Find-a-Grave struck again, although I was minding my own business

— Corrected 31 Dec 2020 for information on graves of Andrew and Mary Rankin —

One of my favorite Rankin researchers sent a Christmas Eve email that began, “I was minding my own business, when …”

I was grinning by then because I knew in my bones that what followed would be some variation of “genealogy intervened.” Indeed, it was. Since you are reading this genealogy blog, you probably also saw it coming.

Another friend just did that to me by sending a link to a Find-a-Grave site for a cemetery in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. One of the graves there claims to be that of a man who almost certainly never set foot — much less an entire corpse — in Allegheny County.

I will proceed gingerly. The last time I did anything concerning Find-a-Grave, I received an email from an angry man in a western state awash with militia. His last email said he would keep me apprised of his “confirmed kills” in the “impending civil war.”

The recently received Find-a-Grave entry purports to be the grave of the William Rankin who died in Franklin County, Pennsylvania in 1792, son of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin. William’s wife was Mary Huston Rankin, named as a beneficiary in William’s 1792 will. According to Find-a-Grave, Mary died in 1790.

These claims raise hard questions. Why would a man who died in Franklin County be buried in a town 150 miles away?[1] And why would he have made his wife a beneficiary of his 1792 will if she had already died in 1790?

Someone out there must have answers to these questions, because the Find-a-Grave site for Round Hill Cemetery in Allegheny County says this unusual couple is buried there.  Here is a link to a picture of William Rankin’s tombstone (there is no image for Mary’s). Please ignore the text on this entry for the time being because it is rife with errors … keep reading.

The tombstone is difficult to read. Other than the boilerplate “DIED” and “in the ____ year of his age,” the clearest information is the name “William Rankin.” His date of death looks like 18xx. It appears to be 1812 or 1813 in a sharpened and printed image. This is surely not the tombstone of a man who died in 1792, unless the trip from Franklin County to Elizabeth, Allegheny County, took waaaaay longer than expected.

There is also an intestate estate for a William Rankin in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County about that time. The Allegheny Probate Proceedings Index gives the date of his Inventory and Appraisement as 1813.[2] Because the I&A is customarily done soon after an estate is submitted to probate, that date establishes that William died in 1812 or 1813.

More evidence lies in the cemetery (no pun intended). The DAR did a survey of tombstones at Round Hill Presbyterian Church near Elizabeth in the summer of 1940. The DAR listed a tombstone for “Rankin, William, d. Feb. 11, 1813, aged 69 years.” We can reasonably conclude that was the same man whose inventory was taken in 1813. The DAR also lists “Rankin, Mary wife of William d. July 22, 1808 in 62nd year.”

William’s tombstone itself provides additional evidence. The marker is an unadorned rectangular solid with an inscription in this format:

NAME

DIED

Month, day, year

in the ___ year of his age

There are two more tombstones in Round Hill cemetery with the same unadorned shape, format, and “typeface.” One is for Andrew Rankin and another is for Mary Rankin. It appears from the hard-to-read inscriptions that both died in the 1790s. The 1940 DAR survey says that Andrew died in 1794, age 2, and that Mary died in 1795, age 14. Find-a-Grave claims that both were children of “William and Mary Rankin.” Given the remarkably similar tombstones for William, Andrew, and Mary, the three were clearly family.

That brings us to the family Bible of William and Mary Huston Rankin of Franklin County.[3] It identifies their children and their dates of birth as follows. Information other than names and dates is from my research, not the Bible.

  • Adam Rankin, b. 10 Nov 1762. He was a physician. He went to Henderson Co., KY, married three times, and had many children. See  this link and this one for more on Adam.
  • Archibald Rankin, b. 10 Apr 1764. Archibald stayed in Franklin County until he died. His wife was Agnes Long.[4]
  • James Rankin, b. 20 Apr 1766. He went to Centre County, PA with his brothers William, John, and Jeremiah. All four of them inherited land there. For some information about them, see the article at this link.
  • William Rankin, b. 5 Nov? 1770. He also went to Centre County with 3 of his brothers. Married #1 Abigail McGinley, #2 Susannah Huston.
  • Betsy Rankin, b. 13 Oct 1774.
  • David Rankin, b. 5 Feb 1777. His wife was Frances Campbell, daughter of Dougal Campbell. Migrated to Des Moines, Iowa.
  • John Rankin, b. 1 May 1779. He went to Centre County with James, William, and Jeremiah.
  • Jeremiah Rankin, b. 26 Nov 1783. He also went to Centre County with his brothers.

William’s family Bible records the birth of neither a son Andrew nor a daughter Mary. William named all of the above children, and his wife Mary, in his will.[5]

Unfortunately, all of the information about William at the Find-a-Grave link is unsourced. Much of it is clearly erroneous. You’ve got to laugh, and then try to guess how that post strayed so far from the facts. The best guess is “same name confusion” between two of the numerous William Rankins in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. That’s a common and understandable error.

Here is what Find-a-Grave says, shown in italics. My comments are in normal typeface. If anyone has evidence supporting the Find-a-Grave claims, please share it.

