Don’t Trust, Just Verify: The Perils of SAR[1] Applications

I called my friend Spade yesterday evening. He picked up on the first ring.

“Hey, doll, what’s cooking? Have you found one of my cousins who will Y-DNA test?” I could hear ice clinking in a glass. He was no doubt having some Cutty Sark to celebrate yet another successful case in which he dug up someone’s long-dead relative.

Spade has a Rankin line with a solid paper trail back to Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin. But we all want Y-DNA confirmation. He supplied the names of a half-dozen Rankin men in his line — his distant cousins. My job was to recruit just one to Y-DNA test. I failed miserably.

“No. Your cousins are a frustrating lot. I wrote to four or five of them but received no replies. But never mind them. My beef is with you, Spade.”

He sighed, and I clearly detected the sound of a generous splash into a glass. “Now what have I done?” Spade is definitely not the long-suffering type, but he can play that role on occasion.

“I was looking at your otherwise excellent online tree and found a SAR application you included as evidence for one Rankin family. It has a terrible error which is a zombie that won’t die. I’m holding you partly responsible for its survival because you are publishing that thing.”

There was a momentary silence. I knew it wouldn’t take him long to demur, so I wasn’t holding my breath.

“I know the one you mean. Yep, it does contain an egregious error. But I like to attach all relevant evidence, even if it’s partly wrong.”

Now the momentary silence was on my end of the line. “Well,” I finally said, “that’s an interesting notion. But how are people supposed to know which parts of the evidence are correct and which parts are error?”

“Because I file an explanatory comment explaining what’s what,” he quickly rejoined.

I thought I detected slurping. I didn’t know anyone slurped Cutty. This conversation was clearly heading downhill quickly.

“That’s helpful, but what if people don’t read your comment? I, for one, missed it altogether.”

Another slurp. He ignored my first question. “You missed it because I haven’t written a comment yet. Why don’t you post an exposé on your blog?”

With that, he hung up. Spade is famous for hanging up on people.[2]

* * * * * * * *

Spade left me no choice. As it turns out, there is no way for him to comment on that accursed SAR application. So here is my exposé. Don Quixote would be proud.

I am going to quote the SAR application, putting the crummy information in boldface with a comment clearly indicating error.

The SAR application in question was by WILLIAM STEWART RENKIN,[3] whose great-great-great grandfather was, according to the application, a member of the Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania militia during the Sandusky Expedition in 1782. That was an engagement on the western front and one of the last operations in the Revolutionary War.[4]

William Stewart died in 1967, but I communicated with his daughter Jeanne[5] for several years. She has since died as well. Her father did the initial family history research for their Rankins and prepared the SAR application. Jeanne diligently supplemented his work with excellent, thorough research of her own. I enjoyed arguing with her.

Unfortunately, the information on her father’s SAR application has one flaw — and the flaw is not even relevant to his claim to SAR membership! Put another way, the error wasn’t needed to establish whether William Stewart was eligible. He could have omitted two generations and his application would have been perfectly fine.

The bad information in that SAR application has, of course, multiplied like Tribbles on the starship “Enterprise” in the original Star Trek. The error is included in countless online trees.

We have ALL made research errors, so I am not being critical of William Stewart’s work. I do confess to an occasional eye-roll when people accept assertions on Find-a-Grave, SAR applications, and online trees despite lack of evidence. Or, worse yet, without verifying the assertions for themselves.

Here is what the application says. My comments are in either italics or boldface.

William Stewart Rankin, born on June 16, 1913, was:

(1) the son of William Oran Renkin, 1875-1943, and Jane Fulton Stewart.

(2) the grandson of William Wilson Renkin, 1842-1922, and Sarah Hefron Hunter.

(3) the great-grandson of William Johnson Rankin, 1813-after 1870, and Nancy Johnson Anthony.

(4) the great-great-grandson of William Jackson Rankin, 1788-1870, and his first wife Margaret McHargus Ramsey.

(5) the great-great-great-grandson of William Rankin Jr, 1743-1823, and his wife Jane Taylor. “Jr.” is handwritten on the application, although William never used that designation SFAIK. His most likely death date is 1826 rather than 1823. This is the man whose service was the basis of the SAR application. He died in Indiana County and left a will dated 1822, proved 1826.[6]

(6) the great-great-great-great-grandson of William Rankin, died 1798, and Mary Huston. THIS IS WRONG: the William Rankin who died in Indiana County in 1826 was NOT a son of William and Mary Huston Rankin. That couple did have a son named William, but records (see discussion below) conclusively prove he moved to Centre County, Pennsylvania, and died there in 1847. He cannot possibly have been the same man as the William Rankin who died two decades earlier in Indiana County. Also, the William Rankin who married Mary Huston died in 1792 rather than 1798.

