Some Colonial Rankin Lines: a Primer

© Robin Rankin Willis

I recently spent some time in the Tennessee Archives researching Rankins who were in Gibson County, Tennessee beginning about 1830. It was a good reminder about how easy it is to conflate various families with the same surname when they live in the same general geographic area at roughly the same time. It occurred to me that I should have prefaced any Rankin posts on this website with some basic information about certain colonial Rankin lines, hoping to help you distinguish among those families when you run across them … or read the detailed Rankin articles I post. I apologize for my lack of foresight. This post is my belated remedy.

First, a caveat. If you have read my post about Scots-Irish migration, you already know that the earliest colonial immigrants from the Ulster plantation of Ireland (around 1700) settled mostly in New England. Among those were evidently some Rankins. I know absolutely nothing about New England Rankins. I know next to nothing about most of the Rankin families who settled initially in Pennsylvania or Virginia in the early to mid- 1700s, although I’m working like mad to get up that learning curve.

What I do know with a modicum of confidence is something about colonial Rankin families of North Carolina. That is my Rankin wheelhouse. When I started this hobby, I soon learned that my last conclusively proved Rankin ancestor was born in North Carolina around 1800. That was my only clue as to his origin. Searching for his parents consequently involved mucking about in North Carolina Rankin families. I acquired a ton of records in the process, because there weren’t any quick answers.

These are the Rankin families with which I became acquainted during that research: (1) Joseph Rankin of Delaware (1704-1764), two of whose sons went to Guilford Co., NC; (2) Samuel and Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander Rankin of Lincoln Co., NC; (3) Robert & Rebecca Rankin of Guilford Co., NC; (4) David & Margaret Rankin of Iredell Co., NC; and (5) Robert Rankin (wives Mary Withrow, Leah LNU) of Rutherford Co., NC. Here are brief descriptions of each family.

Joseph Rankin of Delaware (1704-1764) (“Joseph of Delaware”), wife unknown, two of whose sons moved to Rowan/Guilford Co., NC.

Joseph of Delaware had definitely arrived in the colonies by 1731, when he acquired a tract in New Castle County, DE. He is buried at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Newark, New Castle Co., where his tombstone survives. Joseph’s wife’s identity is unproved, despite some claims to the contrary. His place of birth is likewise unproved, although a serious gambler would put a lot of money on the Ulster Plantations of Ireland. He had at least seven children, including four proved sons, two sons established by strong circumstantial evidence, and a daughter Ann, reportedly proved by a will I haven’t yet found. Joseph’s proved sons Joseph Jr. and Thomas remained in New Castle County, where both died. Thomas, a Lieutenant in a Delaware militia company during the Revolutionary War, is buried in the same grave as his father. The DAR placed a “patriot” marker on the grave, probably giving rise to a claim by one researcher that Joseph (who died in 1764) was a Revolutionary War soldier. If so, he was a ghostly presence. It’s hard to decide whether to laugh or cry.

I have been unable to track Robert or James, Joseph’s two sons who are convincingly established by circumstantial evidence. His two other proved sons migrated to that part of Rowan Co., NC which later became Guilford Co.: (1) John Rankin (b. 1736, New Castle Co., DE, d. 1814, Guilford Co., NC, wife Hannah Carson) went to NC about 1765-68; and (2) William Rankin (b. 1744, New Castle Co., DE, d. 1804, Guilford Co., NC, wife Jean or Jennet Chambers) went to NC about 1768-70.

John and William stayed in Guilford County, had many children and grandchildren, and are buried at the old Buffalo Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, NC. Their lines were meticulously researched by Reverend Samuel Meek Rankin. His research is documented in his book, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy, originally published in 1931 and now available online in its entirety at at the UNC library website. For the record, Rev. Rankin’s book is dead wrong about the father of Samuel Rankin, below.

Samuel Rankin (1734 – 1816) of Lincoln Co., NC and wife Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander (1740 – 1802)

Thanks to a family legend and Y-DNA testing, I am confident that Samuel and Eleanor are my ancestors. I therefore tend to be a bit prissy with respect to misinformation about them, having something of a proprietary interest. Some researchers claim Samuel and Eleanor were married in Pennsylvania, which is demonstrably incorrect. Eleanor appeared in North Carolina deed and court records with her Alexander family of origin as a child in 1753 and 1755. She married Samuel about  1759-60 (their eldest son William was born in NC in January 1761), almost certainly in North Carolina. Also, some researchers assert that Samuel was born in Paxtang, PA, but none whom I have contacted have any evidence for that claim. Frankly, it is nonsense. Samuel may be the same man as the Samuel Rankin who appeared on the 1753 tax list for Sadsbury Township in Chester Co., PA. There were no other Rankins on that list.

