John Aaron Rawlins, a Man for His Time

Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, Chief of Staff,
at City Point, VA, with wife and child at door of their quarters

Before the American Revolution, three brothers named Rawlins came to settle in the colonies from England. At Sun Breaks, http//,  the entry for August 28, 2011 begins a three-part story about one of them, ancestor James Mason Rawlins, who was willing to give up his family and perhaps his life for what he thought was right.

James Mason Rawlins was born around 1737. Soon after, in 1742, another Rawlins boy named James entered the world. He was James Rawlins III, born to Sarah and James Rawlins II. James Rawlins III became the great-grandfather of John Aaron Rawlins, the subject of this story. By 1826, both John’s family and descendants of James Mason Rawlins were living in Illinois.

Despite a crash course in beginning genealogy, I haven’t yet discovered how or if John Aaron Rawlins is related to our branch of the Rawlins family. But since one purpose in telling these tales is to show how our family (and all American families) help make up the larger history of these United States, here is the story of Major General John Aaron Rawlins. 

    John Aaron Rawlins was born in Galena, Illinois on February 13, 1831, one of eight siblings in a family of very modest means. He helped to support the family by hauling the charcoal made by his father to nearby towns and selling it. When his father left to join the 1849 California gold rush, John looked after his mother and siblings. He loved his father deeply but hated his bad habits. Because of his father’s drinking, John vowed never to touch strong drink. One writer thinks it was this aversion, as much as anything else, that became the basis for his place in history.

    John was an intelligent, darkly handsome young man with an unusual gift for oratory. His early education was spotty, but at the age of twenty he entered secondary school with the goal of becoming an attorney. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1855 and practiced law in his hometown. By 1858 he’d become interested in politics. Though a staunch Democrat, according to writer Lee Bonnet, he made speeches on behalf of fellow Illinois resident, Republican Abraham Lincoln, in the 1860 presidential campaign.¹

    Then the Civil War broke out. After the first Battle of Bull Run as the fighting moved closer to home, Rawlins organized a band of civilians into the 45th Illinois Volunteers, inspiring the new soldiers with his rousing speeches.

    The town of Galena was intensely loyal to the Northern cause. More generals called Galena home than any other Union city. The town probably contributed more privates, as well. One night local Republicans staged a big political meeting. Rawlins was advised that they would not welcome him as a Democrat, but he insisted he was going, and if asked to speak, he would not remain silent. Wherever he went, he was usually asked to speak, and it happened again that night.

    One of those attending the meeting was a modest, rather inarticulate colonel named Ulysses S. Grant. He had been a clerk in his father’s leather-goods store and knew Rawlins slightly because Rawlins had done legal work for the company.

    When the audience called “Rawlins! Rawlins!” John responded. He made what one author called “one of the great speeches of the Civil War period: a speech which rallied everyone, regardless of party, regardless of previous views about slavery and about sectionalism, regardless of anything and everything. He appealed to the God of battles to aid the great cause of the North; he appealed to everyone to give his utmost.”²

    Grant was among those who wanted to give his utmost. He asked Rawlins to join him as assistant in his military ventures, and as Grant advanced up the ranks to general, so did Rawlins. Eventually Grant made him his chief of staff.
    One of John Aaron Rawlins’ outstanding characteristics was his loyalty. He’d been fiercely faithful to his wife, Emily, with whom he had three children, and remained at her side, comforting her until her death in August 1861 of tuberculosis, a major killer of that day. Though in deep sorrow, he joined Grant to become one of his most trusted confidantes, deeply involved in every decision and every battle. He organized Grant’s military camp and also worked to protect Grant from the demon of strong drink.
    According to historian Elmer Gortz, Rawlins did have an interesting flaw or ability, depending upon one’s perspective. When the occasion warranted, he could erupt into the most passionate, evocative, eloquent surge of swearing imaginable. One of the people who witnessed his colorful language was a northern girl named Emma Hurlbut.

