Although I have some suspicions about who both added and deleted that stuff. She also suggested that, if I didn’t like what happened, I should change my privacy settings. She was using the sarcastic AND disingenuous font, since changing my privacy settings wouldn’t have prevented what happened.

I began checking this matter — and the issues of control and privacy that it raises — with genealogy friends. I also got help from a friend who is a member of the Rankin project. She let me fool around with her account to find out what I could do, and what I could not do, as an administrator. Her account has strict privacy settings, so I didn’t learn much from that exercise.

Here’s what I did learn from conversations and online experimentation.

  • There is no way to prevent a project administrator from looking at your posted FTDNA tree, no matter what your privacy settings may be. The most restrictive setting to prevent administrator meddling is “read only.” (See advice on settings below). Thus, there is no way my settings would have prevented the Doe project administrator from getting information about my Doe ancestors. Obviously, if there is a problem with privacy settings in this particular saga, it is on John Doe’s account, not mine.
  • What she did with the ancestry information she obtained from my account was completely out of my control. Administrators are, of course, subject to FTDNA guidelines for administrators and the FTDNA privacy policy.
  • None of my friends were comfortable with what happened here. No one was sure whether FTDNA’s guidelines for project administrators might have precluded the revision of John Doe’s tree. No one was sure whether the privacy policy precluded it, either. I’m also not sure about either of those things.

Finally, here’s some concrete advice: if you belong to a DNA project, you need to make sure you are comfortable with the amount of control your privacy settings give to project administrators. Here’s how to check. In your FTDNA account, look on the left side of your home page at the bottom of your “profile” information, and go to….

Manage Personal Information → Contact Information → Privacy and Sharing → Account Access. 

“Contact Information,” “Privacy and Sharing,” and “Account Access” are all tabs — easy to find at the top of each subsequent page after your home page. When you get to “Account Access,” you will see the question “how much access do administrators have?” If you have maximum protection, it should be set to “READ ONLY.” If you click on the “READ ONLY” link, you can view the “complete permission list” and give an administrator limited access if you wish.

While you are in your FTDNA account, CHANGE YOUR PASSWORD. It is possible that the administrator in this case unaccountably felt that it was acceptable to modify John Doe’s tree (without telling Younger Doe) because she had the account password. I am told administrators are sometimes given passwords by the test kit owner if he or she needs help. That’s all well and good. Get whatever help you need from a project administrator, then CHANGE YOUR PASSWORD.

That’s something akin to the First Commandment of the digital age, isn’t it?

I cannot identify anything in the “complete permission” list that might limit an administrator’s authority to revise a member’s family tree. Likewise, I can’t identify anything specific in the guidelines for administrators that either prohibits it OR allows it. I plan to contact FTDNA and suggest they might want to look at this issue.

That said, it’s hard to imagine that anyone involved in DNA testing for family history purposes would find it acceptable to modify someone else’s family tree without getting express permission to do so. Written guidelines and policies shouldn’t be necessary here. Common sense and thoughtfulness should work just fine. 

Another option is to withdraw from a project altogether, which is what I did with the Doe family surname project.

Love letter

This letter isn’t really genealogy. It is, however, family history in the true sense of the phrase. And it’s worth preserving.

June 7, 2017

My dearest wonderful Gary,

I am so happy that the silly, superficial sorority girl I once was fell head over heels for that funny, handsome, smart, skinny, black-haired Air Force Academy cadet. I had no idea, of course, how you would turn out, or what sort of wonderful adventures (and trials and tribulations) we would have over the course of a half-century of marriage.

Who knew that you would be a kind, gentle, earth-connected person who talks to doves, whistles at mockingbirds, and reassures undersized fish that they will be OK and back in the water if they will just hold still while you extract a hook? Or a compassionate, empathetic man who weeps every time we visit the Wall; a generous man who gives, as the man in the Bible admonished, to anyone who begs; a patient man who cared for my dying mother in spite of her verbal abuse; and a fiercely principled person who regularly writes intelligent, outraged letters to the ignorant, soulless grifter in the White House who has no regard for human decency or for democratic norms and institutions.

You have also been a loving and supportive husband, father, son and brother. And, on top of all that, you love Paris, London, the theater, history, crossword puzzles, grilled oysters, gardening, genealogy, and fishing. I have no idea how I got so lucky. I do know that I have fifty years of being your partner for which to be grateful beyond measure. I will love you forever.

Happy fiftieth anniversary.

Robin