by Gary and Robin Willis
Willie G is waiting his turn, tapping his foot, while we say just one thing. Namely, when you search and search and search but turn up nothing, your assumptions may be bad. We should have realized that with William G. Rankin. We were searching for him with a bad estimate of his birth year and apparently delusional logic regarding his whereabouts. Lesson learned the hard way. We needed to share that in case one of you makes the same mistake.
OK, Willie, the mic is all yours.
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“First, I want to say I resent Gary and Robin for calling me “Willie G.” My name is (or was) William Galloway Rankin, a perfectly respectable moniker. I may not have lived up to it, but that’s another matter.
I knew at an early age farming wasn’t for me, so I kept my eyes and ears open for something better. And preferably easier. When gold was discovered in California, word was going around that a man could make six years’ wages in a matter of months. That was all I needed to hear. As soon as I had a grubstake, I got the hell out of Mercer County, Pennsylvania. I headed west, looking for easy money, fast women, and hard liquor. I went overland via the California Trail when I was in my twenties.
Unfortunately, so did thousands of other people, almost all men. There were hardly any women in California, fast or otherwise. Worse, searching for gold was hard work. You moved rock, dug dirt, and waded into freezing streams. Equipment and food were expensive. It didn’t take long for me to size up who was really getting rich — the people who were supplying equipment and provisions.
Turned out the ones who were doing a lot of that were people in the good ol’ United States Army. It was also clear to a sharp-eyed hustler like me that some of those soldiers were running their own business ventures on the side. Many of them worked in the Quartermaster Department. I could talk a pretty good game when I was sober, so I threw away my shovel and went to work for those guys. I was clean, warm, and fed. Whiskey was available.
In about 1852 — my memory isn’t so good now that I’ve been dead for more than 130 years — I became a Deputy Quartermaster at Fort Reading, California. That is less than 200 miles north of Sutter’s Mill, California, where the Gold Rush began. It was a safe distance from hard physical labor. I was still a civilian at the time. Each Army detachment had an officer or two designated as Quartermaster, but the real work was done by us civilians or a handful of enlisted men from the unit.
After Fort Reading, I went to Fort Vancouver in Washington Territory. I made a couple of lifelong buddies there, both West Point graduates. One young captain had a fondness for spirits. Ulysses S. Grant. The other fellow was also a captain. Rufus Ingalls. He and Grant had graduated in 1843 and had both been in the Mexican War. I settled in to work and live with them at the Quartermaster Depot at Fort Vancouver.
The two men moved on after a while. As the country headed toward civil war, I wrote them seeking advice (and any help they could provide). They both said that experienced officers would soon be promoted to higher ranks, leaving room for new Captains and Lieutenants. They suggested I seek an appointment in the regular Army. Grant was encouraging, although he was temporarily out of the service. However, Ingalls was now a Major and on the way up. He may have recommended me to some of his associates. Or Grant may have put in a good word for me with friends still in the Army. Someone definitely greased the skids for me, because I obtained a commission as a Captain in the 13thRegiment of Infantry, headquartered near St. Louis, Missouri. I was probably the only person who was commissioned in the 13th from Washington Territory.
Being commissioned as a Captain was unusual. Ordinarily, the only way to achieve that rank right off the bat was to raise a company of soldiers. As I like to say, it is nice to have powerful friends.
In any event, the Army transported me, now Captain William G. Rankin, from Fort Vancouver to my assignment. The 13th Infantry was headquartered at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, just outside St. Louie. I soon figured that my quality of life as a staff officer would improve if I were assigned to a larger unit than a regiment, so I wangled a post with the headquarters of the Department of the Missouri.
I actually worked in St. Louis, helping the Department with administrative tasks and quartermaster functions. Fortunately, sweat, cold, and other discomforts weren’t involved. I also had time to enjoy the many pleasures of the big city. It was there I met my future wife, a beautiful woman. She was not, however, the type to take home to Mama. In fact, I am not sure any of my family would have approved of her – or of me, for that matter. She was, it turned out, “mostly faithful.” You can refresh your memory by looking at what Gary had to say about that in Part 2.
The end of the Civil War brought some big changes. Most people wanted to go home. Most of them did, but not me. As higher ranking officers left the service, someone had to take over their jobs, at least temporarily. In 1865, I got two brevet promotions out of the organizational vacuum, to Major and Lt. Colonel. Both promotions were to fill vacancies left by departing officers. My selection to fill those jobs accorded with the old military rule that awards and promotions accrue to those nearest the typewriters, and I was nearly always in a headquarters job. Grant and/or Ingalls may have provided an assist. The temporary ranks were nice while they lasted. My pay went from $115 a month to $181.