Samuel and Eleanor lived on Dutchman’s Creek in the part of Lincoln Co., NC that later became Gaston Co. They had seven sons (William, Samuel, Robert, David, Richard, Alexander, and James) and three daughters (Jane/Jean, Anne, and Eleanor). William, Alexander, James, Jane, and Anne stayed in Lincoln, or nearby. Richard Rankin died in Mecklenburg Co., just east of the Catawba River. (You can see Richard’s headstone on Beatty’s Ford Road north of Charlotte in the left foreground in the banner photo on the home page of this website.) Three of Samuel and Eleanor’s sons (Samuel, Robert, and David) and a daughter (Eleanor Rankin Dickson) went to Rutherford Co., TN. David stayed in Murfreesboro, but his three siblings moved on to Shelby Co., IL.

Two theories about the father/parents of Samuel Rankin (Sr.) still have currency on the internet. Both of them have been conclusively disproved by Y-DNA testing, see my article at this link. I have found no credible evidence whatsoever in colonial records regarding the identity of Samuel’s parents.

Robert and Rebecca Rankin of Guilford Co., NC (“R&R”)

This family arrived in the colonies in 1750 from Letterkenny Parish, Donegal County, Ireland, where their children (or at least some of them) were born. They were in Pennsylvania for only a short while. Robert and his son George Rankin were included on the 1753 tax list for West Nottingham Township in Chester County. R&R then came to Guilford County in 1755 as part of the Nottingham Colony, a group of Scots-Irish members of Nottingham Presbyterian Church, now located in Maryland (it was then in Pennsylvania). [1]

R&R had at least two proved sons who died in Guilford County: George (died in 1760), whose wife was Lydia Steele, and Robert (died in 1795), whose wife’s identity is a matter of controversy among Rankin researchers. Some Rankin family trees and at least one compiled Rankin history conflate the Robert who died in 1795 with his father Robert (husband of Rebecca), who died about 1770-73. The article at this link addresses that issue.

According to Rev. S. M. Rankin, R&R also had a son John who proved to be a research dead-end for me, although the Guilford records suggest such a son. R&R also had a daughter Ann, whose husband was the William Denny who died in Guilford in 1770. Rev. Rankin identifies a daughter Rebecca, although I found no evidence on that issue, and he failed to mention Ann (a rare Rev. Rankin error). R&R probably had other children as well.

All of this is uncontroverted so far as I know, except for (1) the identity of the wife of R&R’s son Robert Rankin who died in 1795 (see discussion under David Rankin of Iredell, below), (2) Ann as a daughter of R&R, and (3) the death date of George Rankin, son of R&R. Rev. Rankin said George died in 1761, but that was probably a typo. George actually died in 1760, when his will was probated.

David Rankin of Iredell Co., NC (d. 1789), wife Margaret LNU (“Iredell David”)

David Rankin’s 1789 Iredell will and other records establish a wife Margaret and three children: Robert, James (not explicitly named in the will), and Elizabeth (ditto). Both James and Elizabeth are established by the will, even though it doesn’t provide their given names, and other records.

Iredell David’s son Robert may be and probably is the same man as the “Mystery Robert” who applied for a Revolutionary War Pension application from Gibson Co., TN in 1832. I made that argument in this article, although my opinion should be deemed **speculative.** The identity of Robert’s wife is also a matter of controversy. Some researchers believe his wife was a Jean Denny (1755-1779) from Guilford County. Some Jean Denny definitely married some Robert Rankin in Guilford County in 1775. Other researchers believe that Jean Denny of Guilford married Robert, the son of R&R who died in Guilford in 1795. I disagree, because I believe that Robert (son of R&R)of Guilford was Jean Denny’s uncle. This question requires a fairly lengthy argument which I will save for another day.

