My Hair’s on Fire: Introduction to Lt. Robert Rankin (part 1 of 5)

This title doesn’t do justice to the Southern roots of the “hair” idiom. It should be rendered phonetically: “mah har’s on far.” What does it mean? A feeling of being overwhelmed gets to the essence.

The Rankin families of Virginia’s Northern Neck are guaranteed fire starters in the “overwhelming” sense. There are too many Rankin records in too many counties with too many interconnected families along for the ride. [1]

I flailed about in county records for Northern Neck Rankins several years ago. Mah har caught far and I abandoned them on some flimsy pretext. This time around, I vowed to limit my research to Robert Rankin (1753-1837), a Revolutionary War soldier buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Lieutenant was his highest rank in the Revolution, so I will call him Lt. Robert. My major objective was to identify his parents. Spoiler alert: so far, all we can conclusively prove about Lt. Robert’s family of origin is that he had brothers named William and John.[2]

Lt. Robert’s story has several parts. I have spread them out over four articles:

  • This Part 1 is an introduction. It includes a piece on Lt. Robert from the Handbook of Texas Online, quoted verbatim. The article about Lt. Robert contains one substantive error, which I discuss. Part 1 also includes an oral legend about the reinterment of Lt. Robert’s remains in the Texas State Cemetery. It may raise eyebrows. Like most legends, it probably contains elements of both truth and fiction. You be the judge.
  • Parts 2 through 4 cover the military service of Lt. Robert and his brother William. Part 2 focuses on the Revolutionary War history relevant to both Rankins. Parts 3 and 4 cover the brothers’ individual war stories. These articles are sourced almost entirely in military records and academic histories. The records contradict some of the conventional wisdom about Lt. Robert and a wild claim or two. If you wish to believe that George Washington personally handed Lt. Robert his discharge papers and called him “Colonel,” these articles might be a problem.

If I ever get to Virginia for additional research, I hope to add a Part 5 with possible identification of Lt. Robert’s parents. For now, let’s start with the article about him in The Handbook of Texas Online.[3] It covers essential facts and includes several informative links. Embedded comments in italics are mine.

“RANKIN, ROBERT (1753–1837). Revolutionary War veteran Robert Rankin was born in the colony of Virginia in 1753. He entered the service of the Continental Army in 1776 with the Third Regiment of the Virginia line [this is incorrect, see discussion below] and participated in the battles of Germantown, Brandywine, and Stony Point, as well as the siege of Charleston, where he was captured; he remained a prisoner of war until exchanged, at which time he received a promotion to lieutenant [his date of promotion was more complicated than that, but that’s close.]. On October 1, 1781, during a furlough, he married Margaret (Peggy) Berry in Frederick County, Virginia. He returned to active duty on October 15 and served until the war’s end [whatever that means]. Robert and Margaret Rankin had three daughters and seven sons, one of whom was Frederick Harrison Rankin. The family moved to Kentucky in 1784. In 1786 Rankin was named by the Virginia legislature as one of nine trustees for the newly established town of Washington, in Bourbon County (later Mason County), Kentucky. In 1792 he served as a delegate from Mason County to the Danville Convention, which drafted the first constitution of Kentucky. He also became an elector of the Kentucky Senate of 1792. The last mention of Rankin in Mason County, Kentucky, is in the 1800 census. The Rankins moved to Logan County, Kentucky, in 1802 and to the Tombigbee River in Mississippi Territory in 1811; the area of their home eventually became Washington County, Alabama. Four of the Rankin sons fought in the War of 1812. The family suffered a severe financial reversal around 1819–20, probably in conjunction with land speculation and the panic of 1819. In July 1828 Rankin first made an application for a pension for his Revolutionary War service.

