Occupational Records and Family History: The Ferrymen of Rankin's Cove

When I decided to take on the task of researching my paternal ancestors' work history, I knew that the further I climbed the branches of my family tree, the more difficult my task would become. With little to go on other than a name, a few dates, and some anecdotes from living relatives who recalled stories of long ago, I wondered what, if anything, I might discover traveling back in time to visit my great-great grandfather, William Volney Goins and his work as a ferryman on the Tennessee River. Fortunately, the archival records left behind by my ancestors revealed some clues about how William Goins lived and supported his family four generations ago.

As I recalled briefly in part two of this series, William Goins' son -- my great-grandfather -- William Paul Goins listed his occupation as "Public Ferryman" on his World War I draft card, and his brother -- my great-granduncle -- Arthur Charles Goins, also worked on the river as a "Ferryman," both working for their father on the Tennessee River. Arthur listed his employer as "Goins & Lay." This was obviously some sort of business partnership, but the document left me wondering who was this man named "Lay," and what sort of records might exist that would give me more information about the ferry business?

First, I decided to learn more about ferry operations along the Tennessee River, to give me a sense of what life was like for these men who found their livelihood on the water's currents. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture...

"Prior to the later nineteenth century, state and local governments implemented few road-building efforts. During the frontier era, settlers used old animal and Indian trails, fording most streams or building crude rafts to cross larger rivers. As more settlers arrived in the late 1770s and early 1800s, however, the need for more reliable ways to cross rivers became evident. Ferry boats, operated by individuals or corporations, soon appeared at major river crossings. Operators typically used the current to propel the vessel. Passengers paid a fee variously based on the number of persons crossing, the number of livestock, or the number of wheels on vehicles. Some seven hundred to one thousand ferries operated in Tennessee in the nineteenth century."

Rankin's Ferry in Marion County.
Image credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives
Before the construction of dams and bridges, most traffic across the river depended on ferries. The right to operate a ferry was granted to men with land on both sides of the river that was accessible to nearby roads. In the community of Rankin's Cove in Marion County, my great-great grandfather saw an opportunity to help his neighbors cross the river and to make a living as a ferryman. A deed found on microfilm at the Tennessee State Library and Archives revealed to me a purchase of land by William Goins from Dan Hale and his wife, Hannah. My great-great grandfather purchased 100 acres of land from Mr. Hale along the Tennessee River at Rankin's Cove on December 26, 1910. The deed also revealed a business arrangement between Dan Hale and William Goins...

"We convey him [William Goins] the Ferry landing on the north bank of the river, and we own the same on the south side. Said Goins is not to sell his Ferry land without consent of Hale, and Hale not to sell his on the south bank without Goins consent."

Hale and Goins thus became business partners in a ferry operation along the Tennessee River. Another interesting item revealed in this deed is the name of a neighbor who would also play a prominent role in my great-great grandfather's ferry business. In describing the land for sale in the deed, Hale notes that his property line begins on "John Lay's corner; thence westward with Lay's line to public road..." This information raised more questions: Could this be the same "Goins & Lay" found on my great-granduncle's World War I draft card? Did my great-great grandfather enter into another business arrangement with John Lay to operate a ferry at Rankin's Cove, as he did with John Hale?

I wanted to learn more, so I followed up on a lead revealed in another deed, dated May 24, 1920. In that document, my great-great grandfather sold a portion of his land to a man named G.B. Alder. The deed further reveals that William Goins also sold his ferry landing to the Marion County Tennessee River Transportation Company...

"...being the same land described as first tract in deed from Dan Hale and wife to Wm. Goins (except small tract comprising ferry landing sold off to Marion County Tennessee River Tr. Co.) which deed is dated Dec. 26, 1920, and recorded in the Register's Office at Jasper, Tenn..."

But what became of John Lay's land? In the 1920 deed, the land previously described in the first deed as owned by John Lay was now in the possession of the Marion County Tennessee River Transportation Company. Digging deeper within the Tennessee State Library and Archives revealed another treasure of information. A Charter of Incorporation dated February 7, 1918 filed with the State of Tennessee stated...

"Be it known that John D. Lay, John T. Raulston, L.R. Darr, George Lay, and Dr. J.L. Raulston, are hereby constituted a body politic and corporate by the name and style of
for the purpose of operating a ferry across the Tennessee River in Marion County, Tennessee, at a point near what is known as 'Rankin's Ferry' across said River..."

John D. Lay and William Goins were not only business partners, they were neighbors. This image from the 1910 United States Census of Marion County, Tennessee lists both men and their families living so close to one another that they appear on the same page of the Census. Image credit: Ancestry.com

Within ten years, William Goins left the ferry business. By this time, however, he was an older man, nearly 70 years of age, and had decided to leave the life of a ferryman to his son, my great-granduncle Arthur, who continued in the family business, presumably working for the Marion County Tennessee River Transportation Company as a ferryman well into his old age.

William Volney Goins
Eventually, public outcry demanded a better way to cross the many rivers of Tennessee. Ferry travel, at its best, moved at a slow, hazardous, and sometimes undependable pace depending on the river's current. The Good Roads Movement of the early twentieth century strongly promoted the construction of bridges and the elimination of ferries. Soon after, a bridge was built across the Tennessee River near Rankin's Cove, and the ferry business once owned by my great-great grandfather became a distant memory.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this series as much as I have enjoyed researching the work of my ancestors. Though I never followed my ancestors' footsteps into the occupations of a ferryman, a stoker fireman, or an auto mechanic, my own occupation as an archivist has provided me with an opportunity to cross paths with my ancestors. The archival records left behind by their business transactions and their daily living have revealed to me their personal struggles, their triumphs, and a strong work ethic. I like to believe that their stories are a reflection of my own career path -- a reflection found on the waters of the Tennessee River.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.