In any event, Robert and his wife Jean had two sons: (1) Denny, who married Sarah McMinn, and (2) James, who married Elizabeth McMinn. Both families remained in Iredell. Two of Denny’s sons moved to Gibson County, TN (home of “Mystery Robert”) and then to Shelby Co., TN, where they both died. Many of James and Elizabeth’s descendants remained in Iredell; some are still there today. They are nice folks.

Iredell David’s son James died in the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill in Lincoln Co. in June 1780. His wife was a Miss Alexander (probably Susannah), and they had four children who are proved by Lincoln Co. guardian records: (1) David Rankin, born by 1781, Lincoln Co.; (2) Margaret (“Peggy”) Rankin m. Thomas Witherspoon in Lincoln Co., 6 Jul 1801; (3) William Rankin m. Mary Lourance/Lawrence, 17 Jan 1810; and (4) Jane/Jean Rankin m. William Crays.

Iredell deed records suggest that Iredell David’s daughter was probably  Elizabeth, wife of Samuel McCrary (or McCreary).

For a lengthy chart (including supporting records) on the line of David of Iredell, see this link.

Robert Rankin of Rutherford County, NC (b. 1748-49, d. 1816, Caldwell Co., KY), m#1 Mary Withrow, m#2 Leah LNU (“Rutherford Robert”)

Francis Gill did the definitive research on Rutherford Robert and published a book about him and others. I cannot find a copy of his book available for either purchase or loan.

Rutherford Robert married Mary Withrow in Tryon Co., NC in 1769. He owned land on Second Broad River in what ultimately became Rutherford County. He and his future Withrow in-laws may have been listed on the tax list for Aston Township, Chester Co., PA in 1768, before going to NC. Rutherford Robert and Mary Withrow divorced, and he married as his second wife Leah LNU. They wound up in Caldwell Co., KY, where Robert applied for tax relief in a document establishing his birth year as 1748-49. He left a will naming his children Margaret, James, John, Rachel and David (children of Mary Withrow) and Elizabeth, Jennet, Jesse and Elias (children of his second wife Leah).  The children evidently scattered to the four winds.

Whew! This article became longer than I expected. Hope this helps a bit in keeping these families straight. One final note: a couple of people who have read my posts admit they never look at the footnotes, which just make the articles too long. I have started omitting them. However, if anyone wants a citation to a source for anything in this or any other article, please let me know and I will be happy to provide it.

See you on down the road …

[1] John Rankin, a Shaker preacher and grandson of R&R, hand-wrote his autobiography at age 88. These details about the migration of R&R are from that autobiography. The only reference to a full transcription of the autobiography which I can find is as follows: John Rankin, “Auto-biography of John Rankin, Sen.” (South Union, Ky., 1845), transcribed in Harvey L. Eads, ed., History of the South Union Shaker Colony from 1804 to 1836 (South Union, Ky., 1870), Shaker Museum at South Union, Auburn, Kentucky (SMSU), 29-30. For a typescript of Eads’s history, see Shaker Record A at the Special Collections Library, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky (WKU). The above citation can be found at this link.

The Mysterious Robert Rankin of Gibson County, TN

© Robin Rankin Willis

I spent some time in early 2017 at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville, where I wound up mucking about in Gibson County. I stumbled over a passel of Rankins there. They are my favorite line for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that I was nèe Rankin.

What got me enmeshed in the Gibson County Rankins was the Revolutionary War pension application of one Robert Rankin among the court records. Let’s call him Mystery Robert because his family of origin is a puzzle. He applied for a pension in Gibson in September 1832. His sworn statement is replete with military details. Unfortunately, he did not say where he enlisted, which would likely have led us to his family of origin without much difficulty

I cannot find anyone who claims descent from Mystery Robert among online family trees. This is unusual. The general rule is that, whenever one finds a Revolutionary War soldier, one finds many descendants. I have found no one claiming a revolutionary war soldier ancestor who applied from Gibson County in 1832.

If you know who this man’s family is, please let me know. I’ll send you a box of chocolates, provided that you have proof other than some online tree which cites as sources other online family trees.

Here is what the Gibson records reveal about Mystery Robert, which is precious little.