Later changes didn’t turn out so well. A lot of cushy staff jobs were eliminated as the Army consolidated its command structure. Someone decided if I wanted to hang around, I would have to do something I’d not done before – command troops in the field. It could be that I had gotten on the wrong side of a higher-up by flirting with his wife. Or drinking too much, and the objective was just to get my arse out of town.
Whatever the reason, in mid-1866, I was put in charge of a company of infantry and sent up the Missouri River. My orders were to establish Fort Buford at the junction of the Yellowstone River with the Missouri. The plan was to provide an outpost to protect settlers coming into or through the Dakota Territory. Since it was peacetime, and I was to be the commander of the prospective fort, I was allowed to take my wife along with me.
It was immediately obvious this remote outpost did not compare favorably to a staff job in St. Louie. The local Sioux attacked us the second night and again the next day. We drove them off and proceeded with construction. As winter approached, it became apparent they intended to surround and lay siege to our small fort. When the Missouri froze and cut off communications with headquarters, a rumor circulated in the eastern press that we had been annihilated. Not true, although it was a tough winter for all of us. With the spring thaw, reinforcements arrived and our situation improved. With the fort now manned by four and a half companies, we were a far more imposing force. I can’t remember for sure, but I may have qualified again for brevet Lt. Colonel status with that many men under my command.
The summer of 1867 brought more changes. You may have read about the charges lodged against me for drunkenness and misappropriation of government property. Here is my side of the story. First of all, everyone in the Army drank – or at least I never met anyone who didn’t. Don’t forget my friend Grant. It was an accepted part of military life. Still is, says Gary. As to the government property issues, I would frankly rather not talk about it. But any opportunities there may have been for selling whiskey and government supplies to a friendly local tribe soon evaporated because the Army reorganized. It transferred me and my troops out of the 13th Regiment into the 31st, and gave us a new boss – a Frenchman named Colonel Phillipe Regis de Tobriand.
Things went from bad to worse. Col. Tobrian ginned up a court-martial for my various alleged sins: misappropriation of government property, conduct unbecoming an officer — brawling with a subordinate officer — blah blah blah. You know, fights sometime break out when you’ve had a snootful. My wife caught a steamboat back to civilization. You may have noticed I’ve not mentioned her name. Maybe Spade can dig it up.
Lucky for me, I was able to swing a transfer back to the 13th Regiment and out from under the pending court-martial. I can’t remember how that happened, but it almost certainly had something to do with my high-ranking friends.
I ultimately resigned my commission in 1873, after receiving not-so-subtle hints to do so from senior officers. Some people claim I resigned in 1870 and that I was a Major or Lt. Colonel. I should know my own service dates and rank, don’t you think? Read them for yourself in the 1890 Census Schedule for Veterans and Widows. I served 13 years from 1861 to 1873 as a Captain in the U.S. 13th Infantry Regiment. And also check my 1889 Pension Application. It clearly states I was a Captain. As much as I would have liked to claim the pay and status associated with the higher ranks, those were just temporary.
Gifts from my family allowed me to kiss the Army goodbye without financial pain. Back in Mercer, Pennsylvania, my brother John was filthy rich. When he died in 1872, he bequeathed me $16,000 in cash, an unexpected windfall. That’s right: sixteen large. My mother, who died the next year, left me another $600. Captain’s pay was chicken feed by comparison.
After resigning, I headed east. I stopped by Mercer to see my mother in 1873 not long before she passed away. But there was still nothing to make me tarry in Mercer. By then, my family was mostly dead. St. Louis had turned me into a confirmed city boy, and the lights of the big city called: New York.
By September 1873, I had talked my way into a job in a New York customs house. The work was easy and — much to my surprise — it paid as much as a Lt. Colonel made. With the inheritances from John and my mother, life was almost a bed of roses. But all good things come to an end. In 1889, I applied for an Invalid Pension for my service during the War. I switched to part time with Customs and my pay was cut in half, although I can’t recall whether that was because of my disability or my drinking. I’m not sure where the inherited money went, although I did have a taste I had acquired from Grant for fine whiskey and cigars. I lived out my time in an apartment on West 38th Street and shuffled off this mortal coil on 30 May 1891. My last years weren’t easy. Some might say my problems were self-inflicted, but I never chose to be an alcoholic.
I suppose I ought to say something about the family I left in the 1840s. Since they are all long dead, I figure I can say pretty much anything I like without fearing any pushback.
