A friend who reads this blog suggested bluntly that I belly up to the bar and say in no uncertain terms whether a certain famous Rankin legend is accurate. Here is what I think. I hope it will encourage a commenter to share some evidence.
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Specifically, this is about a widely claimed Rankin family history oral tradition. The legend calls to mind an old expression, possibly of Native American origin: “this story might not have happened exactly the way I have told it … but it is nevertheless true.” Let’s call this Rankin story the “Mt. Horeb legend” because it is inscribed on a bronze tablet in the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church cemetery in Jefferson County, Tennessee. I have transcribed it below. For the most part, I think it is charming but inaccurate myth.
The storyteller’s caveat is tailor-made for the Mt. Horeb legend. Specific facts in the legend about some family relationships and martyred Rankins are suspect, although the essence of the story is true for many Scots-Irish. Some Rankins were Covenanters, i.e., Presbyterian Scots who were brutally persecuted during the Killing Times. Many Scots migrated to Ulster, some during the worst of the Killing Times in the 1680s. Some Rankins survived the Siege of Londonderry in 1689. Many Presbyterian Rankins migrated from Ireland to the Delaware River ports during the Great Migration from 1717 until about 1770. A good many Scots-Irish Rankins fought in the Revolutionary War.
The Mt. Horeb legend features every bit of that. It is a staple of many Rankin family trees. It has problems. Y-DNA results create a question mark. Traditional paper research adds others. Lack of evidence abounds. The legend is not part of the oral family history of two early Rankins descended from the Mt. Horeb immigrants. That suggests the legend was added to their family histories after their lifetimes, diminishing the credibility of what is characterized as an oral family tradition.
Having dealt with a bunch of genealogical horse hockey, I have become cynical. I occasionally suspect that some Rankin became familiar with Scots-Irish history, did some research overseas and in Pennsylvania, conflated several people having the same names, and wove a darn good story from fragments. I will probably be burned in effigy for saying that out loud.
The Mt. Horeb legend is the only family tradition I know that is actually cast in metal, so let’s look at the entire story. To be clear, I am not presenting this as a correct factual statement. I am presenting it as a statement of what some believe their Rankin history to be. Following the transcription, I have discussed some of its claims.
Here is the tablet’s inscription, verbatim:
THIS TABLET IS TO COMMEMORATE THE MEMORY OF
RICHARD RANKIN 1756 – 1827 SAMUEL RANKIN 1758 – 1828
THOMAS RANKIN 1762 – 1827 JOHN BRADSHAW 1743 – 1818
FOUR PIONEER SETTLERS OF DUMPLIN VALLEY
GENEALOGY OF THE RANKIN FAMILY
ALEXANDER RANKIN, BORN IN SCOTLAND, HAD THREE SONS, TWO WERE MARTYRS TO THEIR RELIGION. OF THESE ONE WAS KILLED ON THE HIGHWAY, THE OTHER SUFFOCATED IN A SMOKEHOUSE WHERE HE HAD TAKEN REFUGE TO ESCAPE HIS PURSUERS. THE THIRD BROTHER, WILLIAM, TOGETHER WITH HIS FATHER AND FAMILY ESCAPED TO DERRY COUNTY, IRELAND IN 1688. WILLIAM AND HIS FATHER, ALEXANDER RANKIN, WERE PARTICIPANTS IN THE SIEGE OF LONDONDERRY, WHICH TOOK PLACE IN 1689. ALEXANDER RANKINS NAME IS SIGNED TO THE PETITION OF THANKS TO ALMIGHTY GOD, AND WILLIAM, KING OF ORANGE, FOR HIS TIMELY ASSISTANCE IN RAISING THE SIEGE IN AUGUST, 1689.
WILLIAM RANKIN HAD THREE SONS, ADAM, BORN IN SCOTLAND, 1699. JOHN AND HUGH BORN IN IRELAND. ADAM AND HUGH CAME TO AMERICA IN 1721, LANDING IN PHILADELPHIA. PA., AND SETTLED IN CHESTER COUNTY, HUGH WAS KILLED IN A MILL ACCIDENT. ADAM MARRIED MARY STEELE.
JOHN RANKIN MARRIED JANE McELWEE, IN IRELAND, CAME TO AMERICA IN 1727. HE HAD TWO SONS, THOMAS AND RICHARD, AND EIGHT DAUGHTERS. RICHARD MARRIED A MISS DOUGLASS AND SETTLED IN AUGUSTA COUNTY, VA.
