A professional genealogist once told me that most trees on the internet aren’t worth the paper it would take to print them. She said the most serious mistake a rookie can make is to use information from someone else’s tree without confirming it. Her advice was too late for me: I had already learned that lesson the hard way.
When I was a still a beginning family history researcher, I sent a chart for one of my lines to the administrator of the Graves Family Association website at his request. The chart included information I had obtained from other researchers on the identity of my early Graves ancestors. Unfortunately, I had not confirmed the information with my own research.
I wish I had remembered that before I forwarded the chart. Ken Graves, the website administrator, replied with a blistering email excoriating me for perpetuating a fiction that serious researchers had long ago discarded. My screen and my red face were both too hot to touch after I read that email.
We all make mistakes, even if we don’t naïvely adopt someone else’s data. Original records are incomplete or the courthouse burned down entirely. The handwriting in films of original records is faded, blurred, or indecipherable. Our ancestors recycled the same given names ad nauseam, producing a frequent error called “same name confusion.” Other mistakes are probably caused by the occasionally unwarranted aura of accuracy enjoyed by books and journals. Some mistakes are just plain ol’ carelessness.
Here’s an example: Robert Rankin who died in 1795 in Guilford Co., NC
An error about one of the early Rankins in Guilford County, North Carolina combines same name confusion and carelessness. It may have originated in a Rankin compiled history which wrongly interpreted the 1795 will of Robert Rankin as being the will of the “patriarch” – the eldest immigrant – of his Guilford family line. The ease of importing data from online trees probably guarantees the error’s immortality.
Robert Rankin the patriarch (let’s call him “Old Robert”) had a wife named Rebecca, maiden name unproved. Old Robert and Rebecca had a son named George. The 1795 will identified the testator as “Robert Rankin Senior” of Guilford County. The will devised land to a son named George. It did not name a wife, who evidently predeceased him. In short, identifying the testator in the 1795 will as Old Robert seems reasonable at first glance. On second glance, not so much.
The problem is that Old Robert and Rebecca’s son George died in 1760 – thirty-five years before some Robert Rankin wrote that 1795 will. Presumably, Robert the testator intended to devise land to a flesh-and-blood son George rather than someone who had been dead for several decades.
Guilford County is admittedly tough on Rankin researchers. There are a dizzying number of country records referencing, e.g., Robert Rankin, Robert Rankin Sr., and/or Robert Rankin Jr. One state grant mentions all three!As was common, the line of Old Robert and Rebecca recycled the same names ad infinitum, so that every generation had at least one Robert.
Guilford is also rough sledding because there were three Rankin “patriarchs” in Guilford: (1) John Rankin (1736-1814) who married Hannah Carson and is a proved son of Joseph and Rebecca Rankin of Delaware; (2) John’s brother William Rankin (1744-1804), who married Jane Chambers; and (3) Old Robert Rankin and his wife Rebecca, who came to Pennsylvania from Letterkenny Parish, County Donegal, Ireland about 1750 and moved a few years later to the part of Rowan County that became Guilford.
The facts in brief
Two facts prove that the Robert Rankin who wrote a will and died in 1795 in Guilford County – call him “Robert died in 1795” – was not Old Robert. First, a book about the Buffalo Presbyterian Church of Guilford establishes that Old Robert died well before 1795. Second, the George Rankin issue: Old Robert’s son George, who died in 1760, was obviously not the same man as George, a devisee in the 1795 will. In fact, Guilford records establish that George the devisee was alive and well after 1795.
When did Old Robert with wife Rebecca die? Answer: circa 1770, definitely by 1773
Rev. Samuel Meek Rankin provides information about Old Robert Rankin in his book History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church and Her People. Rev. Rankin identified Old Robert as having belonged to Nottingham Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania. Old Robert and his family (or some of them) migrated to North Carolina in the early 1750s. The family acquired land in that part of Rowan County that later became Guilford. Rev. Rankin identified Old Robert’s wife as Rebecca, whose name is confirmed in a 1755 gift deed of land by the couple to their son George. According to Rev. Rankin, Old Robert and Rebecca had children “George, Robert, Rebecca, John and others.”
For purposes of this article, we are only concerned with Old Robert and Rebecca, their sons George and Robert, and a grandson named – I’m sure you can guess this – Robert. A few facts about them are in order. Rev. Rankin says that George died in 1761, although his will was actually written and proved in 1760. George’s will named his widow Lydia (Steele) and two minor sons, John and Robert. The latter is the grandson we have in mind.
George and Lydia’s son John – the future Shaker Reverend John – inherited the 480-acre tract on Brushy Fork that Old Robert and Rebecca had given to George. John sold it and left Guilford before 1800. George and Lydia’s other son Robert, grandson of Old Robert, fought in the Revolutionary War and applied for a pension in 1833.Bless his heart, because the application provides useful information. Let’s call him “Rev War Robert,” with “Rev” short for “Revolutionary,” not “Reverend.” His application establishes that Rev War Robert was born in Guilford County in May 1759 and that he moved to McNairy County, Tennessee in 1830. It is important for this narrative that Rev War Robert lived into the nineteenth century: hold that thought.
