Thomas Orr

Thomas Orr  (1782-1866), Armagh, Northern Ireland
to Anderson Co., South Carolina, and Sarah  ___ (1796-1864-5)

Compiled and copyrighted June 2010 by Linda Sparks Starr

We are fortunate so many extant records provide clues to the specific birthplace of Thomas Orr.  The earliest record is the power of attorney given to him by his father and paternal uncles and aunt 17 April 1804.  It identifies him as “Thomas Orr of Bellaheagh in the County of Armagh now aged about twenty one years.”    Alexander as his father (reported as a statement of fact by most researchers) comes from this POA. But in truth the record doesn’t say who the father of Thomas is. The fact Alexander and Thomas were the only two from Armagh is a good clue to their relationship, but it’s no proof.  Years later Thomas filed two petitions requesting citizenship.  One identified him as “a native of the County Armagh in Ireland [and said he] arrived in the United States in November 1804.” Thomas, then, is surely the same person as Thomas Orr of Richhill in County Armagh  found on an 1804 transported list by Tepper. [page 317]  The no-longer-working web sites of Kerry Orr and Rick Holloway went farther by adding Thomas of Rich Hill set sail from Belfast 21 August 1804 on the Lady Washington.  However, neither provided a source for this additional tidbit of information and neither web site is now accessible.

Thomas Orr's signature in 1826

T O signature 1826

Elsewhere the specific birth date for Thomas, 19 December 1782, comes from a Bible family record transcribed by descendant Jim Isom.  He wrote:  “The dates for the Thomas Orr family group record come from the Bible ... It only had dates for the immediate family, but they go back to the 1820s.” [1998 e-mail to Barbara Eades]  Isom added:  “at the time ... the Bible was in the possession of Mr. Hicks.”   Other than names of his father’s siblings and a listing of their residences in 1804, the above represents the total that is known about Thomas before he arrived in South Carolina fall 1804.  That said, more can be gleaned when one delves into how this particular POA was used. 

The power of attorney was written on a piece of paper that could easily be tucked into the corner of his trunk. But it was so important that Thomas probably kept it closer to his person during his travels.  The signature of David Hamilton as witness turned the POA into an identification card.  A South Carolina merchant, familiar with Hamilton’s signature, attested the signature in a Charleston court thus identifying the Thomas Orr standing in the court room as the same Thomas Orr named in the POA.  Later Thomas presented the certified copy of the POA written by the court clerk in Charleston to the District Court of Pendleton.  Thus Thomas Orr was able to prove he was the same Thomas Orr named in the POA and was thus authorized to manage and distribute whatever remained of William Orr’s estate.  

One of the above mentioned web sites identified Thomas’s occupation as clerk. His Uncle William was a merchant and it’s a logical guess that Thomas was too.  But that is not a documented fact and he once described himself as a "poor labouring farmer". However, in the same document, he also attested to helping setup William’s son as a Merchant. Simple farmers lacked either the connections or ready money needed for entry into the world of trade.  Two things point to Thomas having a career besides farming. The first indication comes with “reasonably assumed events” at the time of his arrival.

Few careers allow time off for travel or family-related business and this is basically what Thomas did in 1804.  He doesn’t appear to have been independently wealthy and it’s doubtful his relatives were picking up all the travel and living expenses for his venture to South Carolina.  After all, there were other ways of getting the cash from their brother’s estate. Therefore, it seems logical Thomas’s journey to South Carolina was also related to his budding career.  He arrived at the port of Charleston sometime in November 1804 and his name appears in the Pendleton District record books early February 1805.  Even allowing for the slowed-by-winter-weather travel from the coast to the up-country foothills, it is not unreasonable to think Thomas tarried along the way.  Hamilton’s signature on the POA would have opened the door for Thomas to the Charleston trading community.  This would be especially true if Hamilton also wrote a letter attesting Thomas’s good character and competence in record keeping. Introduced as Hamilton’s friend or colleague, others were likely to do business with him.  The fact that eighteen plus years later Thomas set William’s son up as a merchant adds credence to this scenario. But that’s all it is: an assumed story based on a handful of facts.

