PA/TN Rankins: correction & additions, 1749 will of John Rankin

My most recent post (yesterday, July 18, 2018) contained a one-sentence summary of the 1749 will of John Rankin of Lancaster Co., PA. The original post had an error about the will, so I feel compelled to correct it … and add a bit to it. This post will contain images of John’s original will, an abstract, and a start of a chart for his family. As always, the facts are accompanied by opinion and commentary (or, as one relative described it, highly opinionated commentary).

Given that my reference to John Rankin’s will arose in the context of a post of the Mt. Horeb tablet in Jefferson Co, TN, we will focus on what we know about John’s son Thomas, rather than Thomas’s brother Richard or any of his eight sisters. Thomas was the patriarch of the Mt. Horeb/Jefferson Co., TN Rankins. A disclaimer: all of this is conventional wisdom, so this post doesn’t add one iota to the accumulated knowledge of this Rankin family. All it does is add a tiny bit of evidence here and there for those who like that kind of foolishness.

Here are images of John Rankin’s original will — in case you really love these old documents. These are screenshots from an online image of the original. That image is available at at this link. You may need an account at the Family History Library to view it, but accounts are free and very worthwhile. The original will, dated 1 Jan 1749 and proved 25 Feb 1749/50, is recorded in Lancaster Co, PA Will Book J at page 211. It is the absolute dickens to find online, since the people who photographed these documents apparently didn’t give a whit about making sure page numbers were clearly photographed.

Here is image #1 of 3:







Images #2 and #3 …

Here are the genealogically important parts of John Rankin’s will:

  • John named his wife Margaret. Conventional Rankin wisdom identifies John’s wife as Jane McElwee. I don’t know how the conventional wisdom reconciles the name Jane with the will. Some people claim her name was Margaret Jane McElwee, although that runs counter to the fact that virtually no one of that era had a middle name. That approach seems a real cop-out. I would call her Margaret, period. Anyone have any record evidence of her maiden name, I hope? They were reportedly married in Ireland, where I have done no research.
  • John named his two sons Richard and Thomas. Richard inherited his father’s clothes. Thomas inherited half of the plantation immediately and the other half at his mother’s death. Reading between the lines, Margaret was Thomas’s mother.
  • John identified six of his daughters as Elizabeth, Ann, Margaret, Catrin, Rebecca and Agness. He also named two sons-in-law — William White and John Waugh, although he didn’t mention the given names of their wives. Interestingly, one of John’s grandsons — John, a son of John and Margaret’s son Thomas Rankin — married a Waugh in Pennsylvania. Perhaps she was his cousin? More on him in another post.
  • Son Richard and wife Margaret were executors. Witnesses were James Crokett (sic, Crockett), Richard Rankin, and Jane Steel. First time I’ve ever seen a beneficiary witness a will. These days, and most days, that is/was a no-no.

I haven’t tracked any of John and Margaret’s daughters, although that’s on my Rankin to-do list. As for the sons, Richard (says the Mt. Horeb tablet, reproduced in yesterday’s post), went to Augusta Co., VA. So, apparently, did Thomas, at least for a time.

Here is some of the evidence concerning Thomas (other than the information contained in oral family history traditions) …

First, there is a deed dated 20 Nov 1779 (Cumberland Co., PA Deed Book E-1: 511), from Thomas and Isabel Rankin of Cumberland Co., PA to John Rankin of same … 100 acres in Fermanagh Township on the north side of the Juanita River. The deed is signed by Thomas Rankin and Isabel (her mark) Rankin. In light of multiple family oral history traditions that Thomas (son of John Rankin d. 1749) married Isabel Clendennon/Clendenin — plus recurring names in the line — there is little doubt that this was Thomas, son of John. Also, the grantee John Rankin was probably the John Rankin who remained in PA at least long enough to marry either Martha or Jane Waugh and have a couple of sons before moving to TN.