THOMAS RANKIN, 1724 – 1828, MARRIED ISABEL CLENDENON OF PA. AND SETTLED IN THAT STATE. THEIR CHILDREN WERE:
JOHN 1754 – 1825 MARRIED MARTHA WAUGH
RICHARD 1756 – 1827 MARRIED JENNETT STEELE
SAMUEL 1758 – 1828 MARRIED – PETTY
WILLIAM 1760 – 1834 MARRIED SARAH MOORE
THOMAS 1762 – 1821 MARRIED JENNETT BRADSHAW
JAMES 1770 – 1839 MARRIED MARGARET MASSEY
JANE MARRIED WILLIAM GILLESPIE
MARGARET MARRIED SAMUEL HARRIS
ANN MARRIED LEMUEL LACY
ISABEL MARRIED ROBT. McQUISTON
NANCY MARRIED SAMUEL WHITE
MARY MARRIED JAMES BRADSHAW
THOMAS RANKIN OF GENERATION 4, WAS A CAPTAIN IN THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR. HIS FOUR ELDEST SONS WERE PRIVATES IN SAID WAR. THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED IN 1930 BY CHRISTOPHER HOUSTON RANKIN COURTLAND THALES RANKIN, ATTY REV. JOHN GRANT NEWMAN, D.D. MRS. ALMYRA – RANKIN – McMURRAY MRS. ROZEE – RANKIN TAYLOR FRANK WALTER RANKIN HARRY JAY RANKIN SAM HULL RANKIN
End of transcription.
I hope someone will share evidence proving that the legend is accurate in every respect. While we are waiting, here is a summary of statements in the legend that (in my opinion) are either (1) true or probably true, (2) incorrect, or (3) may be correct but lack supporting evidence.
First, here are the facts that are either supported by evidence or are so consistent with historical events that they are almost certainly true:
- There was an Alexander Rankin whose name was on a petition of thanks to God and William of Orange for lifting the Siege of Londonderry.
- Many Scottish Presbyterians were victims in the Killing Times in the 1680s.
- Many Rankins migrated from Scotland to the Province of Ulster. Some may have fled to escape the Killing Times.
- Two Rankins named John and Adam lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the second quarter of the eighteenth century.
- Many Scots-Irish, including Rankins, entered the colonies in a Delaware River port such as Philadelphia.
- Adam Rankin of Lancaster County married Mary Steele Alexander, widow of James Alexander.
- John Rankin had two sons, Thomas and Richard, and eight daughters.
- Richard, son of John, migrated to Augusta County.
- Thomas, son of John, did “settle” in Pennsylvania for a time. His wife was Isabel Clendenon/Clendenin (various spellings).
Second, here are some statements that are either obvious error or are cast in serious doubt by county and other records:
- If Adam Rankin was born in Scotland in 1699, then his family was not in Ireland for the 1689 Siege of Londonderry.
- Thomas Rankin, son of John, was not a Revolutionary War Captain.
- Three of Thomas Rankin’s four eldest sons (Richard, Samuel, and William) were revolutionary soldiers. John, the eldest son, was not.
- John Rankin (died in 1749 in Lancaster County) and Adam Rankin (died there in 1747) were not brothers. Y-DNA testing has conclusively disproved that assertion.
- It is unclear what it means to say that Thomas and Isobel Clendenin Rankin “settled” in Pennsylvania. It seems to imply they stayed there. Their son William’s Revolutionary War Pension Application establishes that the family moved to Augusta County, Virginia in 1780.
Third, here are some of the evidentiary issues. There is no evidence that …
- … any Rankins were executed during the Killing Times or are on lists of known martyrs. However, a John Rankin from Biggar Parish, Lanarkshire, is known to have drowned off Orkney in a ship loaded with Covenanter prisoners.
- … Alexander Rankin, grateful survivor of the Siege of Londonderry, had a son William and grandsons John, Adam, and Hugh.
- … a William Rankin was present at the Siege.
- … a Hugh Rankin migrated to the colonies and died in a mill accident. There is evidence that Jeremiah, a son of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin, died in a mill accident.
- … William Rankin’s wife was Dorothy Black and their sons were John, Adam, and Hugh.
- … the Adam Rankin who died in Lancaster in 1747 had a wife prior to Mary Steele Alexander.
- … John Rankin, whose widow was named Margaret, was married to a Jane McElwee.
I would not be surprised to learn, for example, that some John Rankin married a woman named Jane McElwee in Ireland. What we need is evidence that the John Rankin who married Jane McElwee (for example) was the same man as the John Rankin who died in 1749 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, leaving a widow named Margaret, eight daughters, and two sons.
Surely, there is someone out there who has proved some of the facts in the Mt. Horeb legend. Halllloooooo?????? If you will marshal the evidence, I invite you to write a guest column for this blog. Or provide the evidence to me and I will write the article.
See you on down the road.
 That saying is a charming way to distinguish narrative from bare facts.
 “Covenanters” were originally signers of the “National Covenant” at Greyfriars Church in 1638, although the term expanded to include all Presbyterians who objected to the requirement that they conform to the liturgical practices and governance of the Church of England. Sources disagree about the precise time period called the “Killing Times,” when Covenanters were brutally persecuted. I am doing research for an article about Covenanters, a difficult period in Scottish history.
 Migration from Scotland to Ireland in substantial numbers began around 1610, when James I encouraged settlement of appropriated land in the province of Ulster. A second large wave of migration occurred during the 1680s, when persecution of Covenanters was intense. See an article about Scots-Irish migration here.
 William R. Young’s book The Fighters of Derry (originally published 1932) allegedly lists Alexander Rankin, his sons John and Alexander, and his granddaughter Martha (daughter of the younger Alexander). I have never seen a copy of the book, which isn’t available locally.
 A smokehouse is a building where meat or fish is cured with smoke. In Britain it is called a “smokery.”