Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Thomas Rankins: From Maine to California, and From California to Australia

Thomas Rankins is my great great granduncle (see the connection at the end of the post below).

In an earlier post about Thomas Rankins (Where Thomas Went) I had discovered that he had sailed from California to Australia in 1852, but I wondered how he had gotten from his birthplace in Maine to California. Why California? How long was he there?

That was what I was wondering back in 2017. Now, years later, I have come across the explanation. In the publication,  American Fever, Australian Gold, the authors devoted several pages to Thomas.

In 1850, the U.S. Federal Census listed Thomas with his family--parents Thomas (age 48) and Joanna (age 49), our Thomas (age 20) and John (age 18). All the men were listed as farmers. Also in the household were Sarah (16), Ada (14), Joseph (8), and Lydia (6).

“When Thomas heard the news of the remarkable gold finds in California, he… decided it was time to leave his home and family and make a fortune of his own. He was not alone in his thinking, for many young men in neighboring counties packed their bags, and bade farewell to their loved ones. The authors have found numerous men from the state of Maine sailed in the 1850’s seeking wealth on which to build a comfortable living. Thomas left the eastern seaboard of the United States and sailed south to Panama. Crossing to the western seaboard of the USA, he boarded the SS Panama on October 17th, 1851 and headed for California. On board also were Joshua Cushman Bigelow, from Norridgewock, Somerset County, and Benjamin Kendall Snow, from Skowhegan, Somerset County;* this trio would remain in company with each other.

Two days into the voyage, the ship encountered heavy westward gales with torrents of rain. She arrived in Acapulco, Mexico, eight days after leaving Panama. Sickness was prevalent on board, with seven deaths from fever. Jesse Sawyer, a steerage passenger, on October 27th jumped overboard. He left a wife and five children in Hollowell, Maine.** No doubt the passengers were relieved when they reached San Francisco on November 4th.

The boys from Maine spent less than a year prospecting in California, but had they acquired the amount of wealth that they had sought? Ben Snow, in a letter to his sister, Mary, dated June 14th, 1852,*** mentioned that he, with others had mined at Shaw’s Flat, while some had been engaged in the mines at Columbia and Tanke Hills. Most of the boys had done quite well during the past few months, but things had since quietened due to lack of water…. Ben continued his jottings to inform his sister that he along with seven men from Maine would leave California the following day to “another land of gold on the Eastern Hemisphere”—Australia. A.R. Brainerd, Joshua Bigelow, his brother Charles, Heman Spaulding, Thomas Rankins and Frank (Ben Franklyn) Allen of Norridgewock would board the ship ‘Orpheus” of Boston. “

The Orpheus arrived in Port Jackson, Sydney, Australia Sept. 1, 1852, after a voyage of two and a half months. Thomas' Australian adventure was just beginning. 


*Source as given by the authors of American Fever, Australian Gold: Maritime Heritage Project, retrieved December 16th, 2006 from 

**Source as given by the above authors: Maritime Heritage Project, retrieved December 16th, 2006 from 

***Source as given by the above authors: Letter written by Benjamin Snow, in collection of Thomas J. Bassett Family Papers, held by Depauw University, Indiana, USA.

The above quoted paragraphs come from:

American Fever, Australian Gold; American and Canadian Involvement in Australia's Gold Rush, by H. Denise McMahon and Christine G. Wild. 

CD-ROM. Published in Middle Park, Queensland, Australia, by H.D. McMahon and C.G. Wild, 2008. 

Copies of this CD may be obtained from the authors at


How Thomas and I are related:

  • Thomas Rankins
     1830-1892 (brother of my great great grandmother, Eleanor)
    2nd great-granduncle
  • Joseph P RANKINS Sr. 1801-1882 (my great great great grandfather)
    Father of Thomas Rankins
  • Eleanor Ruth RANKINS 1822-1914 (my great great grandmother)
    Daughter of Joseph P RANKINS Sr.
  • Oscar J ELLIS 1852-1907 (my great grandfather)
    Son of Eleanor Ruth RANKINS
  • Eva Josephine ELLIS 1888-1943 (my grandmother)
    Daughter of Oscar J ELLIS
  • Daniel Lawrence HARRIS 1907-1972 (my father)
    Son of Eva Josephine ELLIS
  • Clair Marie Harris
    I am the daughter of Daniel Lawrence HARRIS