Thomas and Isabel moved to Augusta County, VA, where his brother Richard lived. I haven’t found them in the records in Augusta (have only looked in Chalkey’s), although their presence there is proved by the Revolutionary War pension application of Thomas and Isabel’s son William. It is an extraordinary application because it proves so much. Here is Virgil White’s pension application abstract:

William Rankin, wife Sarah, PA and VA line. Born 27 Jan 1759 “some 5 miles below Carlisle in Cumberland Co., PA” and he lived at Juniata in that county at enlistment. In Jun 1780 he moved with his father to Augusta County, VA and also enlisted there. Soldier married Sarah Moore 29 Aug 1787 in Greene Co., TN and she was b. Jul 1763. Soldier d. 13 Dec 1833, widow applied 25 Mar 1844 in Green Co., TN. Children were (1) Thomas b. 13 Jul 1788, (2) Peggy b. 1 Jan 1790, (3) John Moore Rankin b. 10 Apr 1792, (4) Anthony b. 23 Aug 1794 (see Greene Co. TN records for Anthony) (5), Isabel Clindinon Rankin b. 30 Aug 1796, (6) William b. 23 Mar 1799, (7) Ginny b. 17 Nov 1801 and (8) David b. 10 Feb 1804.

Note that the Mt. Horeb tablet identifies Thomas and Isabel Clendennon Rankin’s son William as having married Sarah Moore. So … the pension application gives us a nice link between the Rankins of Cumberland and the Rankins of Greene/Jefferson.

OK, so let’s stop right here and draw a conventional chart containing what is supported by the evidence:

1  John Rankin b. unknown, d. 1749, Lancaster Co., PA. Wife Margaret.

2 Eight daughters. I apologize for giving them short shrift here.

2 Richard Rankin, to Augusta Co., VA.

2 Thomas Rankin, m. Isabel or Isabella Clendennon/Clendinnin, Cumberland Co, PA to Augusta Co., VA to East TN (Greene/Jefferson counties).

3 William Rankin, b. 27 Jan 1759, Carlisle, Cumberland Co., PA, to Augusta Co., VA in 1780, then to Greene Co, TN by 1787. Wife Sarah Moore.

This extraordinary family has a history that is, for the most part, very easy to trace. Some of it is inspiring, some heartbreaking, such as the descendant of John and Margaret Rankin whose family perished (or at least half of then did) in the 1918 flu epidemic.

Stay tuned. If you don’t wind up loving this East Tennessee family, I will not have done my job. And I’m not even descended from them (although we clearly share YDNA).





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.

Kudos to FTDNA!

No, I don’t work for FTDNA, or get free stuff from the company, or have any stake in its success. My only connection is that I did my own autosomal (“Family Finder”) test with FTDNA, and convinced two of my male first cousins to Y-DNA test with the company. I have also encouraged other people to do the same.

I just want to say “good for you, FTDNA” about their ethical/privacy standards on a couple of issues. If you read this blog, you know I had a run-in with a family surname project administrator not long ago. I wrote about my experience on this blog and gave some advice about maintaining control of your FTDNA account. Several friends (project administrators) and I discussed the privacy/ethics issues involved, but we didn’t have hard and fast answers.

So I emailed the FTDNA help desk. I asked two questions:

(1) Is it ethical for a family surname project administrator to upgrade a participant’s test kit without first getting prior express written permission from the participant who tested?

(2) Is it ethical for a family surname project administrator to revise a test participant’s family tree without getting prior express written permission?

FTDNA’s prompt reply was “NO” and “NO.”  Here is FTDNA’s reply verbatim:

“1) Before ordering testing on any account, you must have express written permission from the test taker where they agree to further testing.

2) You are not allowed to make changes to a members tree without their express written permission.”

There is nothing equivocal about that. No exceptions, no caveats. FTDNA did not say “except it is OK to change a member’s tree if you have the account password.” Ditto on ordering further testing — unequivocally verboten, even if you have the account password.

So thanks, FTDNA. I’m glad to hear it.

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.

Samuel Rankin (abt. 1734 – abt. 1816) m. Eleanor Alexander — new post to replace two old ones

In August and September 2016, I posted a two-part article about the possible family of origin of Samuel Rankin (“Sam Sr.”) of Rowan, Mecklenburg and Lincoln counties, North Carolina whose wife was Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander. Having just reread the two posts, I found them tedious, overlong, and packed with trivial information that is unlikely to be of any interest whatsoever to anyone. I apparently have an unattractive propensity to beat dead horses from time to time. Moreover, new Y-DNA information on the issue has come to light which moots a substantial part of the argument in one of the posts.

I am going to delete both posts from this website as soon as I figure out how to do that. Here is their replacement, which just cuts to the chase re: old theories of Sam Sr.’s possible parents. It also provides a brief description of the Y-DNA evidence to date.

