Rankin, William

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Rankin, William

RANKIN, WILLIAM. Loyalist leader. Pennsylvania. Until the Declaration of Independence, this influential landowner, judge, member of the assembly, and colonel of militia in York, Pennsylvania, had been a Whig. He then secretly switched sides, continuing to command a regiment of militia while looking for an opportunity to serve the crown. When ordered in 1776 to capture certain Loyalists of York County and destroy their estates, he contrived instead to assist them while giving the appearance of obeying his instructions. In 1778 he started organizing the Loyalists of Lancaster and York Counties, and eventually those of adjacent regions of Maryland and Delaware as well, until he claimed that six thousand would answer his call for an uprising, almost certainly a wishful exaggeration. Rankin established an intelligence network, maintaining contact with General Henry Clinton through his brother-in-law, Andrew Fürstner, and dealing with John André through Christopher Sower. When General John Sullivan's expedition of 1779 against the Iroquois was being planned, Rankin and other Loyalist leaders tried unsuccessfully to have one of their supporters put in command of the Pennsylvania militia that was to accompany the regulars. "If this can be obtained, of which they have the fairest prospects," Sower informed Clinton, "Colonel [John] Butler will have little to fear." Sower also told Clinton that if he would direct that Butler make a raid on Carlisle, where the principal rebel supply depot was located, Rankin and his supporters could not only assist in this operation but could also arm themselves for future action.

After André's death, Rankin and his associates in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland sent an address to the king through John Graves Simcoe—who had been André's friend and in whom they apparently had more confidence than Clinton—proposing that Simcoe lead an operation into the Chesapeake Bay area to rally the local Loyalists. Simcoe forwarded this communication to Clinton on 2 November 1780, and the British commander in chief ordered Arnold and Simcoe to conduct a raid in Virginia in December 1780 that Clinton supposed might partly satisfy the hopes of Rankin's supporters. But the Pennsylvania Loyalists did not rise.

Rankin was imprisoned in March 1781 but escaped to New York City within a month. Again he urged operations to the south, and on 30 April 1781, Clinton wrote Phillips in Virginia: "I do not now send Colonel Rankin to you (as I at first proposed), but I enclose his proposals. You will see by them that he is not much of an officer. But he appears to be a plain sensible man worth attending to, and Simcoe can explain a thousand things respecting him and his association which I cannot in a letter." Rankin made one brief visit to Virginia, where Cornwallis had arrived to take command, and finding no support from Cornwallis for a campaign into Pennsylvania, he returned to New York. Three years of planning an uprising had come to nothing. When the British evacuated New York in November 1783, Rankin went to England, where he lived on a pension of £120 a year and was awarded £2,320 to cover the loss of property confiscated by Pennsylvania.

SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Butler, John; Sower, Christopher.


Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution. New York: Viking, 1941.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles