Monday, July 3, 2017

Where Thomas Went

While I followed his parents, many of his siblings, and their families from Rome, Maine to Cherokee, Iowa in the last few posts (starting with My Father's Ancestors; The Midwest Connection), I just assumed that Thomas Rankins (my great great great uncle, in case the odd genealogist is reading this) was still in Maine, plowing a field somewhere. I couldn't have been more wrong. 

Thomas was born in Maine in 1830. The 1850 Census found him in Rome, Maine at the age of 20. However, just two years later on June 20, 1852 he was boarding a ship in San Francisco and heading for Australia. 

We don't know the details of how he got from Maine to California, or why he went.  I might have thought that he was heading west for the California Gold Rush that started in 1849. Indeed, the wharves in San Francisco in the fall of 1849 were filled with ships coming from all over the world, carrying goods and passengers heading for the gold fields:

Three thousand passengers pushed ashore in San Francisco during one week in September 1849, most of them from ships flying foreign flags.

One of the eleven foreign vessels that sailed into San Francisco Bay on October 6, 1849 came from Sydney, Australia, where the symptoms of gold fever rivaled those in Paris. Throughout Sydney, placards and broadsides displayed bold headings, “Gold. Gold in California!” Newspapers proclaimed “the extraordinary news.”

A shopkeeper in Hobart, Tasmania offered a new invention called “California Gold Grease.” If a purchaser covered himself in this grease and rolled down a California hill, only loose gold would adhere to him.
The fever spread even more virulently when ships returned to Australia from San Francisco with reports of cargoes that had sold for prices beyond belief and of hundreds of people who, penniless a year before, now sported about with fortunes of $10,000. 

By 1850 in Sydney and other Australian harbors, nearly every ship that could float was undergoing repairs or scheduled to sail for San Francisco. Berths sold quickly, and wharves piled up with barrels of nails, crates of ready-made clothes, woolen blankets,, and bricks. (1)
With Australian ships heading for San Francisco, it stands to reason that they would be looking for passengers to carry for the return trip home. Since Australia had some gold mines of its own, why not advertise? Thomas must have seen this ad (2) in the newspaper for passage on the "fast sailing packet ship ORPHEUS" and made the decision to head off around the world. Just knowing that "an experienced surgeon will accompany the ship" would have clinched it for me!

We know that Thomas booked passage in a cabin berth on this very ship. Since "cabin" rather than "steerage" was the more expensive option for travelers, we must assume that Thomas had a bit of money laid by. They arrived in Port Jackson, New South Wales, Australia on Sept. 1, 1852. (3)

Next post: More about Thomas


1. Rush for Riches; Gold Fever and the Making of California, by J.S. Holiday. University of California Press, 1999.

2. Daily Alta California (newspaper), vol. 3, no. 153, 2 June 1852.

3. New South Wales Australia, Unassisted Immigrant Passenger Lists, 1826-1922.


  1. How the heck did you discover all of this!!!???

  2. has a wealth of indexed and transcribed documents, newspaper articles, etc. I found the passenger list there. I discovered the ad for the Orpheus and the Rush for Riches book by poking around on the internet. So many resources!


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