Addendum, several hours after hitting “publish” on this article: I am no longer stumped, thanks to Gary plowing through Manhattan City Directories. Willie G’s full name was William Galloway Rankin, and he was from Mercer County, PA. We will publish a follow-up article after doing some due diligence on the Mercer County Rankins.
Back to the original article …
As of January 27, there was a Union Army jacket and vest on the auction block at Winter Fine Art and Antiques. The uniform is attributed to Brevet Colonel William G. Rankin, commander of Fort Buford in what is now North Dakota. Last time I looked at the auction site, it could be yours for $1600 plus a buyer’s bonus of 25%.
Willie G apparently parachuted into the Civil War from Mars, because both his whereabouts when he joined the army and his family of origin are mysteries.
I thought about seeking help from my friend Spade, a shady P.I. with a rep for digging up dead Rankins. But his retainer is a bit steep — $100 plus a fifth of Cutty Sark. His fee has been going up ever since his success with John McGinley Rankin’s parents. My next thought was to ask Jessica “Gams” Guyer for help, but her specialty is deeds. They are recorded at the county level, of course. In Willie G’s case, I don’t even know what state he lived in before the War. I only know he was born in Pennsylvania, probably circa 1835-ish. Big whoop. So were a zillion other William Rankins.
The best possibility for help was my friend Mary “the Bulldog” Buller, the world’s premier expert on mining military records at NARA. She could locate the official military report, if one existed, on a Brown Bess lost in the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, I am hopeless in the NARA website labyrinth. Also unfortunately, I have pestered her often, and I hope she is currently busy looking for a home in Texas after a brief exile from Austin to Virginia. My last hope was ex-Captain Willis, USAF, author of two military histories. Unfortunately, his nose is currently in a tome about Doolittle’s Raiders. No chance there.
So I rolled up my sleeves, trying to verify information from the auction website. My friend and cousin Debbie Rankin sent me the link to the auction. In addition to a great description and numerous photos of the coat and vest, the website has a biography of Colonel Rankin. Here are the highlights:
- He was appointed Captain of the 13th Infantry regiment on May 14, 1861. That suggests he was from a family of some means, because officers had to provide their own horse and other equipment. He was probably, says Gary, in his twenties. Thus my crude estimate that he was born circa 1835-ish.
- He received two brevetted promotions, to Brevet Major and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel.
- He was transferred to the 31st Infantry Regiment in September 1866 and then back to the 13th in 1869.
- He was brevetted as a full Colonel during the American-Indian Wars. Maybe.
- In 1866, he “founded” and commanded Fort Buford in the Dakota Territory along the Oregon Trail. “Founded” is the wrong word: soldiers don’t “found” forts. The writer probably meant to say “oversaw construction of a new U. S. Army military installation in his role as its first commander.”
- The fort was attacked by members of the Sioux Nation. Because the garrison was isolated and unable to communicate to report its status, newspapers “inadvertently” created a story of the “Fort Buford Massacre.”
- He was discharged from the Army in December 1870. That date doesn’t pan out.
Where to start? That is a wealth of information. Or misinformation, if the researcher didn’t know his or her genealogy bidness. In this case, she had a fairly respectable batting average. Probably hired Spade. I hope his hangover wasn’t too bad.
Right off the bat, I’d like to know how one “inadvertently” writes a newspaper story. That skill might be useful to me in writing blog articles.
First research stop: Fold3, an online source of military records. It requires a paid subscription. I don’t care for it, having compared the information on file at NARA for one of my ancestors with what the website has for him. Fold3 didn’t fare well. But it’s a quick-and-easy place to start.
In Willie G’s case, a search on “William G. Rankin” with the filter “Union Army, Civil War” provided many hits, but not much information. He is listed on Union Army Registers for 1861, 1865, 1866, 1868, and 1870. Those registers confirmed that he was commissioned (appointed) on 14 May 1861 as a Captain in the 13th Infantry Regiment. He remained in the 13th Infantry in 1866 and 1867. He was transferred to the 31st Infantry in 1868. He had transferred back to the 13th Infantry by 1870. He received promotions to Brevet Major and Brevet Lt. Colonel on 13 March 1865.
I found no mention of a promotion to Brevet Colonel. However, the coat being auctioned has a fabulous eagle embroidered on the epaulets. An eagle with outspread wings is the traditional uniform marking for a so-called “full bird” colonel, as opposed to a Lt. Colonel, whose rank insignia is a silver oak leaf. Below is a picture of a colonel’s insignia, although the one pictured has silver thread for the eagle. Col. Rankin’s eagle was gold thread. A Brevet Colonel rank might have been appropriate for a fort’s commander, says Gary, even though there may have been only one company originally on site.
