John McGinley Rankin: Too Many Have Lived

by Anonymous

I took a drag on my cigarette and leaned back in my chair. John McGinley Rankin was dead alright. Dead as a doornail. Had been for 187 years. Cholera they said, but I figured it was more likely a bad ticker. The probate records scattered all over my desk told the story. He’d been up to his eyeballs in debt with a wife and nine kids to support. It was a wonder he held on as long as he did.

Yep, John McGinley Rankin was dead, no doubt about it. My job: Find his parents.

Spade’s the name. Not my real name, of course. They call me “Spade” because I dig up dead relatives, mostly Rankins. I’d walked into the office that morning to find a manilla envelope on my desk. Inside was a $100 bill – my usual retainer – and a note that read “There’s more where that came from if you can tell me who his parents were.” There was also typewritten sheet titled “Memories” by a guy named James Doig Rankin,[1] plus a hand-drawn family tree.[2] Both had the name “John McGinley Rankin” circled in red.

I took a quick look at the “Memories.” Up top it mentioned Adam Rankin, son of William, who came to America from Ulster about 1720 with brothers John and Hugh. Adam had married Mary Steele and died in 1747 leaving his property to sons James, William and Jeremiah. So far, so nothing. Every Rankin under the sun claimed either Adam or John as an ancestor.[3] 90% of them were dead wrong, and the DNA evidence said Adam and John weren’t even brothers.[4]

James D Rankin went on to say that Adam’s son James had served under Washington and “for some notable service was given a tract of land at the foot of Two Top Mountain, Franklin County, Pa., a few miles from the present town of Mercersburg.” He’d married Mary McGinley, and John McGinley Rankin was one of his kids.

I chuckled. Every Rankin private dick knew that Adam’s son James was married to Jane Campbell, not Mary McGinley, and his four sons were William, David, Jeremiah and James. Not a “John McGinley” among them. It was easy to see how James D might have got mixed up, though… Guys named “James Rankin” were a dime a dozen.

The rest of the story rang true though. John McGinley Rankin had married a gal named Agnes Burns, “daughter of Hon. John Burns, first cousin and intimate friend of the Scottish poet.” About 1816, “they made their bridal trip in a covered wagon across the Allegheny Mountains, and after a short period in Eastern Ohio settled permanently a mile out of the village of Washington, Pennsylvania. Here they purchased a tavern and connected with it a farm. It stood on the Great Western Highway. The village around their home was called Rankintown. No liquor was sold in the tavern.”

I took a look at the family tree. It told basically the same story right down to the “full cousin of Robert Burns” bit, but also listed all John and Agnes’s kids and their spouses.[5] I flipped it over. It was written on stationary of the General Counsel of the Rock Island & Pacific Railway, a guy named William Thomasson Rankin. I did a double-take. Will Rankin was my own second great grandfather. Suddenly this wasn’t just another Rankin case.

This was personal.

Just then the phone rang. “Spade here… Yeah, I’m on the John McGinley Rankin case… Killed in a thresher accident in Centre County?[6] Nah, you’re barking up the wrong tree pal.” Click. What the hell was that? Some joker trying to send me off on a wild goose chase?

I ran through the list of John M’s kids from William T Rankin’s chart, and they all checked out. Two of them had been born in Warren, Ohio – James Graham in 1821 and John Walker, Will’s dad, in 1823 – so that bit of James Doig Rankin’s story looked OK, but at least one of the older girls had been born in Washington County, PA, according to her obit.[7] I also checked out Agnes’s father, “John Burns.” Turns out his name was really James[8] and he was born in Pennsylvania, so the odds of him being an “intimate friend of the Scottish poet” were just about nil. Agnes’s family had lived just west of Schellsburg, and that’s probably where she was born. That “crossed the Allegheny Mountains” part of the story was starting to look like a bunch of hooey.

I poked around in the records for Washington County for a while looking for some likely candidate for John McGinley Rankin’s father. There were a bunch of Rankins just north of the town of Washington at a spot called Raccoon Creek.[9] I even found a James who was about the right age, but it turned out he’d been ambushed and killed by Seneca on his way home from a trip to Kentucky and left no kids.[10]

So now here I was looking for clues in the probate records[11] for John M who had shuffled off on 4 Aug 1835[12] at his tavern in Canton Township. It was mostly a big pile of called in debts. The Rankintown Tavern practically had to be liquidated to pay it all off, including every barrel of beer and whiskey – so much for it being a “dry” tavern! Somehow, Agnes had managed to keep it all going for another 10 years as the Erie Canal and B&O Railroad slowly dried up traffic on the Old National Pike. She’d even managed to put most her kids through Washington College. Helluva gal.