Rankin researchers have had two main theories about the identity of Sam Sr.’s father:

Theory #1 — Sam Sr.’s father was Joseph Rankin of White Clay Creek Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware (1704-1764). Let’s call him “Joseph of Delaware.” Two of Joseph’s proved sons who belonged to the same generation as Sam Jr. moved to Guilford County, NC. The primary source of Theory #1 is Rev. S. M. Rankin’s 1931 book, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy.[1]

Theory #2 — Sam Sr.’s parents were Robert and Rebecca Rankin of Guilford County, NC. Call them “R&R.” Before migrating to North Carolina in the mid-1750s, Robert appeared on the 1753 tax list for West Nottingham Township, Chester County, PA.

Here’s the bottom line. First, there is no evidence whatsoever that I can find in the actual records of Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina or any other colony to support either Theory #1 or Theory #2. Second, Y-DNA tests conclusively prove that both theories are dead wrong.

Here is a bit about the DNA evidence.

The Y-DNA evidence re: Theory #1

There is a Rankin DNA Project which provides (anonymously, if desired) Y-DNA results online.[2] One member, Doug Rankin, has a solid paper genealogical trail proving he is descended from Joseph of Delaware. I located another proved descendant of Joseph of Delaware by conventional paper research – let’s call him “Mr. X.” Doug convinced Mr. X to test. Turns out that the two men are 37-marker matches with one mismatching marker, which genetic genealogists call a “37-marker match with a genetic distance of one” (or “GD=1”). That is a darn good match. Furthermore, the two men descend from different sons of Joseph of Delaware (John and William, both of Guilford Co., NC), so their close DNA match isn’t a function of a recent common ancestor: Joseph of Delaware is their common Rankin ancestor.

With two closely matching Y-DNA samples and two very solid paper trails, there is a high degree of confidence that Doug and Mr. X provide a good picture of the Y-DNA of descendants of Joseph of Delaware – as well as those who aren’t his descendants.

The Rankin DNA project has two other members (call them Mr. A and Mr. B) whose paper trails prove them to be descendants of Samuel and Eleanor Alexander Rankin. Neither of them is a match – not even remotely close – to Doug Rankin and Mr. X. Based on the tests from Mr. A, Mr. B, Mr. X. and Doug Rankin, the Y-DNA evidence proves conclusively that Sam Sr. cannot be a son of Joseph of Delaware.

The Y-DNA Evidence re: Theory #2

The Rankin DNA Project now has two participants whose genealogical paper trail shows they are descended from R&R – Robert and Rebecca Rankin of Guilford.

The first is Mr. R, whose paper trail conclusively proves that he is descended from R&R’s great-granddaughter Isabel Rankin (her maiden name) and her husband Robert Rankin. Robert’s parents are not conclusively proved. The obvious problem is that Mr. R inherited his Y-DNA from Robert, not Isabel. So the question is: who are Robert’s parents? I believe the circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly establishes that Isabel’s husband Robert was her second cousin, a proved son of George (1767 Guilford, NC -1851 McNairy, TN) and Nancy Gillespie Rankin. George, in turn, is a proved son of Robert Rankin of Guilford County, who is, in turn, a proved son of R&R. Consequently, Mr. R. is almost certainly (at least in my opinion) a descendant of R&R.

The second relevant Rankin DNA Project participant is Mr. M, whose paper trail leaves no doubt that he is descended from R&R through their great-grandson John D. Rankin, a son of George and Nancy Gillespie Rankin.

Mr. R and Mr. M are a 37-marker match with a GD = 2, a darn good match. For those of you who actually know something about the science of genealogical DNA, the two mismatched markers are at DYS 458 and CDY. My cousins Roger Alexander or Roberta Estes could undoubtedly appraise the quality of the match better than I can. I think it’s a good one.

Whatever. Neither Mr. R nor Mr. M – descendants of R&R – is a match with Mr. A or Mr. B, descendants of Sam Sr. and Eleanor Alexander Rankin. Their Y-DNA profiles are not even close. Sam Sr. is not, therefore, a son of Robert and Rebecca of Guilford.

Case closed. I’m guessing we are going to have to find a Rankin on the other side of the Atlantic to have a clue about Sam Sr.’s family of origin.

