Revolutionary War Story: William Rankin of Virginia’s Northern Neck (part 3 of 5)

Part 2 of this series ended with the Battle of Ft. Washington on November 16, 1776. William Rankin was captured there and imprisoned in Manhattan. Against the odds, he survived. His elder brother Robert was not in that battle, so far as we can determine.[1] Their war experience diverged after Ft. Washington, despite the fact that they had both enlisted in Captain Brady’s Company of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment.[2]

Let’s turn to their individual war stories in parts 3 and 4 of this series.  We’ll start with William because there is so much detail in his pension application file. Robert, bless his heart, didn’t have much to say about his war experience.

Private William Rankin[3]

The facts William states in his pension application dovetail with military history to a “t.”[4] His memory is awesome. His military service had been over for fifty-four years and four months when he made his application declaration in November 1833 from Mason County, Kentucky. Here is what his declaration said, in part:

  • He enlisted in July 1776 for a term of three years in Berkeley County, Virginia. He enlisted in Capt. William Brady’s company of Col. Hugh Stephenson’s regiment. He notes that Stephenson soon died and the company was attached to Col. Moses Rawlings regiment. William didn’t say so, but Rawlings was Stephenson’s second-in-command of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. The regiment to which William’s company belonged didn’t change after Stephenson’s death, it just got a new commander.
  • William marched first to Philadelphia, then went to Trenton by water, then marched to Princeton.[5] All of his regiment went first to Philadelphia, where Washington was having his men inoculated for smallpox.[6] Next, William marched to Ft. Lee and Ft. Washington. [7] He stated the precise date of the battle at Ft. Washington. I’ll bet he could also have testified to the weather conditions.
  • The British imprisoned William in one of the notorious “sugar houses” in Manhattan before transferring him “after some time” to the British ship “the Duttons.”[8] The majority of British prisoners in New York City – four out of five – did not survive captivity.[9] Instead, they died of starvation or disease. William must have been a pretty tough teenager.

OK, that gets us up to the point in Part 2 where we left William.  In February or March 1777, the British paroled him and he went from New York to Philadelphia. In April 1777, said William, “he was sent home by direction of Gen. Daniel Morgan who happened to be a personal acquaintance.”[10] He was recalled from home a year later to rejoin the remains of Rawlings’ Regiment at Ft. Frederick in Frederick, MD.[11] From there he went to Ft. Pitt in Pittsburgh, where he worked as an “artificer” – someone who constructed fortifications.[12] He was discharged at Ft. Pitt when his three-year enlistment ended in mid-1779.

Now let’s go back to when Morgan sent him home from Philadelphia. Thomas Jones filed an affidavit in support of William’s pension application confirming that Morgan ordered him to take William home to Virginia. Jones said “that in the year 1777 he received from the hand of General Morgan … William Rankin in … Philadelphia, a sick soldier … to convey Rankin to Virginia, his former state of residence.”[13]

Jones took William home in a wagon.[14] In my imagination, William was horizontal on the wagon bed, on top of and under (I hope) some blankets. A John Kercheval also filed an affidavit in support of William’s pension application. Kercheval stated that “he met the said William Rankin returning to Virginia then in a low state of health in the wagon of Thomas Jones who lived in the neighborhood.”[15]

Where the heck was William’s home? He was still a teenager in April 1777, about 18. You would think he was going home to recuperate under the care of his family of origin, wouldn’t you? Inquiring minds want to know who they were …

William leaves us dangling on that question. Kercheval was more helpful. In the middle of his affidavit is this attention-grabber: Kercheval said he understood “from Mr. [William] Rankin’s brother Robert Rankin, who was an officer, that his brother William” was at one time ordered to Pittsburgh. Yes, indeed, William Rankin was once in Pittsburgh, where he was discharged. William’s brother is the man I nicknamed “Lt. Robert” in the first article in this series on these Rankins.

William may not have identified his parents, but at least his file proves a brother, who comprises one clue to his family of origin. There’s more. William also provides the link between the Rankin and Kercheval families. William said that “John Kercheval and his wife Jane Kercheval both know that he did serve in the war of the Revolution and the latter recollects the day he marched from her fathers in Frederick County Virginia.”

John Kercheval’s wife was Jane Berry, daughter of Thomas Berry of Frederick County.[16]  One of Jane Berry Kercheval’s sisters was Margaret “Peggy” Berry, who married Lt. Robert Rankin in Frederick County. Seventeen or 18-year-old William Rankin may have enlisted in Berkeley County, but he went marching off to war from Frederick County – to be exact, from Thomas Berry’s house. I will bet a big stack of genealogical chips that Jane Berry and her sister Peggy, both still single, watched Robert Rankin (who was then engaged to Peggy)[17] and his brother William march off to war from their father Thomas Berry’s house in Frederick County. That is a nice visual image – two sisters and two brothers.[18]

Kercheval also testified that “William Rankins not long after the war was done settled in … Frederick” County, where he was still living when Kercheval moved to Mason County, Kentucky about 1798-1799.[19] That tells us William probably wasn’t living in Frederick County before the war. William was definitely in Frederick by at least 1792, though, because a Frederick County lease and release[20] says William was “of Frederick” in that year. The deeds also prove William had a wife named Mary Ann and a son named Harrison.[21] Thomas Berry was a witness to those two instruments.