The clerk for Pendleton District Court didn’t enter the POA into the record books until June 1805 and he failed to note in which court session the POA was presented.  But another record shows Thomas Orr was in Pendleton District by 20 Feb 1805; he witnessed the deed Vincent Tims Sr. and William Timms Sr. to Thomas Johnston.   Surely it wasn’t pure coincidence the grantee, Thomas Johnston, was identified as a storekeeper.  [Willie p. 370 citing Pendleton District Conveyence Book H p. 207-8]

After signing two surety bonds written as one  July 1805,  Thomas was in control of all of Uncle William’s holdings.  Each bond was for two thousand dollars and essentially promised to hold the court appointed administrators of William Orr’s estate free from any and all future claims by William’s heirs. The first bond seems directed at one particular individual whose name is smeared. The other bond appears to cover anyone and anything the former bond didn’t. Thomas identifies himself as “of the District of Pendleton and State of South Carolina and of County Armagh in Ireland.”   This might suggest he planned to return to Northern Ireland some day; or perhaps it’s just his way of saying he is one and the same person named in the POA.  If returning to Ireland was ever his intention, he appears to have changed his mind by 1808.  In March of that year he identified himself as a resident of “only” Pendleton District when he sold his uncle’s one-half interest [transcription and original] in the grist and saw mill on twenty three mile creek to William Rankin, owner of the other half interest. 

Although unrecorded one of his first actions under the power of attorney was to sell the 150 acres on which William Orr had lived. The date of the original sale and the date when Thomas realized final payments were not forthcoming would fill in some gaps in our understanding of Thomas’s first years in Pendleton District.  But all we now have is this statement within the 1827 petition: “... about 150 acres of the land whereon the said William [Orr] lived ... to William Spruell ...  unable to collect the purchase money from Spruell [I] rescinded the contract. ... “   The statement in the petition goes on to say: [I]  “paid over to one of the persons who gave [me] the power of attorney the proceeds of the lands sold and made advances for this tract...“  The only other real estate William Orr owned in Pendleton District was one-half interest in the Rankin Mills and adjacent land.

Perhaps Thomas purchased the 330 acres from William Givens 23 October 1813 in anticipation of his coming marriage. [Anderson Co. Grantee Index Bk M p. 156] The year of that marriage, let alone a specific date, is not known.  Usually given as “circa 1814” based on the known birth date of their eldest child, little is known about his bride. Her given name Sarah and date of birth (1 July 1796) come from the Bible entry and her birthplace in Georgia from the 1850 census.   Sarah’s parents as John Wilson (died 1836) and Martha (Miller) is suspect for none who give them as her parents provide a source for the information.  The 1820 census [Osburn]  shows Thomas head of a household that included he and his wife, three children under ten (one boy and two girls) and 11 slaves. The three children were Sarah Ann and twins  Alexander and Abigail “Abby”. How Thomas acquired these slaves is not known.  Slaves are not mentioned in William Orr’s estate papers and it’s doubtful Thomas had realized enough personal profit to purchase so many in this short of time. Therefore it seems likely the answer lies with his marriage to Sarah. 

In 1826 James Orr, otherwise identified as “Uncle” William Orr’s natural son, petitioned for the return of the 150 acres once owned by his father. This is the same 150 acres originally sold by Thomas to William Spruell and which Thomas later purchased with his own money from his relatives in Ireland.  Even though Thomas had been a naturalized citizen since October 1823, James used Thomas’s lack of citizenship status at the time of these transactions as the reason the courts should now give him (James) title to the land. James made a valid legal point.  From the beginning of British colonization, land acquired by non-British citizens fell into a different category from land owned by citizens.

Thomas countered James’s action by sending two petitions to the elected state law makers.  The first went to the state Senators requestiong they simply make his previous actions, under the power of attorney, legal.  His other petition, to the state House of Representatives was a bit more involved, but basically requested they allow him to keep the title to this tract. Names of those attesting Thomas Orr’s good character included prominent Pendleton District residents. Although some men signed both petitions, the two lists differ.

Two sets of signatures attesting his good character:

attesting character

The petition to the House of Representatives gives us some insight into the prior relationship between the two cousins:  “He [Thomas] has lately learned that  one James Orr __ Natural (or illegitimate) son of the said William Orr has petitioned the Legislature to vest in him the legal title to the said tract of 150 acres of land or to have the same Escheated [and] the proceeds given to him. Your petitioner has greatly assisted the said James in obtaining an education and getting him into Business & is informed the said James is doing  good business as a merchant While your petitioner is a poor labouring Farmer upwards of 45 years of age with a family of seven small children and the prospect of increasing dependent on him for support ... And vest in him his heirs and assigns the legal title of the Tract of Land whereon he now lives, containing 150 acres more or less.”