[1] Rev. S. M. Rankin, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy (Greensboro, NC: J. J. Stone & Co., printers and binders, 1931, reprint by Higginson Book Co., Salem, MA).

[2] This website has links to Y-DNA results (incomprehensible if you aren’t both a Rankin and Y-DNA expert) and to a “patriarch page” with lots of Rankin descendancy charts. For the most part, all participants provide their own ancestry and get to say from whom they are descended. Occasionally, they seem a bit farfetched. When two different people whose Y-DNA does NOT match claim descent from the same Rankin ancestor, the editors of the patriarch chart intervene to either make corrections or at least file disclaimers.

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, however, that I have fifty years of being your partner for which to be grateful beyond measure. I will love you forever.

Happy fiftieth anniversary.


Jesse Rankin m. Cynthia Sellers: Who Was His Father?


This answer to this question appears to be reasonably straightforward. However, it leaves another one hanging out there unanswered. Of course! This hobby wouldn’t be nearly as much fun were it not so.

Here’s the background. In January 2018, I posted an article on this website about some Rankin families I stumbled across in the records of Gibson County, Tennessee. Although the article focused on the identity of the Robert Rankin who applied for a Revolutionary War pension in 1832 while he was living in Gibson, it also mentioned other Rankin families in the county at later dates.

One of the other Gibson County families was Jesse Rankin and his wife Cynthia. Rankin researchers disagree on the identity of his parents. Some claim he was a son of Shaker Reverend John Rankin from the Guilford County, NC line of Robert and Rebecca Rankin. That John died in 1850 in Shaker Village (now “Shakertown”), Logan County, KY. Let’s call him “Shaker John.” Other researchers claim Jesse was a son of the Robert Rankin who lived in Rutherford Co., NC, Pendleton District, SC, and Caldwell County, KY. Call him “Rutherford Robert.”

Jesse of Gibson County was definitely not a son of Shaker John. Good circumstantial evidence strongly supports the notion that Jesse was a son of Rutherford Robert. See discussion of both possibilities below.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

Jesse and Cynthia first appeared for certain in the 1840 census for Gibson County and were probably also enumerated there in 1830, although Jesse’s age group is inconsistent between the 1830 and 1840 censuses.[1] The 1850 census lists the Rankins in Jesse’s household as follows:[2]

  • Jesse Rankin, 55, farmer, born KY, District 9, dwelling #1841.
  • Cynthia Rankin, 50, born KY
  • James Rankin, 21, farmer, TN
  • Elias Rankin, 17, farmer, TN
  • Williamson Rankin, 15, farmer, TN
  • Madison Rankin, 13, TN

In 1851, Jesse acquired a land grant of 48.5 acres.[3] That was the last record I found for him until his will appeared among the Gibson probate records. The will was dated November 18, 1851 and named his wife Cynthia and “three youngest sons” Elias, Williamson and Madison. I found no record as to when the will was proved. Jesse was not listed in the 1860 census, so it is a safe bet that he died sometime between 1851 and 1860. So far as I can tell, only Jesse and Cynthia’s son Elias remained in Gibson County, where he appeared through at least the 1880 census. See footnote 2.  Madison was living in Missouri by 1870. I couldn’t find either Williamson or James after 1850. Both were the right age to have been war casualties.

Knowing that both Jesse and Cynthia were born in Kentucky, the next step was to look in Kentucky marriage records. Turns out they were married on January 7, 1821, in Livingston County, KY.[4]

Jesse was almost certainly not the son of Shaker John of Logan County. The Logan County records establish that a different Jesse Rankin was most likely a son of Shaker John. Jesse, son of Shaker John, appeared in the census in Shaker Village, Logan County, every decade from 1850 through 1880. Nine other children of Shaker John  can also be identified from the Shaker Village death records and the federal census records during 1850 – 1880. Jesse Rankin died there, single, in 1882. It is unlikely that Shaker John’s son Jesse ever married or had any children, since the Shakers practiced celibacy.

Well, then … was Rutherford Robert the father of Jesse Rankin of Gibson County? The answer is almost certainly “yes,” for three reasons.