(7) the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Adam Rankin died 1750  and his “2d wife Mrs. Mary Steele.” Adam died in 1747 rather than 1750. There is apparently no evidence in the records for a first wife. That is an assertion in the oral history of two genetically unrelated families, each of whom claims descent from the Adam who died in 1747 in Lancaster County. Given the error in item (6), it follows that William Stewart Renkin was not descended from Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin. Big Y testing confirms that.

Below is the evidence concerning William, son of William and Mary Huston Rankin. It is yet another example of what I call the “follow the land theory.” That is a solid form of genealogical proof if you want to be certain, for example, that the William you are following around was the same man as William, son of Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin.

Let’s start with a will. Specifically, the will of William Rankin of Franklin County whose wife was Mary Huston.[7] We are concerned with two provisions, those dealing with land devised to four of their sons:

  • Sons James and William jointly received 900 acres in Penns Valley, Mifflin County.
  • Sons John and Jeremiah jointly received 408 acres on Spring Creek in Penns Valley, Mifflin County.

Now let’s check out Mifflin County, Penns Valley, and Spring Creek to make sure we know where these two inherited tracts wound up.

… “Penns Valley” is located in southeastern Centre County and includes Potter Township, which appears often in the records for these men.

… A “Spring Creek” runs through the middle of Bellefonte, the county seat of Centre County.[8]

… Centre County was created in 1800 from parts of four counties, including Mifflin.

We therefore know that the two tracts William devised to four of his sons were located in what is now Centre County. John and Jeremiah should be located close to each other, since they jointly inherited one tract. James and William should also be located near each other for the same reason.

Voila! There they are, all four brothers in Centre County, paired off geographically just as one would expect. In the 1800 Pennsylvania Septicentennial Census for Potter Township, James and William are entries #150 and #151, respectively, indicating they were surveyed sequentially and thus lived adjacent to each other. John and Jeremiah did not appear in that census, and may have still been home in Franklin County.

In the 1810 census for Potter Township, James Rankin is listed two households down from William Rankin.[9] The prior page for Potter Township has listings for Jeremiah and John, a dozen households apart.[10] All four men were enumerated in the age 26 < 45 category, so they were born during 1765–1784. The family Bible establishes the birth dates of the four men as follows: William, 1770, James, 1776, John, 1779, and Jeremiah, 1783.[11] Fits like a glove! Finally, Centre County cemetery records show John Rankin’s birth year as 1778 (off by one year, a common error since the deceased wasn’t there to provide a correction, or possibly a typo or misread by the abstractor) and Jeremiah’s as 1783 (correct).[12]

There is just no reasonable doubt that the four Rankins in Centre County were sons of William and Mary Huston Rankin and grandsons of Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin. There is also no reasonable doubt that William Rankin of Centre County, who died there in 1847, was a different man than the William Rankin who died in Indiana County in 1826 and who was William Stewart Renkin’s ancestor. As one would expect, a Y-DNA test by one of William Stewart’s grandsons confirms that, since his results don’t match those for descendants of Adam and Mary.

At the risk of piling on, here are excerpts from a county history published in 1883. It identifies James, John, Jeremiah and William as brothers who came to Centre County from Franklin County, home of William and Mary Huston Rankin.

First, the following from History of Centre and Clinton Counties:[13]

“Rankin, William, was born in Franklin County, Nov. 5, 1770. He removed to Centre County and settled upon a farm two miles west of Potter’s Mills.”

A footnote to the above adds that “James, John, and Jeremiah Rankin, brothers of William, came to Penn’s Valley” from Franklin County.

History continues about William’s brother John, with the correct birth date:

“Rankin, John, Esq., died at the residence of his son-in-law, John Irvin, in Penn’s valley, April 22, 1848, aged sixty-nine. He was born in Franklin County, May 1, 1779, and was an early settler in Penn’s valley …”

And that is all.

I am fairly sure I haven’t heard the last on this subject from Spade, though.

See you on down the road.


[1] “Sons of the American Revolution.” That organization is obviously the male equivalent of the DAR, although their due diligence was deficient in this case.

[2] For proof of Spade’s propensity to hang up, please see a fun post at

[3] “Renkin” and “Rankin” are genetically equivalent. My Rankin cousin’s closest match at 37 markers is a man named Renkin.

[4] See, e.g.,

[5] I hope I spelled Jeanne’s name correctly but am not certain.

[6] Indiana Co., PA Will Book 1: 140.