Birth 1713. There is no evidence for an exact birth year that I have found. William’s first appearance in the records seems to have been a 1749 warrant for a tract in Antrim Township.[6]

 County Antrim, Northern Ireland. There is no evidence for William’s exact place of birth. If Mary Steele Rankin was his mother, though, he must have been born in the colonies, where Adam and Mary married. [7]  

Death 30 Nov 1792 (age 78 -79). That is the date William’s will was proved in Franklin County. The odds that someone’s will was presented in court the exact day he or she died are virtually nil. The family Bible says that William died on Oct. 25, 1792.

 Franklin County, PA. That is surely correct. William, son of Adam, lived and owned land in Franklin and his will was probated there.

Burial Round Hill Cemetery, Elizabeth, Allegheny Co.” Well. Some William Rankin who died in 1812-13 is buried in Round Hill Cemetery. I will bet a huge pile of genealogical chips that it is not William Rankin, son of Adam and husband of Mary Houston Rankin.

Continuing with Find-a-Grave information:

“William Steele Rankin was born in 1713 in County Antrium (sic) in the Northeast part of Northern Ireland. He was the son of Adam Rankin, born 16 Jul 1688 in Stenhousemuir, Stirlingshire, Scotland and died 4 May 1747 in Lancaster Co., PA and his wife Mary Steele, born about 1692 in Lancaster, Lancaster Co., PA and died 21 Sep 1747 in Somerset Co., PA.”

Let’s take this one thing at a time.

… there is no evidence in a county or Bible record, or county history books, that William Rankin, son of Adam, ever used a middle initial — much less a middle name. It would have been highly unusual for a man born in the early 18th century to have a middle name. They didn’t come into common usage until the 19th century. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had no middle name, for pete’s sake.

… If William were in fact a son of Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin, he was undoubtedly born in what is now Pennsylvania. Adam and Mary married in the colonies, sometime between August 1718 and Sept 1724.[8] On the other hand, if William were a son of Adam and a wife prior to Mary Steele, it is possible that he was born in what was then called Ulster or the Ulster Plantations in the northernmost part of Ireland.

… there seems to be no evidence for Adam Rankin’s birth date or place. If family oral history is correct, he was probably born in Scotland. We would all dearly love to see evidence of a precise date and/or location. For a discussion of what is and is not evidence, see the article at this link.

… Adam’s will was dated 4 May 1747 and proved 21 Sep 1747 in Lancaster County. The odds that he wrote his will the day he died are almost zero, particularly since the will wasn’t proved until September. The only thing the probate records prove is that Adam died sometime between 4 May 1747 and 21 Sep 1747.

… Adam’s wife was definitely Mary Steele Alexander, widow of James Alexander.[9] If anyone has any evidence for her dates or places of birth and death, I hope you will share.

Whew! Here’s hoping you are now convinced that the Find-a-Grave poster erred when he or she identified the William Rankin buried in Round Hill Presbyterian Cemetery as William (wife Mary Huston Rankin), a son of Adam and Mary Steele Alexander.

… But that raises the obvious question: who the heck are the William and Mary Rankin buried in Round Hill Cemetery? Jess Guyer and I have concluded they are William and Mary Stewart Rankin, who were married in Franklin Co., PA on 28 Feb 1774.[10] A follow-up article will follow shortly.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] The Franklin County Rankins lived on Conococheague Creek near Greencastle, Franklin Co., PA. The distance from there to Elizabeth, Allegheny Co. by the fastest current route is about 150 miles.

[2] Allegheny County, PA Probate Records, 1683-1994, Proceedings Index 1778-1971, Vol. 30, page 305, Block 5. Notes an Inventory and Appraisement, estate of William Rankin, dec’d, in 1813. FamilySearch.org Film No. 877053, Image No. 775, Block 5.

[3] Disk 4, Cloyd tapes. Unfortunately, I have lost my reference to the Cloyd disk page numbers, for which I apologize. Wading through those disks is a challenge. The information in the Bible appears in the form of chart accompanying a letter dated May 6, 1954, from Rev. J. O. Reed, pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Opelousas, LA, to Flossie Cloyd. Rev. Reed was the owner of the Bible and drew the chart.

[4] Records of the Upper West Conocochegue Presbyterian Church shows Archibald Rankin’s marriage to Agnes Long on 9 March 1790 and his death on 24 Jun 1845 at age 81.

[5] Franklin Co., PA Will Book A: 256, will dated 20 Oct 1792 and proved 28 Nov 1792.

[6] Land Warrants for Lancaster County, PA,  http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/bah/dam/rg/di/r17-88WarrantRegisters/LancasterPages/r17-88LancasterPageInterface.htm. See page 183.

[7] The country of Northern Ireland wasn’t established until 1920. The Find-a-Grave poster probably meant what was then called the Ulster Plantations in the northernmost part of Ireland. See an article about Scots-Irish history at this link. For evidence re: the marriage of Adam and Mary Steele, widow of James Alexander, see the next footnote.

[8] For conclusive proof, see the citations in Notes 4 through 7 and the accompanying main text in http://digupdeadrelatives.com/2018/07/27/adam-d-1747-lancaster-mary-steele-rankins-son-william-follow-land/ . My gratitude again to Floyd Owsley.

[9] Id.

[10] Records of the Upper West Conococheague Presbyterian Church, Franklin Co., PA.