First, Rutherford Robert left a will dated 1808 and proved 1816 in Caldwell County, KY. Robert named a son Jesse. Second, Caldwell County was immediately adjacent to Livingston County in 1821, when Jesse and Cynthia married there. Jesse’s family of origin most likely lived nearby. Third, the only Rankin family appearing in Caldwell and Livingston County records in the first third of the 19th century was the line of Rutherford Robert. Here are some records in those locations:

  • Elias Rankin, another son proved by Rutherford Robert’s will, was listed in the 1820 and 1830 census in Caldwell County. Elias married Matilda Herring there in 1820. Note that Jesse and Cynthia Rankin named a son Elias, which is not a common name.
  • The “Widow Rankin” (presumably Leah, Rutherford Robert’s wife) was listed in the 1820 census in Caldwell County.
  • Elizabeth and Jennet Rankin, identified by Rutherford Robert as his daughters in Robert’s will, married in Livingston County to James George (1806) and John Durly (1809), respectively.

The records connecting Jesse, son of Rutherford Robert, to Jesse Rankin of Gibson County probably don’t establish Jesse’s parentage as “conclusively proved.” The strong circumstantial evidence is sufficiently compelling to convince me, though.

So much for the question of Jesse’s parents. We are now left wondering to which (if any) of the other North Carolina Rankin lines originally appearing in Rowan County, NC was Rutherford Robert related? Originally, Rowan covered a substantial area, including what would eventually become Guilford, Lincoln, Iredell and Rutherford counties – home of several colonial Rankin families. There is apparently no paper evidence on the issue connecting Rutherford Robert to any of them. Francis Gill, the premier researcher on Rutherford Robert’s line, was unable to prove a connection to any other North Carolina Rankin families.

Once again, we clearly need Y-DNA testing. So … where is a living descendant of Rutherford Robert? So far as I know, no male descendant from the line of Rutherford Robert Rankin has participated yet in the Rankin Y-DNA project. We need to find one, or – better yet – several.

Is anyone reading this descended from this family? If so, I would love to hear from you!

* *  * * * * * * * * * * * * *

[1] 1840 census, Gibson Co., TN, listing for Jesse Rankin, 2120001-010101. See also 1830 census, Gibson Co., TN, listing for Jesse Rankin, 20001-10111. The 1840 census shows Jesse in the age category born 1790-1800; the 1830 census shows him in the age category born 1800-1810. The latter appears to be incorrect.

[2] This footnote has information about Jesse and Cynthia’s son Elias, not Jesse — the note is in the wrong place but I can’t figure out how to move it. Techno-idiocy strikes again. 1870 census, Gibson Co., TN, “Lias” Rankin, 35, farmer, with Lizzie Rankin, 41, Sallie, 11, Mollie, 10, Thomas, 8, Divan, 6, Jeff D., 4, and Ada, 2, all born in Tennessee; 1880 census, Gibson Co., TN, E. C. Rankin, 47, wife Elizabeth, 52, daughter Mary E., 20, son Thomas J., 19, daughter L. D., 15, son William A., 14, daughter Ida C., 12, and daughter Nora, 9.

[3] Barbara, Byron and Samuel Sistler, Tennessee Land Grants (Nashville: Byron Sistler & Associates, 1998).

[4] Jordan Dodd, Kentucky Marriages to 1850, online publication at

Willis DNA Project … Maryland Group

There are currently about 300 participants in a Willis DNA project. Eleven of those participants are known through Y-DNA testing to descend from John Willis d. 1712 of Wantage in Dorchester County, Maryland. Below is a chart indicating some of John’s descendants. Nine of the current Y-DNA participants are descended from the first seven legs of this chart. The other two do not yet have a paper trail specifying from which of John’s four sons they descend. Currently, none of the participants are from the last two branches, John’s sons Thomas or William.

Willis Y-DNA Chart


Genealogy 101: a Primer on Legal Stuff Every Family History Researcher Needs to Know

This morning, a friend asked a legal question about a recent post of mine. Her question made it obvious that I had failed properly to explain a legal issue affecting a family history analysis. It seems I have a bad habit of throwing around legal terms and principles as though they are familiar to everyone, which is both unfair and thoughtless.

To help remedy that, here is a short and sweet primer of legal stuff that every family history researcher needs to know. My emphasis is on law prior to the twentieth century. Some of these concepts don’t lend themselves to a prose discussion that flows logically from point to point. In those cases, I have simply provided a list of terms with explanations. In other cases, I have carried on as usual.