In 1832 the Rankins moved to Joseph Vehlein‘s colony in Texas, along with the William Butler and Peter Cartwright families. Rankin was issued a certificate of character by Jesse Grimes on November 3, 1834, as required by the Mexican government. He applied for a land grant in Vehlein’s colony on November 13 of the same year and received a league and labor in October 1835.[4] The town of Coldspring, San Jacinto County, is located on Rankin’s original grant. Rankin had the reputation of being a just and diplomatic man. He was a friend of Sam Houston, and his influence with the Indians in the region was well known. Houston reputedly called upon him in the spring of 1836 to encourage neutrality among the Indians during the crucial Texan retreat toward San Jacinto. Toward the end of 1836 Rankin became ill, and he and his wife moved to St. Landry parish, Louisiana, where he died on November 13, 1837.[5] His body was brought back to the family home near Coldspring, in the new Republic of Texas, and buried in the old Butler Cemetery. In 1936 he was reinterred at the State  Cemetery in Austin. His widow lived in Texas with her sons, William and Frederick, in Polk, Montgomery, and Liberty counties until her death sometime after December 1852.”

The only substantive error in the above article is the unit in which Lt. Robert enlisted, a frequent and understandable mistake. The confusion is attributable to lack of clarity by Robert himself and perhaps sheer confusion due to military reorganizations and changes in company commanders. Statements about his rank are also occasionally in error.[6]

To set the record straight, here is a chronological list of his units and his rank. For citations to military muster and payroll sources, please see the detailed discussion of Lt. Robert’s record in Part 4 of these articles. Here is what the records prove:

  • July 1776 – Robert enlisted as a private in William Brady’s Company of Col. Hugh Stephenson’s (later Rawlings’) Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. This regiment was not a part of the Virginia line; the Rifle Regiment was independent of state control, see Part 2 of this series. Robert did not enlist in the 3rd Virginia Regiment as the Handbook asserts. The Rifle Regiment also included a company other than Capt. Brady’s in which the future justice John Marshall was originally a Lieutenant, then a Captain.  John Marshall was never one of Robert’s commanding officers.
  • By January 1777 – Robert was a Sergeant in Capt. Brady’s Company and was attached to Capt. Gabriel Long’s composite rifle company. Long’s composite company was organized after the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment was decimated at Ft. Washington, New York in November 1776. Long’s composite company was assigned to the 11th Virginia Regiment in February 1777. Robert may have been promoted from Private to Sergeant before Brady’s company ever left Virginia because enlisted men were sometimes allowed to elect their own noncommissioned officers.
  • February 1778 – Robert was still a Sergeant, now in Philip Slaughter’s Company (formerly Capt. Long’s) in the 11thVirginia Regiment at Valley Forge. Robert did not change companies. The company commander changed after Long resigned his commission.
  • September 1778 – the Virginia line was “rearranged” (i.e., “reorganized”) and the 11th Virginia Regiment was renamed the 7th. Robert, still a Sergeant, was Acting Brigade Forage Master in Capt. Porterfield’s company of the 7th Virginia Regiment. Again, this was the same company but with a new commander.
  • July 1779 – Robert was commissioned an Ensign and assigned to William Johnson’s company of the 7th Virginia Regiment. This was the only time Robert actually changed companies, presumably to accommodate company grade staffing needs.
  • November 1779 – Ensign Robert Rankin was still in Captain Johnson’s Company in the 7th Virginia Regiment. Later in 1779 or in early 1780, the former 7th Virginia Regiment was folded into the 1st Virginia Regiment in another “rearrangement” of the Virginia Line.
  • May 1780 – this was the Siege of Charleston, where the 1st Virginia Regiment was surrendered along with all other patriot units fighting there. Johnson’s company was still part of the 1st Virginia. After the Siege, Robert was awarded a promotion to Brevet Lieutenant, a temporary designation. He was subsequently promoted to Lieutenant sans the temporary “Brevet.” His promotion and date of rank were retroactive to January 1, 1780.
  • Robert was “deranged” (discharged) effective January 1, 1783. If I counted correctly, there were 222 other officers of the Virginia Line who were discharged the same day.[7] It’s a solid bet that General Washington was not passing out discharge papers to 223 men in different locations.