Meanwhile, Reverend Samuel Meek Rankin had this to say about Old Robert, who was (according to oral tradition) one of the first elders in Buffalo Church:
Robert Rankin is another whom Rev. J. C. Alexander said tradition listed as one of the first elders. He settled here in 1753 … he died before the first date in the minute book.”
Reverend Rankin said there were no records for Buffalo Church “from the organization in 1756 to 1773.” Consequently, Old Robert Rankin, husband of Rebecca, must have died by 1773. Rev. Rankin states elsewhere that Old Robert died about 1770, although there is no extant tombstone for him in the Buffalo Church cemetery.
What about the George named in the will of Robert Rankin d. 1795?
Let’s look closely at Robert Rankin’s 1795 will, which names the following devisees and beneficiaries:
- his son George.
- his three grandsons William Rankin Wilson, Andrew Wilson and Maxwell Wilson, sons of his deceased daughter Mary Rankin and her husband Andrew Wilson. Robert devised land on Buffalo Creek to George and the three Wilson grandsons.
- his daughter Isobel.
- and (5) two unnamed living daughters, each of whom was to receive one-fifth of Robert’s personal estate.
Subsequent Guilford County records establish that George Rankin was still alive in 1795, when his father wrote his will. About three years after Robert died, George surveyed the land he and his Wilson nephews inherited. Robert’s will prescribed a detailed metes and bounds description for how his land on Buffalo Creek was to “be divided.” The document filed in the real property records expressly recites that the survey of the tract was required by the will of Robert Rankin, deceased, and by his executor. Some two decades later, George Rankin made a gift of a portion of that tract to his own son – named Robert, of course.
So … who the heck was the Robert who died in 1795?
Naturally, there were several Robert Rankins living in Guilford County in the late 18th century. We can eliminate anyone from the lines of John Rankin and Hannah Carson or William Rankin and Jean Chambers. Their sons named Robert (each couple had one) lived well past 1795. The testator in 1795 was not Rev War Robert, son of George and Lydia Steele Rankin, because his pension file proves that he survived to the 19th century, dying in 1833. The only Robert Rankin in Guilford in 1795 who was old enough to have three grandsons, and who did notlive into the nineteenth century, was Robert Rankin, son of Old Robert and Rebecca.
And that is enough about one of the many Robert Rankins of Guilford County, North Carolina.
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 Ken Graves subsequently sent me and my cousin Barbara Parker (who is also descended from John Graves of Halifax, VA) an email telling us Y-DNA research had proved that we are not descended from the famous Capt. John Graves of early 1600s Virginia. We are therefore not related to Ken. His email was positively gleeful. So was I. I have heard about him from other DNA project administrators.
 A. Gregg Moore and Forney A. Rankin, The Rankins of North Carolina (Marietta, GA: A. G. Moore, 1997).
 Rev. S. M. Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church and Her People (Greensboro, NC: J. J. Stone & Co., Printers, 1934) at 27. See also the gift deed in Note 5 from Robert and Rebecca to their son George Rankin.
 Jo White Linn, Rowan County North Carolina Deed Abstracts Vol. 1, 1753 – 1762, Abstracts of Books 1 – 4(Salisbury, NC), abstract of Deed Book 2: 70, a gift deed dated 13 Apr 1755 from Robert and Rebecca Rankin to their son George for 5 shillings (the usual gift deed consideration), 480 acres on the south side of Brushy Fork. Robert paid 10 shillings for that tract, which was a Granville grant. Id., abstract of Deed Book 2: 102.
 Clayton Genealogical Library microfilm, “NC Guilford County Wills Books A-B 1771-1838,” File #312, will of Robert Rankin Sr. dated 30 May 1795 proved Nov 1795, devising land on the south side of Buffalo Creek to his son George Rankin and grandsons William Rankin Willson, Andrew Willson and Maxwell Willson. Robert also named his daughter Isobel and two other living daughters who weren’t identified by either a given name or a married surname.
 Id., “NC Rowan County Will Books A-B 1767-1793,” will of George Rankin of Rowan County dated 23 May 1760, proved Oct 1760. Witnesses to the will included Robert Rankin (either George’s father or his brother), William Denny (George’s brother-in-law, whose wife was George’s sister Ann Rankin Denny), and John Braley (another brother-in-law). See the article titled “Four Robert Rankins of Guilford County, NC” at this link.
 E.g., William D. Bennett, Guilford County Deed Book One (Raleigh, NC: Oaky Grove Press, 1990), abstract of Deed Book 1: 504, 16 Dec 1778 state grant to Moses McClain, 200 acres adjacent Jonas Touchstone, Robert McKnight, David Allison, Robert Rankin Jr.’s line, along Robert Rankin Sr.’s line, NC Grant Book No. 33: 83. There is one deed in my Lunenburg Co., VA Winn line in which the grantee and two witnesses to a deed were identified as John Winn, John Winn, and John Winn. No “Sr.” or “Jr.,” or “John Winn, carpenter,” or “John Winn of Amelia County.” Those three men obviously had a sense of whimsy. Lunenburg Deed Book 7: 231.