Disclaimer #1: every colony (and then state) passed its own laws, so the law was not the same in every colony/state. We are talking general concepts here.

Disclaimer #2: I am not going to use the cumbersome “his or her” in this discussion, at least not with respect to laws concerning estates. For my reason why, let’s start with a discussion of women’s legal status prior, for the most part, to the twentieth century.

Laws Concerning Women

Here’s a real golden oldie: the concept of coverture. That refers to the condition or state of a married woman or, alternatively, the legal “disabilities” that attached to a married woman. A single woman had some legal rights: she could own property, enter into a contract, and sue/be sued in her own name.

The “disabilities” of a married woman, on the other hand, were total; states only gradually removed these legal disabilities. The bottom line: a married woman had no legal existence whatsoever apart from her husband. Property ownership? Are you kidding? Absent a prenuptial agreement, anything a woman owned prior to marriage became her husband’s property the moment she said “I do.” If she inherited something while married, it immediately became her husband’s property. If a woman inherited something from, say, her father, the phrase generally used in the records was that the husband owned it “in right of his wife.”

Having no legal existence, a married woman could not sue or be sued in her own behalf. Her husband had to be named as a party. For example, if there was a lawsuit concerning the estate of a married woman’s father, the list of parties would usually include the names of all her brothers (although not the names of the brothers’ wives) and the names of all her sisters (and the names of their husbands). Knowing this sometines helps to sort out the relationships among parties in lawsuits concerning estates.

Moreover, since a married woman had no legal existence apart from her husband, she had no right to enter a contract on her own. A bid at an auction is an offer to enter into a contract to purchase the item being auctioned. When the auctioneer knocks off an item to a bidder, he is accepting the bidder’s offer; a contract of sale and purchase is formed when the hammer comes down.

Consequently, if you see a woman’s name listed as a buyer at an estate sale through (roughly) the entire 1800s, you can rest assured that she was an unmarried woman or a widow.

Dower right: the right of a widow to a life estate in the real property (land) of her husband who died without a will. Keep in mind here: when someone leaves a valid will, the will governs. Absent a will, the law provides the rules. Usually, a widow’s dower right was to one-third of the husband’s land. When you see an entry in a court record or a deed book stating that a woman was “privily examined” regarding her husband’s sale of some of his land, that means she had formally acknowledged her agreement to the sale (even though she had no right to convey land herself). She was thereafter precluded from asserting any dower right to that particular tract of land. This was, of course, to protect the buyer – not the wife.

A widow’s dower right was a life estate, only during her lifetinei.e., her ownership interest ended the instant she died. After the widow died, ownership of the land passed to the husband’s heirs according to the colony’s (or state’s) laws of intestate descent and distribution if he died without a will. See discussion of laws concerning estates, below.

Some colonies (I’m thinking Virginia) at one time gave a married woman a right to disavow her husband’s will if he devised to her less than the dower life estate allotted by law. So you will see records in which a widow accepts or rejects such a will. If she rejected it, then she received the jurisdiction’s dower allotment.

Many colonial and 19th-century men who left a will devised to his wife all or some portion of his land “for life or until she remarries” — not wanting his property to fall into the hands of a new husband. Occasionally, although not very often, one finds an eighteenth or nineteenth century will in which a man left everything to his wife to “dispose of as she chooses,” which did not limit her ownership in any way. I am always tickled pink to be descended from one of those enlightened gentlemen. There weren’t very many.

Laws Concerning Estates

Here it is more straightforward to begin by listing a few definitions.

Estate: property of whatever kind that is owned by someone who has died. “Real property” means land and any improvements – houses, orchards, whatever. “Personal property” means everything else. When an estate inventory was taken, only personal property was listed – not real property. Likewise, a record of a sale of a decedent’s estate typically included only personal property. Under the English common law, adopted by all the colonies, real property – land, the source of all wealth prior to the industrial revolution – had a special place in estate distributions. [Note: once tobacco became the cash crop in Virginia, land – which was absurdly cheap, a way to attract immigration – wasn’t nearly as valuable as the people who worked it. Enter slavery, an institution which might not have become the colonial norm but for tobacco.]

Probate: matters and proceedings pertaining to estates. Used as a verb, as in “to probate a will,” it generally means to present a will and prove it to a court. An estate was probated in the county where the decedent resided. Still is, at least in Texas.