I sighed. I’d hit a brick wall.

The phone rang again. “Yeah?… You don’t say… I’ll check it out. Thanks doll!”

It was Jess Guyer calling with a hot tip. When it came to deeds and wills, she had a nose like a bloodhound, and great gams to boot.[13] She said she’d found something in Belfast Township, Bedford County, that I might be interested in. I pulled down my dusty copy of Bedford County Deed Book P, turned to page 255, and there it was. In 1825, John M Rankin of Canton Township quitclaimed ground rent on a parcel he’d sold to one James Austin in 1815. That was definitely my boy.

Jess had said there were other deeds for the same property. I flipped back to Deed Book L, page 601. In 1818, John M Rankin, then of Belfast Township, was selling 200 acres to a guy named David Humphreys from Franklin County for 9400 clams. As I went through the details of the agreement, though, something hit me. This was no ordinary sale; this was a bailout!

John M had bought the land in 1813 for 6 grand – 2 grand up front and 4 notes of 1 grand each. It was supposed to have been paid off by the beginning of 1818. But David Humphreys was agreeing to pay off the remaining balance, so John M must have had trouble getting his hands on the dough. Not only that, but Humphreys was taking on $3400 of other debts owed by John M. That was a lot of lucre back in 1818! Besides getting rid of his debts, John M was getting a 120 acre piece of land in Warren, Ohio.

The phone rang. “Yeah?… Yeah, I’m on the case…. Doctor in Piney Township, Clarion County?[14] No, you got the wrong guy, bub.” Click. Joker.

I did a little quick arithmetic… If 200 acres in Pennsylvania was worth $9400, 120 acres in Ohio couldn’t have been worth more than two or three, probably a lot less since the feds were still selling off undeveloped land in Ohio for $2 an acre. But the deed valued it at six grand. I had to scratch my head at that one. Maybe they were trying to make it look like John M wasn’t getting such a raw deal. Anyway, what happened to John M wasn’t much different than what happened to a lot of other small farmers in those days. Everybody had been running up debt speculating on land and they all got left holding the bag when the credit dried up and the whole house of cards came tumbling down in the Panic of 1819.[15] Poor sap.

As my eyes went over the Humphreys deed again, I noticed something I’d missed on the first pass. The land in Ohio was to be transferred to John M Rankin and his father James Rankin! So the family had it right… John M’s father really was named James. Well, that helped a little, but there were so many James Rankins floating around back in those days that you couldn’t spit without hitting one in the eye. Which was John M’s daddy?

The phone rang again. I was just about ready to throw it across the room, but picked it up anyway. “Spade here… Doctor in Kalamazoo?[16] You gotta be kiddin’ me…. No, no, that’s way too late… Yeah, well, same to you.” Click.

Maybe I needed to come at this from another angle. If John McGinley Rankin’s mother was really Mary McGinley, chances are her father was named John McGinley. That’s how the Scotch-Irish liked to name their kids back in those days… give the kid the full name of some friend or relative. All I had to do was find the right guy.

Ten minutes thumbing through Pennsylvania will books and I had it. John McGinley of Adams County, Pennsylvania. Will dated December 12th, 1796.[17] He left 10 pounds each to his four daughters: Mary wife of James Rankin, Margaret wife of Isaac Moore, Sarah wife of James Rankin, and Abigail wife of William Rankin. I blinked and read it again. James Rankin was married to Mary McGinley… and Sarah McGinley?  That had to be a transcription error.[18]

Well, now at least I knew where Mary McGinley came from, but I still didn’t feel any closer to figuring out James Rankin. I started digging into the background of this John McGinley character. Turns out, he was married to a gal named Jane Alexander, and her grandmother was Mary Steele. I blinked. Wasn’t that the name of Adam Rankin’s wife? Yeah, her first husband had been a guy named James “the Carpenter” Alexander according to his will.[19] So Mary McGinley was married to James Rankin, and her father was married to the step-granddaughter of Adam Rankin? My head was starting to spin. Maybe there was something to this Adam Rankin connection after all.

The phone rang again. “This is Spade… Wait, did you say Two Top Mountain?… No kidding… I’ll look into it.” Click.