The 1830 census [Osburn] taker recorded the household of Thomas Orr consisted of three children under five:  Thomas C., Margaret and Mary; three boys between five and ten:  John B., William M. and James; and three children ten to fifteen:  Sarah Ann and twins, Alexander and Abigail.  In 1840 the census shows Thomas was head of a household of ten family members. The three youngest were all girls:  Amanda, Matilda and Eliza.  Those between ten and fifteen were Thomas C., Margaret and Mary.  Only two boys between fifteen and twenty were still at home. Names other than the head of household weren’t listed that year, so we can only guess which two these are.  John B. and William B. seem the best guess for James is said to have married about 1840. But it’s even more likely that James is the James B. Orr blacksmith on the 1850 census.  If true, it’s logical to conclude the 19 year old James in 1840 was living with his teacher while learning the blacksmith trade.

For unstated reasons Thomas set up a trust fund for his eldest daughter, Sarah Ann Rankin, with his son John B. Orr and Thomas H. McCann, Trustees. Although nothing derogatory is ever said against her husband, the Trust was specifically created for “the Sole and Seperate use of my Said Daughter Sarah Ann Rankin for life and after her death to the Heirs of her body.”  The trustees were given the power to invest the fifteen hundred dollars any way they thought proper.  Additionally, Thomas made it clear, this was her full claim to any future interest in his property. Thomas was seventy-two years old at the time he signed this trust and his original signature is certainly that of an older individual.

Thomas Orr's signature in 1854:

T O signature 1854

Returning now to the question: What did Thomas do for a living?  The appraisal of his estate indicates, from the late-1850s until months before his death, Thomas had ready cash to lend neighbors and family.  In fact he appears to be the community’s unofficial banker. Small country stores were dependent on the local farmers who were more likely to trade farm goods for needed store items or keep a running tab until the cotton crop came in.  Yet, Thomas had cash to lend even during the war years. He was especially generous to his children.

But things changed for this family and not just due to the continuing conflict. The original petition and thus name of the petitioner is not known, but probably one of the sons decided something had to be done to protect both Thomas and Sarah and their wealth. June 1864 the Anderson District Court issued a writ de lunatico inquirendo to direct a group of jurors to look into the state of mind of Thomas Orr. August 13 his wife Sarah signed the petition with several of their children asking that William M. Orr be appointed to the Committee for his father. Thus we have a firm "death after" this date for her. Otherwise, researchers do not agree on the year of Sarah's death (1864 or 1865); they do, however, agree she died October 25.

The death date for Thomas, presumably from the Bible record, is widely reported as 3 February 1866.  Although their death place is reported as Brushy Creek Township, Pickens County, his estate was probated in Anderson County.  This proves, in my opinion, he was living on that side of the county line when he died.

[LSS: I remain neutral in the discussion of where they lived for there are good points made by both sides.  Descendants Ann Jones and Alice Starr were driven to various family home sites in the Pendleton County area late 1970s. This photo taken by Alice Starr is identified as the home of Thomas Orr.  At the time I asked, Aunt Alice couldn’t remember the name of the cousins who drove them around, and neither she nor Ann pressed them for the source of their information regarding the former homeowners.  The photos were among those passed among RANKIN attendees at a reunion in 1990; none of those from South Carolina recognized this house or the one identified as William Rankin’s mill.  That’s the extent of my personal knowledge of this picture.  I include it here in hopes someone knows more about its origins.]

House said to be the home of Thomas Orr

T O house

James Orr applied for Letters of Administration on his father’s estate 13 March 1866. The Twenty Thousand Dollars surety bond was signed by James Orr, W. H. Ford  and J. W.  B. Orr in the presence of W. E. Walters.  The 1864 inquiry into Thomas' competency might explain why only three physical items are listed as part of the inventory of his estate:  One bed and stead & clothing; one lot of books; one old Desk. Most notes due the estate are considered good by the appraisers, indicating the person was likely to pay. Indeed, the first estate accounts record shows many were paid that first year after Thomas’s death. The specific (if any) relationship of  J.W.B. Orr to Thomas and Sarah is not known.  He is sometimes listed as their son, but he was appointed an appraiser of this estate along with Thos. H. McCann, Wm Ford, James Mullikin and G. W. Rankin (or any three of them).  Therefore, J. W. B. Orr cannot be their son.