     Emma was working in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as a governess during the siege of the city. Rawlins was assigned to protect her from the unwanted attentions of soldiers and officers. Not only did he do his job well, he also courted and married her. Emma was able to curb his profanity.

    John Rawlins had become a Major General by the time the war ended in 1865. He returned to his law practice in Galena. By then, he’d also contracted tuberculosis.

    In the summer of 1867, General Grant urged his chief of staff to go out West, hoping that the climate might help him recover. Accompanied by an aide and several friends, Rawlins traveled to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There he met General Grenville M. Dodge and a party of civil engineers who were surveying a railroad route westward from Omaha.
    As the company rode west on their horses, approaching the hills near the present city of Rawlins, Wyoming, the ailing general expressed a desire for a drink of good, cold water. Scouts set out to explore. They discovered a fine spring of water near the base of the hills and brought some back to the sick man. General Rawlins declared he’d never tasted a drink more refreshing. “If anything is ever named after me, I hope it will be a spring of water,” he said. General Dodge heard what he said and immediately named it “Rawlins Spring.”

    The town that grew up near the spring, a division point of the railroad, was at first called “Rawlins Spring.” Later, the name was shortened to “Rawlins.”

    Unfortunately, the expedition did not improve Rawlins’ health. He returned to the East, and a short time later Ulysses S. Grant became President Grant. The president summoned his old friend Rawlins to Washington, D.C., and in March 1869, made him secretary of war.

    John Aaron Rawlins died five months later at the age of thirty eight, on September 6, 1869. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

¹ (Lee Bonnet)

² from Three Galena Generals, by Elmer Gortz, 1955 (Speech to Illinois Historical Society)

Making a Memorable Reunion

Mary and Connie find their husbands in an early reunion photo

Did your family, like ours, have a reunion this summer? It’s not too soon to begin planning your next one—no matter when you want to schedule it.

About sixteen years ago, when my dad and his youngest sister Mary were the only siblings still alive out of the original seven, we began a tradition of getting together every other August. Our reunions not only allow family members of all ages to connect with each other in a deeper way, but we also feel more connected to previous generations.

Here are some of the fun ideas we’ve used to help draw us closer. Feel free to adapt them for your next family get-together.

~Genealogy Chart
 Cousin Jackie’s an expert genealogist who has unearthed fascinating stories about the family. She contributed a beautiful genealogy chart (above) showing ancestors from Thomas and Ethel Rawlins, the parents of the seven siblings mentioned above, all the way back to the 1700s. The chart is featured at every reunion.

~Family Trees
Some of us see each other only at reunions. We use Sister Patty’s family “Tree” to help us place people in the proper families and learn their names. Photos of Thomas and Ethel are at the base of the tree. Twigs on separate branches for each of their seven children feature pictures of the siblings’ children’s and grandchildren.

~Reunion Albums
Cousin Bill, a photographer, made a 2-by-3-foot blow-up of a photo from the first Rawlins  reunion. All the cousins, in their sixties and seventies now, were crowded together on the grass in a laughing group. Today’s children like to pick out their grandparents in the black-and-white photo.

(All three of the above ideas can be seen in the above photo.)

Today everyone has a digital camera, so we take lots of pictures. We keep an album chronicling each reunion. It’s fun to leaf through the pages, watching the changes as the children grow up and revisiting memories of loved ones no longer with us.

At one reunion, someone brought several plain t-shirts and some fine-point permanent markers. We signed our names on each shirt, as decorative or simple as we wished. Later, names were drawn to choose the shirts’ lucky recipients. Another time, everyone wore matching t-shirts screen printed with “Rawlins Reunion” across a silhouette of a tree.

~Video recordings
Video recordings of previous reunions are fun to watch and become increasingly precious as the years pass. One of the most enjoyable featured Aunt Mary, one of the seven siblings, sharing memories of her North Dakota childhood and the early years of the family in Washington.