  • Mystery Robert was 84 when he applied for a pension under the Act of 1832. That was the first Congressional act in which the applicant did not have to prove that he was destitute in order to be eligible for a pension. Since Robert had not applied earlier, we know that he wasn’t destitute. He was born about 1748. He was in the North Carolina militia, which means he almost certainly lived in NC when he enlisted. His pension allowance was $50/year, and the 1835 roll of Tennessee pensioners says that he had received $150 through June 1834. Here is a transcription of his pension application.
  • Robert appeared in the 1830 census for Gibson County in the 80 < 90 age bracket (born 1740 – 1750), consistent with the stated age in his pension application. There is a female 40 < 50 (born 1780 – 1790) listed with him and a male 10 < 15 (born 1815 – 1820). This could be a young wife and son, or a widowed daughter or daughter-in-law who was his caretaker (and her son). The 1830 census only gives names for the head of household, and I haven’t been able to identify the other members of Robert’s household.
  • The 1830s tax records in Gibson County occasionally list a Robert Rankin, although not consistently every year. It is fairly clear that he owned no land. His only taxable item was “one white poll,” which was undoubtedly himself. However, he was charged no tax, which probably means he was exempt from taxes on account of his advanced age. I don’t know when he died, although he did not appear as a head of household in the 1840 census. I found no probate records for him in Gibson Co.

The thing about Mystery Robert that caused me to sit up and take notice was this: his pension application says that his brother, not named, was killed by Tories at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill. So I did some online research about that battle (also spelled Ramseur or Ramsaur). It took place in June 1780. About 40 patriots (Whigs) died there, although it was not easy to ascertain which bodies fought for which side. The combatants wore no uniforms. The loyalists (Tories) stuck a spring of greenery in their hats; the patriots had a piece of white paper in theirs. These identifiers were sometimes missing from the bodies. The largest portion of the patriot troops were from Iredell County, NC. About thirteen of the dead patriots were from Capt. Sharpe’s 4th Creek Company, Statesville, Iredell County. Here is a piece about Ramsour’s Mill.

Family history research rarely involves absolute certainties, especially when one is dealing with facts from more than two centuries ago. Sometimes one must play the odds. The obvious odds were that Mystery Robert and his dead brother were from Iredell County, so I went digging among the Iredell records for Rankin families.

What I found in Iredell was the will of a David Rankin who died in 1789. The original will, dated 1781, is located in the Raleigh Archives in File Box No. C.R.054.801.11 and recorded in Iredell Will Book A: 200. David’s will names his wife Margaret and son Robert. David also named three grandchildren: (1) David McCreary, a son of David’s daughter Mrs. _______ Rankin McCreary, (2) James Rankin, who David expressly identified as a son of Robert Rankin, and (3) David Rankin. Grandson David Rankin’s father was not identified, so David wasn’t another son of Robert. He was a minor, under age 21 in 1781, when his grandfather David wrote his will.

The express language of David’s will – with a Rankin grandson whose father wasn’t Robert – raises the inference that David and Margaret had another son who may have died before David wrote his 1781 will.

The next step was to cast about in Iredell and nearby records to find a candidate for grandson David Rankin whose father may have died before 1781. As it turned out, David was in Lincoln County and was the son of a James Rankin. Here are some relevant Lincoln County records:

  • July 1783, a lawsuit styled the Executors of James Rankin vs. Reuben Simpson. So there was a James Rankin who had died before July 1783.
  • The lawsuit resulted in the public sale of defendant’s land to satisfy the plaintiff’s judgment. See Lincoln Co. Deed Book 2: 756, deed dated 21 Sep 1784 from Joseph Henry as Sheriff of Lincoln Co. to Francis Cunningham of same, levy on Reuben Simpson in suit of James Rankin. A witness to the deed was Robert Rankin, who was almost certainly kin to the dead James Rankin. The only Robert Rankins who lived close enough to witness a Lincoln County deed were (1) Robert, son of David and Margaret of Iredell, and (2) Robert, son of Samuel and Eleanor of Lincoln, who was only 19, and whose brother James was still a child.
  • There is a Lincoln county promissory note (or possibly a guardian’s bond, as my notes aren’t clear) from Francis Cunninghan and Daniel McKissick to John Alexander, guardian of minors David Rankin, Jane Rankin, Margaret Rankin and William Rankin, orphans of James Rankin. Such records usually named children in order of age, so David was probably the eldest. Source: Anne William McAllister & Kathy Gunter Sullivan, Civil Action Papers 1771-1806 of the Court of Ps & Qs, Lincoln County, North Carolina (1989).

David Rankin was still in the area on 14 Oct 1800, when he witnessed a deed from James Alexander to Horatio Gates Alexander adjacent the land of David’s guardian John Alexander. See Lincoln Co. DB 22:65. John Alexander was almost certainly David Rankin’s uncle, so John was probably either (1) married to a Rankin or (2) the brother of David’s mother, Mrs. ___?___ Alexander Rankin.

Here is a crucial piece of evidence. The Iredell County Genealogical Society has a collection called the “Philip Langenhour papers,” which were Mr. Langenhour’s collections of stories about local families. His papers mention a Miss Alexander (no given name stated) who married a Mr. Rankin (ditto) who died at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill. Given the fact that the guardian of James Rankin’s children was John Alexander, it is as good a bet as you can find in genealogy that it was James Rankin who died at Ramsour’s Mill. This is the only piece of evidence I have found that a Rankin died in that battle … other than the pension application of Robert Rankin, whose patriot brother was killed there.

The pieces of this puzzle fall together quite nicely. It seems reasonable to conclude that David and Margaret Rankin of Iredell had two sons named Robert and James. James married a Miss Alexander, sister of John Alexander, and died at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill in 1780. James and Miss Alexander had children named David and Margaret (for their Rankin grandparents), as well as Jane and William. Their uncle John Alexander became their guardian.

Here is where we take a plunge off the high diving board without, we hope (as my friend Jody McKenney Thomson, a descendant of these Lincoln County Alexanders, puts it) “forcing Cinderella’s shoe to fit.” Please forgive the mixed metaphors.

I think Mystery Robert is Robert, son of David and Margaret Rankin of Iredell, and a brother of a James Rankin who died at Ramsour’s Mill.  Jody, does the shoe pinch?

Please also note that Robert Rankin, son of David and Margaret, disappeared from the Iredell and Lincoln county records after 1826 without leaving any probate records. Jody and I have long wondered where the heck he went.

There is a bit more to this story. Robert had two sons who remained in the Iredell/Lincoln area: Denny, born in 1775, and James, born about 1778. Denny and James married sisters, Sarah and Elizabeth McMinn. Two of Denny and Sarah’s proved children were named Robert A. Rankin and Samuel Rankin.

Robert A. Rankin appeared in the Gibson County records starting in 1838. Samuel Rankin began appearing in Gibson in 1837, acting as security on the bond of the administrator of a John McMinn. The fact that known members of the Iredell Rankin family and a McMinn appeared in Gibson along with Mystery Robert provides additional circumstantial evidence regarding Mystery Robert’s identity.

I believe the shoe fits quite nicely.

Finally, please note that there were other distinct Rankin lines in Gibson County beginning in roughly the mid-1800s. However, I found no evidence to connect any other Rankin line to Mystery Robert. In the 1840 census for Gibson, there was no listing for either of the two Roberts or for Samuel. Robert A. Rankin and his brother Samuel moved to Shelby County, where both died; Samuel was Robert’s administrator.

Briefly, here are some other Rankins who lived in Gibson County:

  • David F. C. Rankin (1823 – 1885) and his wife Susan Young. David was a son of David Rankin and Anne Moore Campbell of Rutherford County, TN. The senior David Rankin was a son of Samuel and Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander Rankin of Lincoln Co., NC.
  • Jesse Rankin, who was born in Kentucky about 1795, and his wife Cynthia Sellers. Some researchers think Jesse was a son of Robert Rankin of Rutherford Co., NC and Caldwell Co., KY and his second wife Leah. Other researchers think that Jesse was a son of “Shaker Reverend” John Rankin of Guilford, NC and Logan Co., KY and his wife Rebecca. Both Robert of Rutherford and Shaker Reverend John had sons named Jesse. See an article about Jesse here.

Some Rankin researchers think that Robert Rankin and his wife Isabel (maiden name Rankin) of Guilford Co., NC, McNairy Co., TN and Pope Co., AR may have also lived in Gibson County. I don’t think that is the case, and one of their descendants tells me she has no evidence for that theory, either.

Onward! Meanwhile, as my cousin Roger Alexander likes to say, “Nobody has more fun than we do!”