[7] Franklin Co., PA Will Book A-B: 256, will of William Rankin of Antrim Twp. dated 20 Oct 1792, proved 28 Nov 1792. Wife Mary. Sons Adam, Archibald, James, William, David, John, and Jeremiah. Daughter Betsy.

[8] See, e.g.,,the%20historic%20borough%20its%20name.

[9] 1810 census for Potter Township, Centre Co., PA.

[10] Id.

[11] Birth dates are from the family Bible, a transcription of which (along with the cover letter from the Bible owner) are contained in electronic storage of Flossie Cloyd’s materials at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. She was the premier Rankin historian of the 20th century, although she did very little research herself except on her own line. For the most part, she assembled materials from a number of other Rankin researchers.

[12] Mary Belle Lontz, Tombstone Inscriptions of Centre County, Pennsylvania (1984).

[13] John Blair Linn, History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania (Louis H. Everts, 1883, reprinted Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1975) 222-23 and footnote at 222.

Finding the Rankin Pipers of Mull

Here is another article from my friend Richard Rankin. If you didn’t see his prior article about Rankin Big Y, you missed a very informative goodie. Even if you aren’t a Rankin, you will learn a lot about Big Y. This one is also fun and features good research. Enjoy!


*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Talk to any Rankin family researcher, and you’ll likely find them quite eager to talk about the famous Rankins of Mull. These Rankins were the hereditary clan bagpipers, high-ranking officials serving the clan chiefs of the Macleans of Duart, and Lochbuie, and Coll. You’ll hear tales without end, all about the piping college at Kilbreanan, the legendary musical prowess of the Rankin pipers, and how the Rankins come from a proud line of kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing, Maclean loyalists.

It seems like every Rankin wants to claim descent from these Mull Rankins, the historic Clan Duilligh (or alternatively Clan Mic Raing, “Children of the Son of Raing”) [1]. Lord knows, I do too. The Rankins are an officially recognized sept of the Clan Maclean [2]. I have my Maclean tartan. My bucket list includes attending the Maclean Gathering at Duart Castle – someday.

But there’s also a pesky little fly in the ointment. A matter of DNA. Particularly, the male Y chromosome, which passes directly from father to son essentially unchanged, unmixed with the mother’s DNA. Women do not carry a Y chromosome at all. This Y-DNA is inherited only by the line of biological men. By happy chance, Y-DNA also generally follows the line of the family name such as Rankin, at least for the last several hundred years or so.

Notably, that Y chromosome experiences tiny changes every few generations. Such a change, once it occurs randomly in one man, tends to persist in all his male offspring. Those changes are then passed down to that man’s male descendants, ad infinitum. But crucially, that same change would not be found in that man’s brothers, or nephews, or their descendants. This makes it possible to trace the DNA branches back thousands of years. We can decode the genetic background of any Rankin male who takes a sufficiently detailed genetic test — even where the paper genealogy or traditional evidence is unreliable, incomplete, or missing! The Rankin surname project at helps individuals interpret their test results. It sorts those DNA results into distinctive, unrelated Rankin family lines. (Disclosure: I am a volunteer site administrator for this Rankin Y-DNA web site).

Through Y-DNA testing, we have identified eight distinct family lines of Rankins so far. Within each line, the members are proven to be genealogically related to each other (within several hundred years). In contrast, any two members of two different Rankin lines are proven to be unrelated to each other in any genealogical sense. Even though both properly bear the Rankin name. Across any two different Rankin lines, the most recent common ancestor would have lived at least 4,000 years ago. In some cases, far more. Yet the Rankin surname itself only came into common use in the past 700 years or less.

That poses a difficult question – if these eight Rankin lines are not related to each other in the past 4,000 years or more, then which of those lines (if any) are related to the famous Rankins of Mull, of just a few hundred years ago? Asked differently, to which one of the known Rankin genetic lines might the Mull Rankins have belonged?

Answering this question is not as easy as it sounds. To answer it, a proven descendant of the Mull Rankins must take the detailed Y-DNA test. And that’s the real trick. Who among the living today can prove themselves a true descendant of the Mull Rankins?

We know with high confidence that the “Rankins do not appear to have a rent for Kilbreanan in 1679. Possibly the Rankins moved to Kilbreanan when the Macleans of Duart lost their lands to Clan Campbell in the 1690s.” [3]

We know that by 1716 the Rankins are at Kilbreanan on Mull. We know from the 1716 Disarming Act there are in fact eight families of Rankins on Mull, including 10 men of age to bear arms. I don’t have this list yet, but if someone can locate and share it, that would be fantastic.