Everyone, young to old, has fun at the Rawlins Reunion

Different volunteers at each reunion supervise games for kids and grownups. Home-grown fun is best…like this wrap-the-mummy contest, using toilet paper and cooperative volunteers like Delaney.

~Picture Match
This year we had a contest to see who could match the most graduation photos with the present-day versions of the same people. Most kids were able to pick out their own parents and grandparents, and everyone had fun seeing how we’ve changed.

Listening to William’s story

~Tell Me a Story
When our great-great-great grandfather Thomas Main Redfield, a blacksmith, was alive, he wrote long poems telling stories of his family and his travels. William Shaw, his many-times-removed great grandson, turned one of those poems about two children being rescued from a runaway horse and carriage into a dramatic reading. His sister Clarissa Austin expanded another family story about Grandmother Ethel and a prairie fire into a narrative that had us all wondering what would happen next.

Young family members were given a list of questions to use in interviewing older members. Then each interviewer introduced his or her partner and shared the fun and surprising facts they’d uncovered.


Eugene and Vicki look over the timeline

In a timeline game, Cousin Vickie handed out strips of paper: yellow for Grandfather Thomas’s side of the family, green for Grandmother Ethel’s, and blue for their descendants. Names and dates were printed on each strip. All those with a strip of paper gathered at the front where we could all see them, and at a signal, they hurried to arrange themselves by color and date. Then each person put his or her family member(s) in the proper place on a vertical timeline. By this time names were becoming familiar and the timeline helped us see the continuity of the generations.


Everyone knows “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

We brought one of our most enjoyable family reunions to a close with an old-fashioned sing-along. We’d planned to use old-time favorites such as “Bicycle Built for Two” and “Cruisin’ Down the River on a Sunday Afternoon. We found that not even the oldsters knew all the words, so next time we’ll make song booklets so everybody can join in. Meanwhile, we improvised with a mixture of children’s tunes and campfire songs.

Community Newspaper

A famous wrong headline

When I was growing up, a weekly high point for our family was finding the Granite Falls Press in our mailbox. We also received the Everett Daily Herald. In pre-television days, the larger daily paper kept us up to date with events in the wider world beyond our valley. But the local Granite Falls paper chronicled life as it happened to us.
A few weeks ago, I wondered if any of those long-ago newspapers were still in existence. The logical place to look would be the Granite Falls Historical Museum, a jewel of an institution built by volunteers. Due to limited staffing, it’s presently open only on Sundays but it’s well worth setting aside an afternoon for a visit. We walked in and asked volunteer and former schoolmate, Ted Lefebre, if by chance the museum had a collection of local newspapers. To my delight, he led us to a wooden crate full of well-preserved papers. He’d just readied them for shipment to SmallTownPapers.Inc., a company that specializes in digitizing community newspapers. They’d already scanned part of the collection, which is now available online at the museum for researchers. These were to be processed next.  As we leafed through them, memories of seldom-remembered friends and neighbors flooded back.

When the weekly paper arrived at my childhood home in the community of Robe, we turned first to the “Robe Valley News.” Correspondents in several different neighborhoods kept readers advised of the comings and goings of people the correspondent was best acquainted with. That meant that we seldom read news about some people; too much about others. Still, we enjoyed skimming the neighborhood columns for glimpses into the lives of those we knew.

Today at, site visitors can search for keywords or names and in seconds find all the mentions of events or people in the collection. When I typed in our surname, Rawlins, I was delighted to find bits and pieces of our family history spanning several decades, starting with my father’s 1939 For Sale ad in a version of the local paper then called The Snohomish County Forum. He offered 1000 27-inch straight split shakes and a nearly new one-and-one-half volt battery radio. That was before Daddy was a logger. He’d come from the North Dakota farm only three years earlier. Now he was splitting shakes for sale, making a living any way he could.