It was my cousin Ralph. He’d been digging into the Adam Rankin story and had found where Adam’s son James had his farm. It was at a spot called “The Corner,” in Montgomery Township, Franklin County, PA, a little south of Mercersburg, where Punch Bowl Road crosses Licking Creek, and right at the foot of Two Top Mountain, just where James Doig Rankin’s “Memories” had said it was. James’ will had split the property between his four sons, and Ralph had worked out all the property lines, with the easternmost tract going to James Jr.[20]

I started paging through Pennsylvania land warrant applications looking for clues, but the phone rang. Again.

“Spade here… Yeah, I’m on the case… Farmer in Guernsey County, Ohio?[21] No no no no NO! Not the right guy!” Click. What a Nimrod![22]

Back to the land warrants I went, and boy did I get lucky! February 23, 1816.[23] There it was. John M Rankin of Belfast Township applies for a Warrant on a tract at The Corner. And evidence was given by none other than James Rankin, “a disinterested witness”, saying that John M had settled there in March 1812. The survey[24] put the tract just east of James Jr.’s. James Jr had to be John M’s father, but that “disinterested” bit put me off. Could a father be “disinterested”?[25] I was so close I could taste it.

I went back to the deed books. There had to be something there. Finally, I found it! A deed from James Rankin Jr to Charles Kilgore[26] for a tract of land bordered on the east by lands “late the property of said James Rankin & his son John Rankin.” There was my smoking gun!

I now had a solid paper trail proving that John McGinley Rankin, husband of Agnes Burns, was the son of James Rankin Jr, grandson of the Adam Rankin who died in 1747.  James Jr. had married Mary McGinley, his first cousin once removed of the half blood, as the old timers say, and she’d named her son after his granddad. Sometime around 1813, John M had moved to Belfast Township, Bedford County, and met and married Agnes Burns. The first two or three kids must have been born there, not in Washington County, obit notwithstanding. By 1818, with bankruptcy looming, he sold out and they all moved to Warren, Jefferson County, Ohio. After a couple more kids, they sold out again and moved to “Rankintown” in Canton Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania, to open the tavern.

James Doig Rankin and William Thomasson Rankin had got it nearly right after all. They just dropped a generation.

I poured myself a double shot of Cutty Sark and leaned back in my chair again. The phone rang. This time, I picked it up with a smile. “Don’t tell me you’ve got another one?… Died of typhoid in 1898?[27] No, that’s not the guy, but you’ve certainly been very helpful to my investigation.” Click. No amount of kibitzing was going to spoil my drink.

[1] The original copy of “Memories” is in the private collection of a descendant of John McGinley Rankin who provided an abstract to me.

[2] I discovered a hand drawn chart of descendants of William Rankin, including the lines of John McGinley Rankin and James Clark Rankin, among a packet of family papers left by my father.  It is in the hand of William Thomasson Rankin, son of John Walker Rankin and grandson of John McGinley Rankin.  It is on stationary of the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, so must have been drawn up in about 1900 when Will Rankin was General Counsel.

[3] There are a number of articles on this website concerning Adam Rankin who died in 1747 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

[4] See “Adam Rankin Who Died in 1747, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – AGAIN!” here.

[5] These were:  Mary Jane Rankin (~1814-~1843) m. Rev. James Law; Esther Burns Rankin (~1816-1851) m. Rev. James Rolla Doig; Ann Eliza Rankin (~1818-1912) m. Rev. Robert Johnston Hammond; Rev. James Graham Rankin (1821-1868) m. Catherine Pollack; John Walker Rankin Esq. (1823-1869) m. Sara Dupuy Thomasson; Agnes McGinley Rankin (1825-1913) m. Rev. Byron Porter; Rev. Alexander Reed Rankin (1828-1917) m. Vianna Katherine DeGroff; Dr. David Carson Rankin (~1833-~1865) m. Margaret S Speedy; Samuel Murdock Rankin (~1833-?).

[6] John M Rankin (1797-1838), son of William Rankin and Abigail McGinley, died after being injured by a threshing machine.  John Blair Lynn, “History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania” 222 (Press of J. B. Lippencott & Co., Philadelphia), available online.  Abigail McGinley was a daughter of John McGinley, so the man was likely named for his grandfather. See an article about the Centre County Rankins on this website here.