Reading between the lines, it is obvious that Robert was an exceptional soldier, acting as Brigade Forage Master and rising from a private to a commissioned officer. The latter is unusual, even in wartime. It is also clear from the records that Robert was never a soldier in Lieutenant (later Captain) John Marshall’s company. Nor did he enlist or ever serve in the 3rd Virginia Regiment.

In addition to the other accomplishments in Kentucky listed in the Handbook article, Lt. Robert was a Colonel in the Kentucky militia as the commander of a group of scouts.[8] He was also a clerk of court in Mason County.[9]

Robert and his family moved south and west. They lived in Frederick County, Virginia; the Kentucky District, State of Virginia; Bourbon, Mason, and Logan Counties, Kentucky (Bourbon was originally part of the Kentucky District); Washington County, Alabama when it was part of the Mississippi Territory; Texas Territory when it was still part of Mexico; the Republic of Texas; and St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, where Lt. Robert died.[10] Peggy also lived in the state of Texas after it was admitted to the Union in 1845.

Lt. Robert and Peggy Rankin’s three daughters and seven sons are conclusively proved. The first eight children and their dates of birth are proved by a transcribed page from the family Bible that is included in Peggy’s 1844 application for a widow’s pension.[11] Peggy’s will named the two children who weren’t included in the Bible record.[12] Here are the ten children:

  1. Thomas Berry Rankin (Sr.) was born in Virginia, 17 May 1783. He was named for his maternal grandfather. He and his younger brother Joseph both died in 1813 at Ft. Mims during the Red Stick War.[13] Thomas B. and/or Joseph Rankin had children who came to Texas prior to its independence from Mexico. Character certificates in the Texas General Land Office suggest the identities of two sons: James Rankin and William Rankin.[14] Lt. Robert’s grant for land in Joseph Vehlein’s colony[15] in Texas (then part of Mexico) states that he came to Texas with “mi mujer y tres huerfanos” – wife and three orphans, surely children of one of his sons who died at Ft. Mims.[16]
  2. Elizabeth Rankin was born 27 Jan 1785, also in Virginia. I have found no further record of Elizabeth. She was probably one of the four Rankin children who had died before Peggy Rankin filed her 1844 pension application.
  3. William Marshall Rankin was born 24 Aug 1786 in Bourbon County, Kentucky District of Virginia.[17] His wife was Sarah Landrum. Four related Rankin/Landrum families all arrived in Texas in January 1830:[18] (1) William Marshall and Sarah Landrum Rankin, (2) Sarah’s parents Zachariah and Lettice Landrum, (3) William’s sister Frances Rankin Huburt and her husband M. Huburt, and (4) a young William Rankin who was almost certainly a son of one of the two Rankins who died at Ft. Mims. William and Sarah Landrum Rankin were in Montgomery County, Texas in the 1850 census.
  4. Joseph Rankin was born 4 Nov 1788 in Kentucky. He died at Ft. Mims.[19]
  5. John Keith Rankin fought in the War of 1812. He was born 5 Jan 1791 in Kentucky. He and his wife Elizabeth Butler moved from Washington County, Alabama to Hinds County, Mississippi. May Myers Calloway, a descendant of theirs, incorrectly believed that John Keith and a Christopher Rankin (for whom Rankin County Mississippi was named) were brothers.[20] John and Elizabeth came to Texas during the 1840s and lived briefly in Polk County before moving to DeWitt County. John died there on 17 Nov 1884. He and Elizabeth had eight children: (1) Moses Butler Rankin, (2) Mary Rankin, (3) Masena Rankin, (4) James Rankin, (5) Samuel Rankin, (6) Mary Ann Rankin, (7) Robert Rankin, and (8) Malinda Rankin.[21]
  6. James Rankin (Sr.)[22] was born 27 Jun 1792 in Kentucky. He died in Texas before 26 Apr 1847, when his mother Peggy wrote her will naming his children John B. Rankin, Berry Rankin, Peggy Rankin, and Rebecca Rankin.[23]
  7. Frederick Harrison Rankin was born Feb. 15, 1794 in Kentucky and died July 2, 1874 in Ellis County, Texas. He received title to land that is now in Harris County as one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” colonists. He is on one or more 1826 tax lists in “Austins Colony, Texas Territory” and/or “Austin, Mexicounty Territory.”[24] In 1936, Texas erected a joint monument to Frederick and his wife Elizabeth Smith in the Myrtle Cemetery in Ennis, Ellis County, Texas. Frederick and Elizabeth had eight children: (1) Harriet, (2) Robert S., (3) Napoleon Bonaparte, (4) Emily, (5) Mollie, (6) Alexander, (7) Austin, and (8) a child who died as an infant.[25]
  8. Henry Rankin was born 7 Feb 1796 in Kentucky. I found no further record for Henry. He was probably one of the four Rankin children who had died by 1844 along with Elizabeth and the two brothers who died at Ft. Mims.
  9. Massena Rankin McCombs, wife of Samuel McCombs.[26] Her first husband was a Mr. Brown.
  10. Frances Rankin Hubert also came to Texas in 1830.[27]