We know that on that list there is an Ewan Rankin living in Aros on Mull. I have not yet traced his family, if indeed there is one. And we find the famous Kilbreanan piper Condullie Rankin and his sons Hector and John. For this family, “John Rankin seems to have been the family member who stuck to piping as his profession, and in the 1745 event he was piper to the Glenaray Co of the Argyle Militia. The bills for his pipes, clothes and other necessaries are in the archives at Inveraray…. He next appears in 1752 when he took a new nine-year lease on the change house (inn) at Aintorran. Furthermore we also know what happened to his bagpipe after his death when in 1776 ‘MacLaine of Lochbuy’ gave an instruction that John Rankin’s pipes were to be given to young Neil Gillis alias MacLean who was going as piper with Captain Murdoch MacLean.” [4] Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to trace any living descendants of this Kilbreanan family, either. I’m still working on it.

There is also Neil Rankin, last of the known pipers to the chiefs. After the misfortunes of Duart, he “first served MacLean of Lochbuy before moving to serve MacLean of Coll.” [5] It would not surprise me at all to find Neil or his parents on the 1716 list also. Neil had several children, not all of which I have traced yet. He may have had sons Hector and Hugh, though not yet proven to my own satisfaction, nor traced to any present-day family if there is one. But Neil’s most famous descendant is Coun Douly Rankin [6], born 1774 at Coll, who as a young man was advised to “put down that chanter” and join the army. He emigrated to Prince Edward Island. Two proven sons were born, half-brothers from different marriages. The first, George H. Rankin was born in Scotland. He arrived in Canada with his parents in 1806, and died in Massachusetts in 1858, apparently without heir. As far as I can find, he may have married in 1840. But on his 1858 death record he is noted as a widower.

George’s half-brother Neil Rankin 1821-1877 was born and died at Charlottetown. He had one proven son, Coun Douly Rankin 1853-1901(+). Again, unfortunately, this Coun Douly Rankin appears to have been single, based on multiple census records. And he too died without any known heirs.

So far, my research into these lines of Mull Rankin pipers has all run dry. Additional research into all the other potential family lines above may help clarify if there were any continuing male lines or not.

Sadly, the present-day Isle of Mull also lacks any male Rankins. According to an email I received in 2023 from Calum Maclean of Tobermory, “The name Rankin is not present on Mull as a surname anymore, but I know of at least one family who are descendants of the Rankins still living on the Island.” Perhaps one of them, or someone else, may one day fill in the gaps and find a proven male descendant of the Mull Rankins. Until then, we can’t prove that any of the known living Rankin lines descend from Mull. It could be, indeed, that the Mull lines have gone extinct. I hope to learn someday that I am wrong about that.

Even so, proud Rankins, wear your tartan. Play your pipes (or don’t!). Join the Macleans for a Gathering. Your genetic heritage, whatever it may or may not be, does not fully define you. There are Highland Gaelic Rankins, Lowland Brittonic Rankins, Saxon Rankins, Viking Rankins, and Stone Age Rankins, whose ancient wanderings around modern Scotland preceded even the Celts. All Rankins can be proud of our Mull kinsmen, even if they turn out to be kin by surname only.

Virtue Mine Honour,

Richard Rankin

Volunteer Rankin Project Administrator

Lineage 5 – Little Scottish Cluster R-CTS2187/S190

Footnotes and Additional Links:

[1] “In the History of the Men of Alba, amongst the Clans supposed to be descended from the Kings of Dal Riada in Scotland, are listed the Macleans whose pedigree includes “Gilleeoin mic Mecraith mic Maoilsruthain mic Neill mic Cuduilig, Abbot of Lismore, (Conduilig i. Ab Leasamoir ) mic Raingee” (each “mic” signifies “son of”). The Macleans named themselves as descendants of this Gilleeoin, while the related family of Rankins took their name from Gilleeoin’s second-great grandfather Cuduiligh, the Abbot of Lismore, and alternatively from Cuduiligh’s father Raing. Clan Duiligh means “the children of Cuduiligh”, while Clan Mic Raing means “children of the son of Raing”. Both appellations refer to the same thing.






[7] Genetic lines of Rankins identified at Family Tree DNA:

Lineage 1: R1a R-L448 “Viking/Scandinavian”

Lineage 2: R1b R-U106 “Germanic”

Lineage 3: R1b L21 Celtic R-L159 “Hibernian”

Lineage 4: I-M170 subgroup 1

Lineage 5: R1b L21 Celtic R-CTS2187/S190 “Little Scottish Cluster”

Lineage 6: R1b L21 Celtic R-M222 “Niall of the Nine Hostages”

Lineage 7: R1b L21 Celtic R-FGC3222

Lineage 8: I-M170 subgroup 2

Plus, there are four other Rankin individuals who have also Big Y tested, but currently do not match any other Rankin tester or any of the known Lineages.