The war years in the early 1940s changed people’s lives. Browsing through those papers brought it alive. Like towns across the country, Granite Falls had to find ways to fill in for essential personnel, such as teachers and business people who were called off to war. Everyone participated in the “war effort.” The community held scrap drives to recycle metal, paper, and even cloth for defense purposes. Shortages of gasoline and rubber tires affected even the school sports programs. Teams were limited to intramural contests because districts cut out extra bus trips. A two-mile walk to school was considered “the best possible form of exercise” as busses were reserved for farther-flung students. Granite Falls couldn’t find a principal for the elementary school in 1942, so a woman teacher was assigned to do that work until at long last, a qualified principal was found. Being an informed, intelligent citizen was touted as a duty and a privilege.

Over the years, family events mentioned in the paper included birthday celebrations, visiting relatives, and the Easter in 1948 when the correspondent wrote that the Delbert Rawlins car recently rolled over with the family in it. “No one was hurt,” she wrote, “but the car was.” Later on, the paper mentioned my brothers’ overseas stints with the army between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and then the births of my parents’ first grandchildren.

Announcements in the paper brought back memories of occasional Friday nights at the movies with the whole family. Granite Falls had no movie theater but for a small charge, we could sit in the bleachers at the high-school gymnasium to take in the weekly movies. We’d probably call them “B” movies today. The plots were sometimes corny, the sound scratchy, and of course, the pictures were in black and white. A cartoon and a newsreel accompanied the main feature.

Sometimes the newspaper’s language seemed flowery, the ideas propounded naive. But reading those old papers does not leave the reader depressed and discouraged as some of today’s newspapers can. We need more of the optimistic, we-can-do-it-together spirit expressed back then in today’s world.

And I appreciate past writers’ commitments to reporting the news without slant. This doesn’t mean opinion wasn’t injected into some of the stories, but it wasn’t cleverly disguised. If someone wanted to sway our thinking, they were forthright about it.

You can see for yourself by going to the Granite Falls museum Web site at Click on the line at the top of the page about searching old newspapers. That takes you to an article by webmaster Mary Deaton that explains how to do a search. Click on the link she gives to go directly to the archives.

Fred Cruger, director of things technological at the museum, explains, “In the future, we may make that link part of a ‘members only’ page (which would result in users having to pay our annual dues of $10 per year to have online access).” Meanwhile, it’s free and will continue to be free to those who physically come to the museum to do research.


1940–the Rawlins family and the little house on its cedar slab foundations,  just before David was born.


   During the Great Depression, my father built a little house in the Robe Valley for his family. His total cash outlay? Less than $50 for the house and $100 for two-and-a- half acres of land.

    He salvaged timber from an abandoned lumber mill for the stringers and other timbers used in the house. Since he had no cement blocks, he cut slabs from a cedar log to make the foundation for the 18 by 24 foot house. He placed four slabs on each side and one in the center, then nailed cedar uprights to those. He laid stringers (timbers) across the uprights and a shiplap floor across the stringers. He built the floor several feet off the ground so the house would stay dry. The walls were shiplap covered with tarpaper, then with shakes that Dad split himself. He used salvaged windows and doors.

    That snug little house eventually became home to other families. Thirty-three years later, youngest brother David bought the house and remodeled it. One of the first things he did was to replace the cedar slabs with a cement block foundation. He was surprised that the wood had lasted as long as it had.

    About the same time Dad built our house, a neighbor just up the road built a house on a wooden foundation. I don’t know if he used cedar or not, but a creek ran through the swamp next to the house, and that plus our rainy climate quickly rotted his foundation. All during our growing-up years, the neighbors often heard him comment on how he needed to fix that foundation. But he never did, and the house sagged and rocked on its unsteady underpinnings while his wife and six children suffered frequent illness due to the damp conditions.

    A good, solid foundation is the first essential for any quality building project. The St. Vincent islanders in the Caribbean understand this. My husband Hank and some friends spent two weeks on the island helping a group who wanted to build a church. The Caribbeans had very little of this world’s goods, but they understood the basic principles of building. The Americans brought tools and cement. The islanders had already laid out the shape of their church and collected piles of rock for the foundation.