I couldn’t find a mention of a discharge date on Fold3. It did have an image for a pension application filed on Sep. 28, 1889 from New York, asserting invalid status. No doubt it was our Willie G. It includes the information that he was a Captain, 13th U. S. Infantry Regiment, Companies F and S.
There should be more information at NARA, such as when his pension (if approved) terminated, which would tell us when he shuffled off this earthly coil. But have I mentioned that I am not competent to find anything on the NARA website? I used up all my NARA brainpower looking at Revolutionary War muster and pay rolls for Bulldog’s Rankin ancestor.
Wading through all those hits on Fold3 did produce three new pieces of information:
- That is where we learned he was born in Pennsylvania. I.Do.Not.Know.Where.to.Begin.
- He was living in New York in 1889 and was physically incapacitated in some fashion.
- He was appointed (or commissioned) from “W.T.” For most of the men listed on those Army registers, there is a standard state abbreviation for where the commission/appointment took place: e.g., “MO” or “PA.” Usually, that means where the soldier physically joined the unit. Where the heck was W.T.?
I rudely interrupted Gary’s perusal of Doolittle’s exploits. “What on earth,” said I, “might W.T. mean? Wyoming territory is out of the question because 1861 is too late.”
He pondered and decided it was probably an incorrect transcription of old handwriting and should be “M.T.,” as in “Missouri Territory.” I rolled my eyes. Missouri became a state in 1821. Translation from Garyspeak: please leave me alone with Col. Doolittle.
I went to the next logical source of information (not counting NARA): the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Specifically, I found historical records for the 13th Regiment of Infantry by Lieut. J. B. Goe at this link. What I hoped to learn was where the 13th Infantry Regiment was recruited, because Willie G and/or his family of origin probably lived nearby in 1860. One usually did not travel hundreds of miles to join the army.
Lt. Goe tells us that 13th Regiment headquarters were established at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. The original military post was south of St. Louis, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. It was primarily a supportive military installation overseeing westward expansion and assisting in protecting the early (read: white) settlers. The 13th had recruiting stations in Dubuque, Keokuk, and Iowa City, Iowa: Cincinnati and Bellefontaine, Ohio; and Madison, Wisconsin.
Well, now, isn’t that just fine and dandy! That narrows it down to one of six towns located in six counties in three states, plus St. Louis, the regiment’s HQ. So I searched the 1860 census for anyone named Rankin in the counties where those towns are located. I turned up no leads suggesting Willie G’s location when he was appointed. The arrived-from-Mars theory was gaining traction.
I was clearly on the wrong track. Barking up the wrong tree. Heading down fruitless rabbit trails. Please choose a metaphor which expresses “failing” in a kindly fashion.
What next? Well, the biography on the auction site said the alleged Ft. Buford Massacre became a newspaper story. Next stop: Newspapers.com, an easy to use searchable website, although it also requires a paid subscription. There are a number of stories in April 1867. Here is a sample.
The Delaware State Journal and Statesman story on April 2 was headlined “Another Horrible Massacre.” It said that “Indians … butchered ever [sic] man, woman and child, not one being left to tell the tale. The fort was under the command of Colonel Rankin, and Company C, Thirty-first United States Infantry.”
Yep, that’s our boy, then in the U.S. 31st. The story was reportedly relayed from friendly Sioux.
On April 10, the New York Times article reported this:
“The fate of Col. Rankin and his little garrison at Fort Buford, Dakotah, is still wrapped in uncertainty.” Unable to resist repeating gory details, the Times continued, “A few days since we published a circumstantial account of the massacre by the Indians of Col. Rankin, his wife and child, and eighty soldiers of his command. The account gave the details of the affair, described a three days’ siege, the final assault, the killing of Mrs. Rankin by her husband to prevent her capture …”
The article continues: “From military, but not official sources, we now have a complete denial of the whole story, and a dispatch from St. Louis alleges that Gen. Sherman has received letters from Col. Rankin of date subsequent to that of the alleged massacre.” The paper then went on to excoriate the army for a host of sins, including the vulnerability of remote military installations such as Fort Buford.
Duh. Doesn’t “vulnerable” usually logically follow “remote”?
The same day, The Charleston Mercury had a story headlined “Reported Massacre Unfounded.”
The only new information from those articles was the fact that Col. Rankin may have had a wife and child. Commanders of installations were usually permitted an “accompanied” tour, meaning the officer could bring his family along. If Willie G were married, there is probably a marriage license somewhere. Of course, that is yet another record kept at the county level, and is one more reason to figure out where he had lived before military service.
Getting desperate, I turned to an unusual source. Wikipedia. Since anyone can write anything at all in that forum, it has as much credibility as online family trees. Approximately zero, give or take a small measure. I briefly considered whether I should even admit I consulted it. But the truth is what the truth is.
The article about Fort Buford has no citations to sources whatsoever, except for the article’s sources of information on a nearby friendly Indian settlement. There is not a hint where the author obtained detailed information he/she provided on, e.g., the evolution of the fort’s structure, the repeated attacks on the fort by the Lakota, or the status of the fort’s water wells during the attacks. Please read it for what it’s worth.
Wikipedia identifies Willie G as a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel and says the fort was manned by Company C, 2nd Battalion, 13th Infantry, including three officers, 80 enlisted men, and six civilians. Here is a contradiction: was the fort manned by the 13th or 31st? I’d just like to know more about the six civilians, if that is true. Here’s the Wikipedia link.
In short, the Wiki article doesn’t shed any light on Willie G and I probably should have preserved whatever reputation I may have by omitting it altogether.
Whatever. The former fort is now primarily known as the location where Tatanka Iyotake — more familiarly known as Sitting Bull — surrendered his rifle. He, of course, is famous for defeating Gen. Custer at Little Big Horn. He is less well-known for the siege of Fort Buford, but he was the leader of the Lakota attackers, according to Wikipedia.
Sitting Bull wasn’t my target, though. Willie G was, and I was still coming up empty on his location when he was commissioned. And zilch on his family of origin. So I turned to his post-Civil War adventures, guided by the 1889 pension application from New York. Only two post-war records surfaced …
First, the 1890 federal census (mostly lost) has a “Special Schedule, Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines and Widows, Etc.” Lo and behold, Willie G was enumerated in New York City. He is identified as “Rankins, William G., Capt., 13th U.S. Infantry, enlisted 14 May 1861, discharged 1873, served 13 years.”
By golly, that is our man, discharged in 1873 rather than 1870. Congress never approved his brevet promotions, since his rank is given as Captain. Since he was still a Captain after thirteen years, he was probably shown the exit from military service in a genteel fashion. And there is his address: 60 West 38th Street. A multistory building now occupies that address. Perhaps it was a multi-family structure such as an apartment building in 1890?
Surely, thought I, finding more information on him would be a piece of cake. Hahahaha …
I’ve got to clear my throat before identifying the last source of info on Willie G, to wit (I am unable to persuade WordPress to allow single spacing):
OFFICIAL REGISTER OF THE UNITED STATES
CONTAINING A LIST OF
OFFICERS AND EMPLOYÉS
IN THE CIVIL, MILITARY, AND NAVAL SERVICE
FIRST OF JULY, 1881;
TOGETHER WITH A
LIST OF SHIPS AND VESSELS BELONGING TO THE UNITED STATES.
Page 188 is headed “TREASURY DEPARTMENT, CUSTOMS SERVICE.”
One William G. Rankin, identified as having been born in Pennsylvania, was a temporary employee in the office of the Customs Service Inspector, employed in New York, at a compensation of $4.00 per diem. Our Willie G. was surely the only William G. Rankin born in Pennsylvania and living in New York in 1881.
And that is all of the flesh I have been able to put on ex-Captain William G. Rankin’s bones: a temporary job as a customs inspector and a subsequent disability, for which he may or may not have received a pension. An address in Manhattan. I cannot find him anywhere in the 1880 census, although he was definitely alive, probably in New York. Where was he from before he joined the Army? Who was his family of origin? I don’t know any of those things. Was there ever a Mrs. Rankin? The only evidence for her existence is those inadvertent newspaper stories. Ergh.
Spade, do you have any of that Scotch left?
An occasional failure is just part of this hobby, but that doesn’t mean one has to like it. Had I been charging someone a fee for this matter, I would write it off.
Somebody who reads this may have a clue about Willie G. I hope so. You know where to find me.
See you on down the road.
 I hope the website is still accessible. At last check, the high bid was $1500. Here is the link Debbie sent.
 There were 422 men of all ages named William Rankin listed in the 1850 census for Pennsylvania.
 The National Archives and Research Administration. Images of many records are available online.
 A “brevet” is a temporary promotion that might or might not be made permanent. Above a certain rank, promotions had to be approved by Congress. That is still the case.
 Civil War Pension Application number 731 201.
 Here is more about Jefferson Barracks.
 And that fact has a highly credible source: the State Historical Society of North Dakota. See its entry about Fort Buford here.
 A copy of that undoubtedly weighty tome is owned by the University of Oregon and has been digitized by Ancestry.
 Just kidding. I have never been compensated for any genealogical research.
4 thoughts on “Where You Be, Willie G?”
I’ve seen W.T. Stand for western territory but that doesn’t really help unless you know a date. Just thought I’d mention it though. 🙂
Paulette, thank you!
Being a native of Washington state, I’ve seen many times the abbreviation W.T. for Washington Territory (1853–1889). Here’s a classic example from my alma mater UDub: https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/pioneerlife/id/4183/
As it turns out, you are absolutely correct! We found Willie G. in Washington. Part 3 is in the works: Willie G’s story in his own words.