There is another tidbit or two in William’s pension file. Kercheval also said that William Rankin was “a very respectable man and entitled to credit in any court or county … he is a wealthy farmer of Mason County Kentucky.” Some of William’s wealth undoubtedly came from land speculation, which may have been the financial undoing of his brother Robert. William said that his discharge papers had been “lost long ago or put in the land office in Virginia to get land warrants.”[22] At that point, his memory fogged up a bit. He said he “could not recollect but possibly the latter.” He probably got land warrants but “having traded so much in that business cannot speak certainly.”

William was certainly wealthy by the standards of the day, when wealth was measured in part by ownership of enslaved persons. The 1836 inventory of William’s estate included twenty enslaved persons.[23] The current account of his estate in November 1839 shows an amount to be distributed of $17,911, after payment of an agreed $1,000 fee to the two estate administrators.[24]

That is all of William Rankin’s story I can tease out of the records I have accessed.[25] He died intestate in Mason County on April 12, 1836, leaving a widow and children to collect the remainder of his pension.[26] Unfortunately, William’s pension file doesn’t name them.[27] William may be buried in the Old Washington Cemetery (AKA the Washington Baptist Church Cemetery) in Mason County. [28] The 1810 through 1830 census records for Mason County suggest he had as many as ten children, although I can only prove three (a number of other Rankins were purchasers at his estate sale, and they probably include some children):

  • Harrison Rankin, who was born by 1792 in Frederick Co., Virginia, is conclusively proved by a lease and release.[29] He is most likely the same man who appeared in the 1850 census in Scott County, Kentucky at age 58. He was a merchant, lived in Georgetown, had at least four children, and last appeared in the Scott County census in 1870.[30]
  • John L. Rankin was one administrator of William’s estate.[31] I have not been able to track him with confidence.
  • Robert P. Rankin was also an administrator. He probably moved at some point to Scott County along with Harrison, although I haven’t found Robert in the census there. Some Robert P. Rankin is buried in the Georgetown Cemetery,  b. 1805 – d. 1892. It is also possible that Robert P. Rankin was the man by that name who married Mary C. Withers in April 1832 in Bourbon Co., KY.

If you have evidence for any other children, please post a comment! It would be wonderful to find a living male Rankin descendant from William’s line who would take a YDNA test.

May you rest in peace, William. And now … on to your famous brother in part 4 of this series.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] Gary and I found no military records to prove Robert’s location in 1776 except for the locations mention in William’s pension application. Consequently, we can only speculate why he wasn’t in the battle at Ft. Washington. Perhaps he was one of the Rifle Regiment’s members who remained at Ft. Lee because of sickness? See 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), p. 12, Note 50, at this link. Perhaps Robert was actually in the battle, but was neither killed nor captured? Statistically, that is highly unlikely.

[2] William’s pension application declaration expressly stated that he enlisted in Brady’s company. Robert’s declaration didn’t name a company. Fortunately, muster and payroll records for Gabriel Long’s composite company of Virginia riflemen consistently name remnants of Brady’s company, including Robert Rankin. Those rolls specifically identify Robert as a member of Brady’s company. The remaining members of the other two rifle companies (Captains Shepherd’s and West’s) that were decimated at Ft. Washington also appear on Long’s composite rifle company rolls.

[3] Information about William Rankin’s military history is largely taken from his pension application file, available for a fee at Fold3 on Ancestry.com. I made screen shots of many of the original images at Fold3 (available free at Clayton Library), but they rarely include the page number assigned to each image by Fold3. Accordingly, I have simply cited to “William’s pension application” with a brief description of the document in question.

[4] William’s pension declaration echoes the history of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, some of which was the subject part 2 of this series.

[5] Pension file of William Rankin, S.31315 (hereafter, “William Rankin’s pension file”), his sworn declaration supporting his pension application dated 22 Nov. 1833 in Mason Co., KY.

[6] Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. See p. 15 re: smallpox inoculations. The Philadelphia location was obviously before the British occupied the city in September 1777 following Washington’s defeat at Brandywine.

[7] William Rankin’s pension file, sworn declaration.

[8] Id.

[9] https://revolutionarywar.us, discussion of “Prisoner of War Facts,” which states “[b]y the end of 1776, there were over 5,000 prisoners held in New York City. More than half … came from the soldiers captured at the battle of Fort Washington and Fort Lee.” Four out of five prisoners died.