My father was born in Pennsylvania about 1786. He wasn’t much for small talk, meaning anything except whose turn it was to milk the cow or clean the stable. He was a bit of a tyrant, prompting most of his children to leave home at an early date. In all fairness, he was a fairly well-to-do man and took care of his sons. My sisters, of course, were expected to marry well, which they did. As for the boys in the family, our father paid for my brother Robert to go to law school. Likewise, my little brother Clark went to medical school. Our father helped my brother John acquire land and run a farm. He also provided a grubstake for me so that I could indulge my wanderlust and go west.
My mother’s name was Martha Cook Rankin. She came from Washington County, which is where she married my father. Her father, Robert Cook, left her a nice legacy in his will — $250, which was a lot in 1826 when he died. Her mother’s name was Mary.
My father’s will left everything to my mother. She died a wealthy woman. Her will divided her estate among me and her grandchildren, with token gifts to my brother John (who was still alive when she wrote the will, and who was more wealthy than our mother) and the housekeeper who lived with the family for years. I never did anything to deserve that money, but was sure grateful to have it.
My sister Mary Ann was the eldest child, born about 1814. She married a man named Benoni Ewing who was a postmaster in Mercer County but became quite rich. Mary Ann died young after having a half-dozen or so children.
Robert Cook Rankin, born in 1816, was my oldest brother and my father’s favorite. Probably everyone’s favorite. He remained at home, practiced law, was a model citizen, and accumulated a fair amount of land. He never married or had children. He is buried in the Rankin plot in the Mercer Citizens Cemetery, along with our parents, our brother John H., and me. I never did figure out who paid for my nice headstone, which matches those for the rest of the family.
The next son was my brother James Lee Rankin, who left home early. He also died young. His widow Madeline and only son, James Lee Jr., lived with my parents for a while after James Sr. died. Some people think Madeline was Robert’s wife and James Lee his child, but that is just flat wrong. James Lee Jr. wound up in Savannah, Georgia, where his mother Madeline Williamson Rankin was born.
James Lee was followed in short order by John H., born in 1820. He was the only one besides Robert who stayed in Mercer. Also like Robert, he didn’t marry or have children. John bought a good bit of Robert’s land after Robert died. John and my mother lived together in the borough of Mercer when she got old, although John H. died first. In fact, all of my siblings except me and my sister Martha Jane died before our mother. John H. died rich in 1872.
I came after John H. I was born in 1822, as my tombstone says. I was evidently the black sheep in the family, as you may have surmised by now.
My brother Samuel H. L. Rankin, born about 1823, also wound up in New York City. He had one son named William S. Rankin who was mentioned in my mother’s will. Sam married Caroline Snell in New York. She and William are both buried in a cemetery in the Bronx. William was confirmed in the Anglican church, which would have horrified the Presbyterian forebears in our family. I heard Sam died in the Civil War, so he didn’t have a say in his son’s religious upbringing.
My sister Martha Jane, the youngest child, married William Mehard and went to Lawrence County. He was a minister — Presbyterian, of course — but he was rich as sin. He must have had a side hustle, because I’ve never known a preacher who had two pennies to rub together. Not that I hung around many men of the cloth.
That’s about it. Frankly, I’m sick of talking about all of us. If you want to know anything else, ask Gary and Robin.”
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Thanks, William Galloway Rankin. Perhaps we will create an outline descendant chart for your family. Mßaybe not. Depends on whether another interesting character crosses our path.
See you on down the road.
Gary and Robin
 Willie G’s first person account is partly proved and partly plausible literary license based on available evidence.
 We have no documentary evidence that William G. Rankin was drawn west by the Gold Rush. We only know that he was in California in the 1850s, and are confident that a get-rich-quick scheme would have appealed to him. He was apparently still living with his family of origin in 1840, when he was eighteen, but was no longer with them by 1850. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.
 Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to California in the Gold Rush, but almost none of them were women. In 1852, 92 percent of the people prospecting for gold were men. https://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-california-gold-rush
 There are many good internet sources on the Gold Rush. Here is one. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-california/
 E.g., Levi Strauss saw the need for tough, durable work pants and hired men to make pants out of tents. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Levi-Strauss-and-Co#ref38503. See also John Studebaker (brother of the car makers), who made a fortune producing wheelbarrows for miners in Hangtown, CA during the Gold Rush. https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/2015/11/23/john-studebaker/23790679007/
 The Mercer County probate record shows Robert C. Rankin died intestate without children in 1855. His heirs — his siblings — were necessary parties to a petition for the sale of Robert’s real estate. Each of their locations were recited in the petition. Robert’s brother William G. Rankin was noted as having last been heard of in California, where he was Deputy Quartermaster at Fort Reading. Further, recited the petition, he was soon to move to Fort Vancouver in Washington Territory. SeeMercer Co., PA Orphans Court, 26 April 1856, Book E: 307 et seq.