Finally, I promised a legend regarding the removal of Lt. Robert’s remains from Coldspring, Texas to the Texas State Cemetery in 1936. I heard it from Mary Buller, a serious Rankin researcher descended from Lt. Robert and Peggy through one of their sons who died at Ft. Mims. Mary learned the story in a telephone conversation with a woman I will call “Faye.” If Faye were still alive in 2020, she would have been in her nineties. She is (or was) a local historian in Coldspring.

Faye said that the family’s side of the reinterment project was spearheaded by a “hoity-toity DAR type” despite opposition from Lt. Robert’s descendants still living in the Coldspring area. The DAR lady was insistent. The descendants capitulated.[28]

Faye told Mary she doesn’t believe Lt. Robert is buried in the Texas State Cemetery. She thought his remains didn’t make it back to Texas from Louisiana. She said that during the 1936 disinterment at the Butler Cemetery in Coldspring, the coffin fell open and a skeleton toppled out. Family members and curiosity seekers were there, according to Faye. The men rushed to put the remains back in the coffin. One man, a dentist, opined that the skeleton’s teeth were not those of an 80-year-old man. They were more like the teeth of a man in his thirties, he said.

According to Faye, the family remained silent and the removal continued. Faye thought that lack of refrigeration in 1837 would have discouraged shipping the remains from St. Landry Parish to Coldspring, a distance of more than 100 miles.[29] She didn’t have an opinion about who is buried in the Texas State Cemetery, but the dental evidence convinced her it isn’t Lt. Robert.

There is also a reasonable possibility that Robert’s presumed grave location in the Butler cemetery was not correct. It was a family cemetery and records may have been unreliable.

Take that for what it’s worth: oral history from someone who heard it from a participant. It may be the most colorful family legend I’ve ever run across.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

[1] Other Northern Neck families connected to the Rankins include Woffendalls (various spellings), Marshalls, Harrisons, Berrys, Keiths, Kendalls, and Keys.

[2] A supporting affidavit in William Rankin’s Revolutionary War pension application proves that Lt. Robert had a brother William. See Part 3 of this series of articles. The will of John Rankin in Mason Co., KY, where the three Rankin brothers lived at one time, mentions his “affectionate brother William.” Mason Co., KY Will Book E: 53, will of John Rankin dated and proved in 1819.

[3] Ann Patton Malone, Handbook of Texas Online, “RANKIN, ROBERT,” accessed January 31, 2020, at this link.. The Handbook is a wonderful source, scholarly and well-written, for information about Texas and its history.

[4] “League” and “labor” refer to the acreage in a grant. A labor was 177 acres and a league was 4,428 acres, according to the Handbook.

[5] All sources agree that Lt. Robert died in November 1837. However, three different specific dates appear in his pension file, number w26365 (cited hereafter as “Pension File,” images available online at Fold.3/Ancestry). Peggy’s 1844 pension declaration gives Lt. Robert’s date of death as November 13, although the spelling of “thirteenth” is confusing. Pension File p. 15 et seq.