[10] Morgan was actually a Colonel when he sent William home, although he ended his career as a General and was undoubtedly referred to with that title by anyone who knew him. Morgan lived on a farm just east of Winchester, Frederick Co., and was apparently acquainted with the Rankin family. https://emergingrevolutionarywar.org/2019/05/27/george-washington-daniel-morgan-and-winchester-virginia-on-memorial-day/

[11] William Rankin’s pension file, sworn declaration.

[12] United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, Familysearch.org, FHL Film/Fiche Number 7197150, image 57, return of Capt. Heth’s Company at Ft. Pitt, listing Private William Rankins as an “artificer.” He must have recovered nicely from his prison ordeal.

[13] William Rankin’s pension file, affidavit of Thomas Jones. I took a few liberties with the affidavit’s spelling.

[14] Id., affidavit of John Kercheval.

[15] Id.

[16] Will of Thomas Berry of Frederick Co., VA dated 20 Feb 1806, proved Frederick Co. 4 Mar 1819. Copy certified and recorded in Mason Co. at Will Book E: 17 et seq. Thomas named his daughter Peggy, who married Col. Robert Rankin (his rank in the KY militia, not the Revolutionary War), and his daughter Jane, who married John Kercheval. Thomas left part of his land in Mason County to Peggy and Jane.

[17] Pension file of Rankins, Robert No. W26365 or Rankin, Peggy B.L.Wt. 1380-200, images of originals available from Fold3.com at Ancestry. Peggy (Berry) Rankin’s declaration dated 16 Feb. 1844 states that she and Robert were married on Oct. 1, 1781 in Frederick County while he was on furlough after his capture at Charleston, they “having been previously engaged.” Peggy’s declaration is at pages 16-19 of their combined Fold3 file.

[18] Presumably, William would not have bothered to mention that Peggy also saw him march off to war. By 1833, she and Robert no longer lived in Mason County and Peggy wasn’t available to provide confirmation. Of course, my mental image of that event is pure speculation.

[19] Id.

[20] A “lease and release” was a two-step land transaction created to circumvent the English Statute of Uses. The two documents were typically executed on consecutive days. Together, they had the effect of a normal conveyance of land in fee simple.

[21] See Frederick Co., VA Deed Book 24A: 152, 155, lease and release (essentially a conveyance) dated 3 Nov 1792 from Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck, to William Rankin of Frederick, 79 acres, part of the “Chestnut Level” in Frederick. Lease for the lives of William Rankin, wife Mary Ann Rankin, and son Harrison Rankin. One witness was Thomas Berry.

[22] William Rankin’s pension file, his declaration of 22 Nov. 1833.

[23] Mason Co., KY Will Book K: 448, inventory of William Rankin’s estate dated 4 June 1836.

[24] Mason Co., KY Will Book L: 538, Nov. 1839 current account of John L. Rankin and Robert P. Rankin, administrators of the account of William Rankin, dec’d.

[25] I haven’t been to the Mason county courthouse or anyplace where one can access land records online. Deeds would probably provide evidence of  William’s land speculation and the identity of other family members who witnessed his deeds or were grantees.

[26] William Rankin’s pension file, letter dated 14 May 1927 from Winfield Scott, Commissioner of the Revolutionary and 1812 Wars (pension?) Section, to an inquiry about William’s record from Miss May Harrison. Scott’s reply noted William’s date of death and failure of his pension file to mention names of wife and children. See also a letter of 17 Sep 1931 responsive to a request about William from Mr. Walter H. Rankins stating the same facts.

[27] I cannot find a distribution in the Mason County will books, which would provide conclusive proof of William’s heirs.

[28] See Elizabeth Prather Ellsberry, Cemetery Records, Mason County, Kentucky, Vol. 1 (Chillicothe, MO: 1965). The contents of that book was the source for the Mason County Cemetery Index database on Ancestry.com.

[29] See Note 21, which should be the 1792 lease for life and & release.

[30] 1850 census, Scott Co., KY, dwelling 20, Harrison Rankin, 58, merchant, Betsey Rankin 48, KY, Martha Rankin 28, Elizabeth Rankin 22, Rufus Rankin 17, and Elizabeth Rankin 8; 1870 census, Georgetown, Scott Co., KY, dwelling 160, Harrison Rankin, 78, b. VA, $5,000/3,000, dry goods merchant, Elizabeth Rankin, 68 KY, Martha Rankin, 44 KY, Rufus Rankin, 35, KY, Lizzie Kenney, 28. Also listed in Harrison’s household: Paul Rankin, 46, doctor, b. KY. Underneath Paul’s name: William Rankin 20, Bettie Rankin 13, and Malvina Rankin 11.

[31] Mason Co., KY Will Book K: 448.