 FHL Film No. 6564, New Castle Co., DE Deed Book Y1: 499, deed dated Apr 1768 from grantors John Rankin of Orange Co., NC (a predecessor to Guilford County) and his wife Hannah, and William Rankin of New Castle Co., DE, to grantees Thomas Rankin and Joseph Rankin, both of New Castle, land devised to John and William by their father Joseph Rankin.
 Autobiography of George and Lydia Rankin’s son 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. A copy of the transcript can be obtained from the University of Western Kentucky. The autobiography establishes Robert and Rebecca’s migration dates and origin. See the article titled “Autobiography of Rev. John Rankin, Grandson of Robert and Rebecca” here.
 Rev. S. M. Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church 22.
 Id. See also Futhey and Cope, History of Chester Co., PA (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), reproduction facsimile by Chester County Historical Society (Mt. Vernon, IN: Windmill Publications, Inc. ,1996). The 1753 tax list for West Nottingham Township, Chester Co., PA included George Rankin and Robert Rankin.
 Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church 22.
 E.g., Jo White Linn, Rowan County North Carolina Deed Abstracts Vol. 1, 1753 – 1762, Abstracts of Books 1 – 4(Salisbury, NC), Deed Book 4: 100, Granville grant dated 24 Jun 1758 to Robert Rankin, 640 acres on both sides of North Buffalo Creek. That creek flows roughly SW to NE into Buffalo Cr. The creek and the grant are located just south of Buffalo Presbyterian Church.
 See Note 5.
 Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church 27. George and Robert are also proved as sons by deed records. There is only circumstantial evidence for a son John. Deed and probate records also prove a daughter Ann Rankin who married William Denny. Rowan County probate records also suggest daughters Rebecca Rankin Braley/Brawley and Margaret Rankin Boyd.
 Clayton Genealogical Library microfilm, “NC Rowan County Will Books A-B 1767-1793” 141, will of George Rankin of Rowan County, dated 23 May 1760 and proved Oct 1760. The 1761 date for George’s death appears in every family tree I have seen for Robert and Rebecca. Someone apparently read Rev. Rankin’s book and accepted the 1761 date without question, guaranteeing that it will multiply on the internet like Tribbles.
 Id. George devised to his son John the 480-acre tract on Brushy Fork or Brush Creek. John sold 200 acres in August 1784, Guilford Deed Book 3: 101, and the remaining 297 acres in Sep 1796, Deed Book 6: 182. John was listed in the 1790 census for Guilford County but not in 1800. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He struggled with what he saw as the abstract and impersonal nature of Presbyterian doctrine and became a Shaker minister. He went to Tennessee in the late 1790s and wound up in Logan County, KY in a place called “Shakertown.” See Note 10. In a Guilford County marriage record that makes Rankin researchers rip their hair out, Shaker Rev. John married Miss Rebecca Rankin. She was a daughter of John Rankin and Hannah Carson from the line of Joseph and Rebecca Rankin of Delaware.
 Virgil D. White, Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files, Vol. III: N-Z (Waynesboro, TN: National Historical Publishing Co., 1992), abstract of the pension application of Robert Rankin, W5664. Robert was born 29 May 1759. Wife Mary. NC line. Soldier was born in Guilford and enlisted there. In 1830, he moved to McNairy Co., TN where he applied 20 May 1833. He died there 21 Dec 1840. Soldier had married Mary Moody 22 Nov 1803 in Guilford. Widow applied 12 Jun 1853 from McNairy at age 75. She died 11 Jul 1854.
 Rankin, History of Buffalo Presbyterian Church at 122.
 Raymond Dufau Donnell, Buffalo Presbyterian Church and Cemetery Greensboro, North Carolina (Greensboro, NC: The Guilford County Genealogical Society (1994), second printing March 1996), at p. ii, saying that the “earliest written records of the church date from 1773,” and stating that Robert Rankin Sr., “Pioneer … Ruling Elder” died circa 1770.
 Clayton Genealogical Library microfilm, “NC Guilford County Wills Books A-B 1771-1838,” File #312, will of Robert Rankin Sr. dated 30 May 1795 proved Nov 1795.
 Guilford Co. Deed Book 6: 346, 16 Feb 1798.
 Guilford Co., Deed Book 14: 11, 23 Mar 1819.
 Rev. S. M. Rankin, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy (Salem, MS: Higginson Book Company facsimile reprint of the 1931 original) 55 (John Rankin and Hannah Carson’s son Robert lived from 1780-1866) and 149 (William Rankin and Jane Chambers’ son Robert C. Rankin lived 1791-1853).