Signatures of appraisers for estate of Thomas Orr:


May 1869 James Orr was fully expectant his estate work was complete. After all, the heirs had agreed among themselves and only the approval of the Probate Judge was left.  James went so far as to label the top of the first page of his report: “First & Final Return of Exor Thomas Orr Dec’d.” Apparently the Judge wanted something in writing from the heirs for James returned in October with signatures of eight of the heirs plus one spouse.  The judge was still not convinced.

Most of the remaining estate accounts papers are not dated and, it appears, they were not all microfilmed in the order they were originally submitted to the court.  Another agreement between the heirs was also apparently rebuffed by the probate court. It shows the amount each heir owed the estate, had received from the estate, and the difference after the reduction in value of some notes.  One can presume the judge insisted James press harder for payment of outstanding notes.  The appraisal showed a few dollars remained due from an 1857 judgement Thomas Orr brought against his son-in-law Chesley H. Brock. Other records show Mary S. Brock and Sarah Ann Rankin were excluded from collecting anything more of Thomas’s estate.  Sarah Ann’s exclusion is explained by the 1854 Trust Fund.  One can only surmise the money the Brocks owed originated with the Judgment award. But perhaps Thomas loaned them additional money for the judgment appears mostly paid in full in one estate accounting record.

As administrator of the Estate, James brought a Chose in Action  suit against Andrew Smith identified as a bankrupt.  March 1871 James petitioned the court to sell land owned by the defendant to pay the judgment. The original estate appraisal shows Smith owed the estate $155 from December 1859.  The probate judge accepted the final accounting records 28 April 1871.  Undoubtedly, no one was happier than James Orr when the judge signed the final release.

Except for their daughter Sarah Ann, information on the children of Thomas and Sarah comes from three sources. The list of distributees in his estate records documents twelve (not thirteen) children plus the married surnames for the daughters and the name (with/without initials) used by the sons as adults. Specific birth dates come from the transcription by Jim Isom of the Bible family record entries. Also, we have the work of various Orr researchers, although their information isn't always in agreement with that provided by others. All children were born in Pendleton District until the creation of Anderson and Pickens Counties in 1826. Birthplace of those born after 1826 depends on which side of the county line Thomas and Sarah were residing.

1.  Sarah Ann born 29 November 1815 died 13 June 1897. She married  19 May 1840 Thomas Franklin Rankin (1807-1872). 

2. Alexander (twin) born 7 August 1817 died 19 November 1897 Pickens County, S. C.  He married August 1842 Malinda Couch (c1820-1890), daughter John and Mary (Prater).

3.  Abigail “Abbey” (twin) born 7 August 1817 died 1870-1875 Grayson Co., Texas.  She married about 1840 William Mattison Wilson (1819-1859), son of John Wilson Jr. and Isabella (Merritt).   A second marriage for her is reported, but the name of spouse and place depends on who is reporting. 

4.  James born 14 January 1821; reportedly died c1873.    There is a problem with the identity of this son, who was administrator of his father’s estate.  As such, he signed his name several times and his name was entered in the record books several times by court clerks. In no instance was a middle initial ever used.  He, or another James Orr (without middle initial) died 1873 leaving a widow Georgiana.  This James clearly owned property that was once Thomas Orr’s or was at least adjacent to Thomas Orr’s land.  However, at least one researcher identifies Georgiana’s husband as the son of William died 1803, not son of Thomas. Moving to the numerous James (middle initial) Orrs.  The closest James Orr fitting the profile of son of Thomas and Sarah is the 28 year old blacksmith, James B. Orr per the 1850 census. His wife was 23 years old Sarah.  Within the probate records for Thomas F. Rankin is a bill to the Estate of James Orr (no middle initial).  Estate James Orr  Unfortunately this particular bill is not dated, but one entry is important to this discussion:  “1872 May 11th To Coffin for his wife Sallie   5.00”   Although nothing is said about the relationship between James Orr and Thomas F. Rankin, it is highly likely they were brothers-in-law.  That said, researchers suggest other middle initials for James, son of Thomas Orr, and offer Elizabeth as the wife’s name instead of Sarah.  Curiously, all researchers give an “about 1873” as the death date for James, son of Thomas and Sarah no matter who they list as his spouse or where he died.