[6] A “Biography of Colonel Robert Rankin” on Rootsweb incorrectly asserts that Robert enlisted as a Sergeant. Robert’s pension application identified himself as a private when he enlisted. The Rootsweb article is available at this link.

[7] Film # 7197160, images 446 through 453, listing of officers of the Virginia Line deranged 1 Jan 1783.

[8] Robert was never a Colonel in the War, although there are claims to that effect. He was a Colonel in a Kentucky county militia. If you don’t have a Fold.3/Ancestry subscription so that you can view his entire Pension File, see Will Graves’ partial transcription here. See also Murtie June Clark, American Militia in the Frontier Wars, 1790-1796 (Baltimore: Clearfield Publishing Co., Inc., 1990) 1, identifying a regiment of scouts for Mason Co., KY commanded by Col. Robert Rankin.

[9] E.g., Mason Co., KY Deed Book A: 171, deed dated 26 Nov 1789 from the trustees of Charles Town in Mason Co. (including Robert Rankins) to Henry Berry, town lots. Robert Rankins was Clerk of Court.

[10] I began inserting citations to prove that Lt. Robert and Peggy actually resided in all of those places. It quickly got out of hand. If you need evidence, you probably know how to reach me.

[11] Transcription from Rankin Bible. Pension File at p. 24. The abbreviation “Sr.” was added to the names of Thomas Berry Rankin and James Rankin. Those designations would not have been used until the next generation of the family had men by those names, suggesting the Bible transcription in the pension file was not verbatim.

[12] Polk Co., TX, Will Book A: 28, will of Peggy Rankin dated 26 Apr 1847, proved 25 Oct 1858. Peggy made bequests to her sons Frederick H. Rankin and William M. Rankin and daughters Frances Huburt and Massena McCombs. She also named grandchildren John B. Rankin, Berry Rankin, Peggy Rankin, and Rebecca Rankin, children of her deceased son James Rankin. She appointed her sons William M. and John executors.

[13] See Gregory A. Waselkov, A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2006), Appendix #1 250-51. It identifies Joseph Rankin as a “Tombigbee resident, born in Kentucky, brother of Thomas Berry Rankin.” The book lists both Rankins as having died at Ft. Mims. It has two errors about the Rankin family. First, it identifies Joseph and Thomas B.’s father as “Richard Robert Rankin.” I’ve never found a record in which Lt. Robert appears by any name other than Robert, and there are many, many records for this man. Second, the book names Lt. Robert’s wife as “Margaret Kendall Rankin.” I have found no evidence for that middle name, either. Kendall is Peggy’s mother’s maiden name. I am 99.9% certain that both “Richard” are “Kendall” are fiction.

[14] See Gifford E. White, Character Certificates in the General Land Office of Texas (Austin: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985). White’s No. 1660 (the number apparently assigned by the author) says: “San Felipe de Austin, 10 Jun 1830. To Mr. S. F. Austin, Empresario. I have emigrated to this Colony… my name is James Rankin. Age 22 years. Single. My father is dead and I have no parent in this Country to represent me. I removed from Alabama, arrived in this colony in 1827. Occupation farmer. Signed James Rankin Junior.” See also No. 1663, “To Mr. S. F. Austin, Empressario (no date). I have emigrated to this Colony. William Rankin 21 years old. Unmarried. An orphan. From Alabama and arrived in this colony in January 1830.” See also Note 18: William Rankin, age 21, arrived in Texas the same month as his uncle William Marshall Rankin, aunt Frances Rankin Huburt, and William M. Rankin’s in-laws, Zachariah and Lettice Landrum.

[15] Vehlein’s Colony included the area where Robert Rankin’s family settled, now in San Jacinto Co., TX. See the map, courtesy of the Handbook,  here.

[16] If anyone has a yen to translate Lt. Robert’s grant, here is the image   at the GLO website.