[7] “The Americus Greeting,” Americus Kansas, Thursday, December 12, 1912, Page 1. Obituary for Ann Eliza Rankin “Grandma” Hammond.

[8] Will of James Burns, Bedford County, PA, Will Book Vol. 4: 379, dated 28 Jan 1860, leaving $500 to “Agness Burns intermarried with John Rankin.”  James Burns seems to have been quite a story-teller.  In the 1850 census, he gave his age as 86.  In 1860, he claimed to be 101, the same age written on his headstone when he died in 1863.  His application for a revolutionary war pension was denied because, in spite of the extensive military history it detailed, including wintering with Washington at Valley Forge, the only evidence he provided was a pay record for a different James Burns who had lived in York County.  His own records, he said, had been eaten by a mouse.  Perhaps this was the same mouse whose fate was mourned by the poet Robert Burns, who James claimed as a first cousin.

[9] See “Pennsylvania Rankins: William and Abigail of Washington County” on this website here.

[10] Charles A. Hanna, Ohio Valley Genealogies Relating Chiefly to Families in Harrison, Belmont and Jefferson Counties, Ohio, and Washington, Westmoreland, and Fayette Counties, Pennsylvania (New York: Press of J. J. Little & Co., 1900) 104-105. It is online here.

[11] Pennsylvania Probate Records, File R, 1837-1844, Case 25.

[12] Biography of John Walker Rankin from the “CF Davis Collection” 261, authorship and publication unknown.  A copy of this hand written manuscript is in the possession of the author, and a transcription is available here (Ancestry.com subscription required).

[13] For the record, this is literary license:  I have never met Jess Guyer in person.

[14] Dr. John McGinley Rankin (~1792-1869) of Piney Township, Clarion County, was the son of James Rankin and Sarah McGinley.  His memorial at Find Grave has his middle name as “McKinley,” but there is no photo of a grave marker and no reference.  The cemetery record for his daughter Sarah M. Rankin shows his middle name as “McGinley.”  See “Find-a-grave information — fact or fiction? (e.g., Dr. John M. Rankin, 1833-1909)” on this website at this link for a discussion of name confusion between this Dr. John and a younger Dr. John of Kalamazoo, MI.

[15] See Wikipedia for a discussion of the Panic of 1819.

[16] Dr. John M. Rankin (1833-1909) of Kalamazoo, MI, was the son of James Huston Rankin and Margaret McCurdy.  Huston, in turn, was the son of James Rankin and Sarah McGinley.  Huston likely named his son for his brother, Dr. John McGinley Rankin of Piney Township, Clarion County, PA, as well as for his own grandfather, John McGinley.  See footnote 14 and this article.

[17] York County, PA, Will Books vol. H: 363, viewable here.

[18] But it was no transcription error.  Three McGinley girls married three Rankin boys, two of whom were named “James.”  Sarah and Abigail married brothers James and William respectively, sons of William Rankin (1723-1792) and Mary Huston, while Mary married their first cousin James, son of James Rankin (~1722-1795) and Jane Campbell.

[19] New Castle County, DE, Will Book C: 103.

[20] A copy of Ralph Jefford’s map can be found here.  Ancestry.com subscription required.

[21] John M Rankin (1834-1927) of Guernsey County, OH, was the son of Adam Rankin and Elizabeth Pumphrey.  Adam, in turn, was the son of James Rankin and Mary McGinley, and brother to the John McGinley Rankin who is the subject of this piece.  Adam almost certainly named his son after his brother, as well as his grandfather John McGinley.

[22] Nimrod W Rankin (1862-1952) was the son of John M Rankin (1834-1927) and Elvira Berry.  See footnote 21.

[23] The Franklin County, PA, warrant application is viewable here.  Ancestry.com subscription required.  I’m sure there must be a way to view it that isn’t paywalled, but I’ll be darned if I can figure it out.

[24] Early Land Surveys for Montgomery Township, Franklin County, PA, can be found at a unique Google Earth interactive map located here.

[25] It is possible that the “disinterested” James Rankin was a cousin of John M Rankin, son of his father’s brother William, who lived three farms to the west.

[26] Franklin County, PA, Deeds, Book 12: 230.

[27] John M. Rankin, Jr. (1874-1898) was the son of Dr. John M. Rankin (1833-1909) and Susan C Rankin (her maiden name) of Kalamazoo, MI.  See footnote 16.  Like his father, his middle name was almost certainly McGinley.

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