    Americans and islanders worked together digging trenches along the lines marked on the ground. They passed buckets of water hand-to-hand from the water source to the cement mixer, where men mixed water and cement. Then they passed the buckets of mortar hand-to-hand to the person down in the trench who fit stones and mortar together until the foundation rose above ground level, after which they skillfully leveled the top with more mortar.

    In this painstaking manner, the foundation took two weeks to build. Hank didn’t get to see the church rise atop it, but he knew, that though it was simple, it would be sturdy and last through the storms and torrential downpours that often sweep across the island.

    Jesus once told a story about two builders. One was wise and built his house on a rock foundation. But the foolish builder set his on sand. When the storms came, they washed the sand from beneath the foolish man’s house, and it fell with a crash. The wise man’s house withstood the storms and sheltered those within it.

    Jesus’ story is just as appropriate now as it was two thousand years ago. We still need strong moral and spiritual foundations. All around us, we see lives wrecked by bad decisions and do-it-your-own-way building methods. God gave us His Book of wisdom and the gift of common sense to establish a basis for living. We can be thankful indeed for parents or other mentors who pass on values gleaned from God’s Word and the wisdom of history.

    Does your foundation need a little work? It’s never too late to rebuild.

A Special Toy

For our 10th wedding anniversary, Hank and I spent a week wandering to some of our favorite places. We included a visit to the museum at Washougal, Washington state, on the Columbia River. Hank is working on a legacy of family history stories for his children, and that little museum contains files of information on the early families of Washougal  (where he grew up) as well as items donated by those families. We found one of Hank’s childhood toys on display there. It brought back good memories to him. Here’s his story:

                                                          As a young boy, I loved to follow my Grandpa Huckins and his son, my Uncle Joe, around. I liked to imagine myself doing whatever they were doing.

This McCormick-Deering tractor with a Russell 
boiler powered the sawmill.

Grandpa and Uncle Joe supplemented the income from their small herd of milk cows by sawing lumber from logs on the home place. Originally, a large steam tractor powered the Huckins’ sawmill. It turned a line shaft which powered two four-foot circular saws and also caused the log carriage to move forward and backward, slicing logs into rough lumber.

In about 1945 they replaced the tractor with a steam boiler and built a brick furnace beneath it to burn slabs of wood from the mill. The fire boiled the water and produced steam to power a stationary single-cylinder steam engine. As a ten-year-old boy, I was fascinated as Grandpa and Uncle Joe heated heavy steel rods in the forge and used an anvil to shape them into hooks. The hooks suspended the huge boiler from the roof timbers of the sawmill.

The Huckins’ sawmill, with my dad in his Sunday clothes standing on a log in the log pond. 

Eager to help build the furnace, I put too much creek water in the mortar mix and Uncle Joe had to add more sand and cement to correct my mistake. For awhile, Uncle Joe’s smiling countenance clouded over, but as work progressed he returned to his usual jovial self. Imagine the smile that lit my face when Uncle Joe showed me a miniature steam engine like the one in the sawmill. It had been his toy when he was my age, and now he was giving it to me. The boiler held a pint of water. Three little burner cups fit in a drawer beneath it. He soaked cotton balls with wood alcohol and put them in the cups, then set the alcohol ablaze with a match. As it burned, it heated the water in the boiler. With the steam valve open, the steam made a whistling sound. With the valve closed, the steam drove a single cylinder which turned a large wheel, just like Grandpa and Uncle Joe’s big steam engine.

What fun! A side benefit of owning my own steam engine was a lesson in economics. Wood alcohol could only be obtained at a local drugstore at the whopping big price (in 1945) of ninety cents a pint plus three cents tax. That left barely enough of a dollar bill to buy a nickel candy bar. Since money was in short supply my steam engine seldom got fired up. Perhaps that was why it was still in working condition years later when my mother passed it on to the Washougal museum.

The toy steam engine