5. William M. born 1 July 1822 died 9 February 1893.  He married 1st  22 February 1846 Jane E. Orr  (1826-1875).  Jane was the daughter of William and Nancy (Clardy).  William M. married 2nd about 1878 Martha V. Dodd (November 1860 – 30 Aug 1909).

6.  John B. (or “J. B.” as he signed his name)  born 29 Febrary 1824 died 25 November 1889.  According to one researcher he lived on part of his father’s 572 acre tract.  He is buried in the Orr-Wilson Cemetery.  He married 8 July 1844  Elizabeth Ann Wilson  (1820-1897).

7.  Mary S. born 22 January 1826 died 8 February 1899, Akers, Grayson County, Texas.  She is buried in the Akers Cemetery near Sherman.  She married about 1846 Chesley H. Brock (c1813-aft 1861).    Other middle initials and name given for her include J. and Etta; however, the probate records clearly show her name as Mary S., as does the tombstone of one of their children buried in the Orr Cemetery near Powdersville, SC.

8. Margaret born 25 December 1827 died about 1875 Pickens County, SC.  She married about 1855 John Jameson (1818-1894), son of William Jameson and Rebecca (Fowler).  Her middle name is given as Caroline or the initial “A”.  However, the probate records only show her as Margaret. 

9.  Thomas Caswell (or “T. C.” as he appears in the probate records) born 27 December 1829 died 18 September 1918 Luella, Grayson County, Texas.  He is buried in the Luella Cemetery.  He married in 1855 Hannah Harrison Golden (1836-1907).  According to one researcher, Hannah’s maternal grandfather was John Taliaferro Lewis, clerk of the Pendleton District Court.

Hannah Harrison Golden Orr (1836-1907)
Photo shared by Penny Brookes

10.  Eliza born 28 Nov 1831 died after 1871 Pickens County, South Carolina.  She is buried in the Couch Family Cemetery near Easley, SC.  She married about 1850 William Couch (c1827-aft 1866) son of John Couch and Mary (Prater), brother of Malinda who married Alexander Orr (above).

11.  Matilda born 16 May 1834 died 10 January 1912 Howe, Grayson County, Texas.  She is buried in the Luella Cemetery. She married 1st about 1858 P. Franklin McKinney (c1831 – Bef 1866).   Matilda married 2nd after 1860 before 1869 James L. Dickson.    Some researchers give her full name as Martha Matilda, but the probate records refer to her only as Matilda.

12.  Amanda born 2 February 1836 died 11 or 12 April 1915 Easley, Pickens County, SC.  She is buried in the Jameson Family Cemetery, Pickens County.  She married  1st James Carrol Jameson (1830-1862), brother of John Jameson who married Margaret Orr (above).  Amanda married 2nd   about 1864  James McAdams (1790-1881).  Her full name is given by some as Amanda Melvina but the estate records show only Amanda.
J. Orr  J.Orr
J. Robertson Rankin and Ione McCoy both descended from Thomas Orr and Sarah Wilson. Among photos once in their possession,
and shared by Penny Brookes, are these two images. Both are labeled "J. Orr". A more specific identification will be greatly appreciated.


Cheek, Linda G.  Abstracts of Pickens District South Carolina Deed Book A-1 (1st Deed Book) 1828-1831 with many earlier dates.  Southern Historical Press, Greenville, SC  2003.  Abstracts of Deed Book C-1 (3rd Deed Book 1834-1838 with many earlier dates.  1999  No Thomas Orr in either book.

Osburn, Sherry Crabtree, contributor.  1820, 1830 and 1840 South Carolina Census records for Thomas Orr posted to

South Carolina Department of Archives & History, Columbia, microfilm copies of records. 

Tepper, Michael editor.  New World Immigrants vol. II 1980 Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, Md.  “American Passenger Lists 1804-6 (in Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Records for the Year 1929, Northern Ireland, Public Record Office (1930) 15; 21-49)

Willie, Betty, compiler.   Pendleton District, South Carolina Deeds 1790-1806  Southern Historical Press, 2001 reprint. Greenville, SC.

Linda Sparks Starr    copyright (c)  2010