 Fort Reading was built in 1852 and abandoned in 1856. https://noehill.com/shasta/cal0379.asp
 In 1912, Congressional legislation created the Quartermaster Corps, consolidating the Army’s Quartermaster Department (in charge of supplies and equipment), Subsistence Department (food), and Pay Department. It authorized 6,000 enlisted personnel. Up until that, time field operations had been performed largely by civilians or by temporary use of enlisted men from the unit. https://www.quartermasterfoundation.org/quartermaster-history-timeline-1775-to-present/
 Grant resigned his commission in 1854. Ingalls was selected to accompany a cross country expedition that same year. Everyone knows Grant went on to greatness. Ingalls became Quarter-master for the Army of the Potomac and later Quartermaster General of the Army.
 This is poetic license. We have no proof of any communication between Rankin and the two officers. It is merely plausible, given the proximity of the three men. Also, there must be some explanation for him obtaining a commission as a Captain, and that is the only thing we can imagine.
 Army Register, 1865, Thirteenth Regiment of Infantry, Captain William G Rankin, Date of Rank 14 May 1861, Entered as a Captain, Born in PA., Enrolled at W.T. [ Washington Territory]. https://www.fold3.com/image/312142148?rec=303817662&terms=war,us,g,civil,william,union,united,america,rankin,states.
 13th Regiment officer roster notes that Captain Willian G. Rankin was “At Headquarters Department of the Missouri, Order Number and Date unknown”
 See John R. Sibbald, “Frontier Inebriates with Epaulets,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 19, no. 3, 1969, pp. 50–57. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4517383. Accessed 29 Jan. 2023.
 There is some ambiguity about his marital status. An abstract of his death certificate (we have been unable to obtain the original) says that he was married when he died. We found no other evidence. It may just be that he never obtained a divorce from the lovely Mrs. Rankin of Ft. Buford fame. New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949″, database, FamilySearch(https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W17-B6Z : 3 June 2020), William G. Rankin, 1891.
 1890 Census, Special Schedule of Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows
 1873 Register of Federal Employees shows W. Gallaway Rankin, Entry Clerk, Employed at New York, Born in Pa., Appointed at New York, $2,200 annual pay. https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/2822640:2525
 Pension Index, Capt William G. Rankin, Invalids Pension application 731 201, filed 28 Sep 1889. https://www.fold3.com/image/25290874?terms=war,us,g,civil,william,union,united,
 “New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949”, database, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W17-B6Z : 3 June 2020), William G. Rankin, 1891.
 Willie G’s parents and siblings, plus some nephews and nieces, are conclusively proved by an April 1856 petition to sell land owned by the estate of his brother Robert C. Rankin. Mercer Co., PA Orphans’ Court Book E: 307 et seq. Any petition regarding an intestate decedent’s estate required that all the heirs at law (i.e., heirs under the state law of intestate distribution) be joined. See also the wills of Martha Rankin (Mercer Co., PA Will Book 6: 84, will dated 6 Jan 1872, proved 26 May 1873) and John H. Rankin (Mercer Co., PA Will Book 6: 31, dated 30 Nov 1870, proved August 1872).
 See 1850 federal census, Mercer Co., PA, household of William S. Rankin. It is hard to tell whether his age was 69 or 64, but we read it as 64. The census definitely says William was born in PA. But that confounding abstract of Willie G’s NY death certificate (see Note 15) says he was born in Scotland. That’s possible but not probable. The timing was all wrong for immigration from Scotland to the United States. The overwhelming majority of Presbyterian immigrants in the 18th century came to the Colonies from Ulster. LINK.
 Willie G’s mother was Martha Jane Cook. She married William Scott Rankin in Washington Co., PA. Washington Co. according to a Washington County marriage abstract. See also Will Book 4: 282, will of Robert Cook leaving his daughter Martha Rankin $250. By the time the bequest was distributed, it had become $300, either via accumulation of interest or addition from the residual estate.
 The petition to sell Robert’s land identifies six children of Mary Ann Rankin and Benjamin (or “Benoni,” as he is called in the petition and two Rankin wills) Ewing. The children were all minors in 1856 and lived in Hartstown, Crawford Co., PA. The family is listed in the 1850 census in Crawford County, all born in PA: Benjamin (or Benoni) Ewing, 42, Mary A. Ewing, 36 (born about 1814), William R., 13, James M. 11, Elizabeth 7, Martha J. 4, Robert 2, and Samuel 1.