[17] The Handbook of Texas Online (see Note 2) says that Robert Rankin’s family moved to Kentucky in 1784, suggesting that William Marshall Rankin, born in 1786, was born there. However, the 1850 census for Polk Co., TX identifies William M.’s birth state as Virginia. The explanation is that William was born in what was then the Kentucky District, State of Virginia, but is now Mason Co., KY. See G. Glenn Clift, History of Maysville and Mason County, Volume 1 (Lexington, KY: Transylvania Printing Co. Inc., 1936) 56. Two days before William was born, Lt. Robert signed a petition from the town of Washington in “the Kentucky area of Virginia” in what was then Bourbon Co., District of KY, state of VA.

[18] Villamae Williams, Stephen F. Austin’s Register Of Families, From The Originals In The General Land Office, Austin, Texas (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989). Entry No. 392, M. Hubert, 34, wife Frances (Lt. Robert and Peggy’s youngest child), 32, and 2 daughters came from Alabama and arrived in Texas in Jan. 1830; No. 393, Wm. R. [sic, M.] Rankin, 43, wife Sarah, 33, two sons, and two daughters came from Alabama and arrived in Texas in Jan. 1830; No. 394, Zachariah Landrum, 64, and wife Lettuce (sic, Lettice), came from Alabama and arrived in Texas in Jan. 1830; and No. 395, William Rankin, 21, single, came from Alabama and arrived in Jan. 1830.

[19] See Note 13.

[20] Ms. Calloway provided that information to Flossie Cloyd, so it is preserved in the Cloyd materials in the Tennessee State Library and Archives. It may have been her family’s oral tradition that John K. and Christopher Rankin were brothers, although Ms. Calloway often took liberties with facts. She was a source of considerable misinformation about Lt. Robert. As to Christopher Rankin, his will was probated in Washington, D.C, see “Washington, D.C., U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1737 – 1952.” The will recites that Christopher was “a native of Washington County … Pennsylvania” but was “at present a Citizen of the State of Mississippi and Representative of said state in the Congress of the United States.” Rankin Co., MS was named for Representative Rankin.

[21] Information for John Keith and Elizabeth Butler Rankin was provided to Louis Wiltz Kemp by May Myers Calloway, John Keith’s great-granddaughter. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas, Austin, papers of Louis Wiltz Kemp, Box 2R232, General Biographical Notebooks, Ranb-Reavis. Viewed Feb. 8, 2020. Cited hereafter as “Kemp papers, Box 2R232.”

[22] A pension abstract by Virgil White and a transcription by Will Graves both show James in the Bible page transcription as James Junior. The image in the Pension File (page 24) appeared to me that both James Rankin and Thomas Berry Rankin were designated as “Sr.” In any event, James, son of Lt. Robert and Peggy, appeared in all other records I found as “Sr.”

[23] See Polk Co., TX, Will Book A: 28, will of Peggy Rankin naming children of her son James Rankin, deceased.

[24] Online images of tax lists at Frederick Harrison Rankin’s family was listed in Polk Co., TX in the 1850 census. In 1860 and 1870, they were enumerated in Ellis Co., TX.

[25] Kemp papers, Box 2R232.

[26] See Note 12 and the 1850 census of Polk Co., TX, household of S. McCombs, 60, farmer, b. SC, Mathinia McCombs, 45, b. KY, Jas. McCombs, 14, Mary McCombs, 12, Elizabeth McCombs, 10, and Martha Brown, 18. All children were born in Texas. Martha Brown was Massena Rankin’s child from a prior marriage.

[27] See Note 18.

[28] There is correspondence about permission for the reinterment among the Kemp papers. I failed to make notes about it when I looked at them. The next time I’m in Austin, I will remedy that error. I will bet my right arm that the person who spearheaded the reinterment was May Myers Calloway.

[29] At the time Lt. Robert died, St. Landry Parish extended west all the way to Sabine Lake, the Louisiana – Texas state line. I don’t know where in St. Landry Parish the Rankins lived. From Sabine Lake to Coldspring is about 114 miles per Google maps.