Testator: a person who has left a will. When a decedent leaves a valid will, the estate is distributed in accordance with the wishes of the testator as expressed in the will. Of course, there was no need to name all one’s children in a will. Frequently, colonial men “provided for” their children as they came of age or married with gifts of cash, land, or other property. The ones already “provided for” might not be mentioned at all in a will, or might be left a token gift, such as a shilling. This was not because Dad was cheap, or didn’t like the child who received one shilling (although that happened, too). It was just to prevent a challenge to the will based on the theory that, hey, I was his child, too, and he just forgot to mention me! He must have been unduly influenced … or non compos mentis …

Executor or executrix: a man or woman (sometimes more than one) named by a testator in his or her will to handle the matters of the estate in accordance with the will.

Intestate: a person who dies without leaving a will. In genealogy, it is often better (especially if there are good estate records for the county) to find an intestate among your ancestors than an ancestor who left a will. As noted above, there is no need to name all one’s children in a will. The distribution of an intestate’s estate, however, went to all his “heirs at law” according to the “laws of intestate descent and distribution,” see below. There was therefore potentially a great deal more information to be obtained from a distribution of an intestate’s estate than a testator’s estate.

Administrator or administratrix: a person appointed by the court to handle estate matters of an intestate decedent. Usually, an administrator/trix was a member of the intestate decedent’s family – wife, father, son – who applied for “letters of administration.”

Laws of intestate descent and distribution: let’s call it “law of intestate distribution” for short. This refers to either statutory law (rules passed by a legislature) or common law (principles estabished by common usage and court decisions) governing the distribution of the estate of an intestate decedent.

This is where the law gets really fun as it applies to genealogical research. Remember, every state had its own laws governing the distribution of an intestate’s estate … so there are no hard and fast rules. However, the old English principle of primogeniture – the rule that the eldest son inherited everything – didn’t have much application in its purest form in the colonies, so far as I have seen. Makes sense, because the colonies were populated by, inter alia, some of those younger sons who didn’t inherit.

Some colonies had variations on the notion that the eldest male was entitled to a greater share than other heirs, sometimes with different rules regarding who received how much real property versus personal property. If you are dealing with an intestate distribution, check the applicable law.

Most states passed intestate distribution laws that required a division of an estate between all of the intestate decedent’s heirs. You may have seen the phrase “heirs at law” in court or probate records. That means persons who inherit a decedent’s estate under the laws of intestate distribution. “Heirs at law” are different than “beneficiaries,” who inherit under a will. Be aware that colonial clerks of court did not always make such fine distinctions.

As a general rule, all of a man’s children were his heirs at law. If a child had predeceased his father, then any of his or her children – grandchildren of the intestate decedent – were heirs. If a man had no children, then his parents and his siblings were his heirs. (Reminder: every state has variations). All of these heirs will be named in the distribution of the estate, if you are lucky enough to have those estate records survive. FYI: there are virtually no abstracts of detailed estate records. You have to go to the county courthouse (or wherever the county keeps probate records), or the state archives, or to film available from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to get those records. If you are a serious family history researcher, those records are well worth it.

Sometimes there are lawsuits concerning an estate, which are (believe it or not) even better. Frequently, an administrator of an estate wanted to sell some land in order to pay debts, or because one of the heirs wanted his money, or because there wasn’t enough land to divide among 13 children in decently-sized tracts. An administrator had to ask the court for permission to sell an intestate’s land, and he had to join all of the heirs – each of whom had an interest in the land (or its proceeds) – as parties to a lawsuit. You will occasionally see lawsuits in such circumstances in which an administrator sues a widow and her children. Those aren’t necessarily unfriendly lawsuits; they were just what the law required to make sure everything was kosher.

Those lawsuits nearly always recited whether any heirs were underage, because any underage children had to be represented by a guardian or guardian ad litem (meaning guardian “for the day,” or for the purpose of the lawsuit). Petitions (or complaints, depending on the jurisdiction) also recited the locations of adult children who may have moved away, because due process requires that all parties to a lawsuit be given notice that they have been sued.

I now see that I have passed 2,000 words, which is more than enough for any one article. So let’s rate this as a “to be continued.” I will make notes of legal issues as they occur to me and will post another article like this when it seems worthwhile.