 Willie G’s Find-a-Grave memorial correctly states that he was born in 1822 and died in 1891. It also has a “bio” provided by a Find-a-Gave poster. It is partially incorrect. It says this: “Union soldier. On December 31, 1870, he was honorably discharged at his own request, with the rank of brevet major and brevet lieutenant colonel for his faithful service during the war. He spent his last years as a clerk in the New York customhouse.” He was definitely a Union soldier, he was honorably discharged, and he worked as a clerk in the New York customhouse. His discharge rank, however, was Captain. He received the two brevet promotion in 1865, but those promotions were never made permanent by Congress. His last rank as Captain was also his first, established by his application for a pension and a census of army veterans. The bit about “honorably discharged at his own request” puts an unwarranted gloss on the facts. An officer either resigns his commission or is discharged. Willie G served 13 year as a Captain, then resigned his commission, almost certainly with the Army’s encouragement. His record was spotty, see Note 13.Further, if a Captain isn’t promoted after 13 years in rank, he is politely ushered out the door. Here is Willie G’s Find-a-Grave memorial: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/43145798/william-galloway-rankin
 James Lee died between 1845 and 1850; his birth year is uncertain. The Georgia death certificate for his son James Lee Rankin Jr. identifies his mother as Madeline Williamson and his father as James Lee Rankin. https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/60821601:2562
 1850 census, Mercer Co., PA, household of William S. Rankin, age 64 or 69?, b. PA, farmer, $9,000. With Martha Rankin 58, R. C. Rankin Esquire, 34, and Martha J. Rankin, 20. Also in the household: Madeline Rankin, 28, widow of James L. Rankin, and their son James L. Rankin Jr., 4.
 The death certificate for Martha Rankin Mehard (often shown as McHard, apparently incorrectly) can be found at https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/5164/images/41381_2421406274_0776-03038?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&usePUBJs=true&_gl=1*weqbpx*_ga*MjAxMjYwMzc3NS4xNjc0MDg4MDM2*_ga_4QT8FMEX30*MTY3NTk3NTU5NC4yNi4xLjE2NzU5NzY5ODkuNTQuMC4w&_ga=2.228206238.2089896928.1675909799-2012603775.1674088036&pId=1823217. It gives her dates of birth and death as 26 Mar 1829 and 29 Mar 1906, respectively. It also identifies her parents: William S. Rankin, born in PA, and Martha J. Cook, born in Washington Co., PA. Her memorial at Find-a-Grave is at https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/162733405/martha-jane-mehard?_gl=1*h8kj8r*_ga*MjAxMjYwMzc3NS4xNjc0MDg4MDM2*_ga_4QT8FMEX30*MTY3NTk3OTU5OS4yNy4xLjE2NzU5Nzk2MDUuNTQuMC4w*_ga_B2YGR3SSMB*M2JhODZjOWMtNDY4Mi00ZTdjLTg1YmItNDI3OWQzYjA1YjgwLjM0LjEuMTY3NTk3OTYwNi4zNC4wLjA.
 Martha Rankin Mehard’s son Charles E. was Executor of her estate. The inventory and appraisal reflected total assets in 1907-1908 of almost $26,000. See image here: https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/1496975:8802. See also 1860 census, Wilmington, Lawrence Co., PA, W. A. Mehard, 35, U.P. minister, Martha 30, Emma 4, and William 1. And see 1880 census, Wilmington, Lawrence, William Mehard 54, U. P. preacher, Martha 49, Emma 23, William R. 20, Joseph H. 18, and Charles E. 12.
3 thoughts on “Willie G. Rankin’s Story, in His Own Words (Part 3)”
Just found this. Wow , so great. It seems we have four names in common the Winn, Graves, Odom and Willis lines. I was searching the Winn lines when I ran across you. Looking forward to reading more and catching up.
The Winn family has been so confusing for me and I am still trying to figure them out and make corrections where needed. You helped so much.
Looks like you two are my husband and my age also. He was in Vietnam and we have also been together over 50 years. Beautiful letter you wrote Robin to Gary, so sweet and loving.
Thanks to all for the hard work and contributions.
Maria, thanks for all the kind words! I’ll look forward to hearing from you when you figure out your Winns. And I hope you have already figured out the Odoms, who seemed to name all the sons Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Richard, and John. I couldn’t untangle them prior to appearing in Marlboro Co., NC.
I’m betting we are distant cousins in at least one of those lines.
And Maria, please tell your husband from us “Thank you for your service, and Welcome Home.”