Research Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, Phineas Banning & the SS Ada Hancock


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016
(Public Domain)

Phineas Banning and Captain Winfield Scott Hancock formed a friendship while Captain Hancock was serving in California. Banning was so dedicated to his friend that he named his son born in 1865 Hancock. But that was not the only honor Banning gave his friend.

Phineas Banning (1830–1885) was born in Wilmington, Delaware and by 1851 he had re-located to San Pedro, California. The twenty-one year old was a hard worker and in one of his jobs as a stage coach driver he gained experience with transportation. He had plans to to change the Los Angeles landscape - and he did.

On April 4, 1859 Captain Winfield Scott Hancock and his family left New York City and headed to California. Crossing the Isthmus of Panama in one-hundred degree heat the family arrived in San Francisco on May 23rd. His orders were to report to Los Angeles for duty so they boarded the SS Senator and left that afternoon.

Phineas Banning had purchased land that he named “Wilmington” in 1858 for the purpose to build a harbor for the city of Los Angeles or as it was known then as New San Pedro. Banning was able to develop the land that he named “Bannings Landing” in the Wilmington Lagoon. The water was only a foot or two deep at low tide so by purchasing steamers that could maneuver through shallow waters he connected the land to sea by ferrying products and people to larger ships docked off the coast. One ship named “The Senator” had carried the Hancock family.

Banning Landing was almost five miles from where the larger ships awaited their cargo but under his leadership was a most important port facility. J. Ross Browne, a former forty-niner turned travel writer described Banning and his business ventures:

“An extensive city, located at the head of a slough, in a pleasant neighborhood of sandbars and marshes … The streets are broad and beautifully paved with small sloughs, ditches, bridges, lumber, dry-goods boxes, and the carcasses of dead cattle. Ox bones and the skulls of defunct cows, the legs and jawbones of horses, dogs, sheep, swine, and coyotes, are the chief ornaments of a public character; and what the city lacks in the elevation of its site it makes up in the elevation of its waterlines, many of them being higher than the surrounding objects. The city fathers are all centered in Banning, who is mayor, councilman, constable, and watchman, all in one. He is the great progenitor of Wilmington. Touch Wilmington, and you touch Banning." {4}

Banning Landing
(Public Domain)

It was here the two met and became friends. Their friendship was so strong that Hancock joined as a trustee in the Pioneer Oil Company with Banning as president. It was a company that brought oil drilling in the area of present-day Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. Unfortunately for Hancock the portion of the business he was associated with was unprofitable. When word of the war was delivered by Pony Express to San Francisco on April 24, 1861, Hancock soon headed back east. He and Bannon however organized a pro-Union parade through Los Angeles on May 25.

At the beginning of the civil war Banning and Benjamin Wilson gave sixty acres to the federal government to build Drum Barracks to protect the harbor from Confederate ships and attacks. He kept his port busy transferring freight and passengers. In 1861 he acquired a 60 foot/60 ton steamer that was named the “Milton Willis”. It was built in San Pedro as a tug boat in 1859. To honor his friendship with Winfield Scott Hancock he named his steamer the “Ada Hancock” the captain’s daughter born February 24, 1857.​

Phineas Banning was working on April 27, 1863 when he boarded the boat Ada Hancock joined with his family and father-in-law. They were being ferried to the waiting SS Senator that would take the 55 passengers and freight on-board as they journey to San Francisco. In his book “Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913”, Harris Newmark writes of the Ada Hancock disaster:

“the vessel careened, admitting cold water to the engine-room and exploding the boiler with such force that the boat was demolished to the water's edge; fragments being found on an island even half to three-quarters of a mile away.” {3}

The Los Angeles reported on May 2, 1863

“The boat had proceeded about half a mile, and was attempting to round a sharp bend in the creek, when a squall of wind arose suddenly and struck her, causing her to careen so much that her port guard war under water. When in the act of righting, the explosion took place. The reason assigned by the engineer for the explosion is, that while careened, the tubes on the upper side became heated, and as the water rushed back a gas was generated which burst the boiler of the boat." {1}

The report closely followed accounts that was giving at the inquest.

At the inquest Allen C. Clark testified

“I was on board the steamer Milton Willis (aka Ada Hancock) on last evening, at the time of the explosion; have known the boiler since 8th of December, from which time I have had charge of it; saw it first in August last; am an engineer by profession; considered the boiler very good; made of the best quality of material, well braced; it was perfectly safe with anything less than one hundred pounds of steam; the safety valve was set to blow off at ninety pounds; the most steam I have ever had on was ninety-one pounds; deemed it safe at that; had on at the time of the explosion seventy-two pounds; had no indication whatever than an explosion would take place; had tried my water ten minutes before; we have a glass gauge on one side to indicate the height of the water in the boiler, and cocks on the other side; it was a horizontal boiler; Coffey & Risden, of San Francisco, were the manufacturers; a few moments before the explosion took place, looked out of my window and saw that a squall had struck the steamer and careened her to the port side until the port guard was under water; in the moment of her righting the explosion took place; when she careened, left my post at the engine and went toward the boiler; it was about fifteen to twenty feet from my post at the engine to the boiler; my intention in going to the boiler was to shift the coals so as to right her, had not got more than half way when the explosion took place; the next thing I knew I found myself in what was the ladies cabin; the steamer had gone down in eight feet of water.” {1}

J. Jones reported

“In my opinion , the explosion was caused by the extraordinary careening of the boat, then the squall which struck her a few moments before, causing the weather tubes to become heated, and when the boat righted the water, coming in contact with the heated tubes created a gas, which caused the explosion” {1}

The verdict determined that the accident of the Milton Willis (aka Ada Hancock) was an accident “entirely attributable of the overpowering force of the elements” and found “no culpability” to the officers or owners of the boat.

John Griffin was a prominent surgeon on the Los Angeles area before the civil war. According an article by H.D. Barrows titled; “Memorial Sketch of Dr. John S. Griffin”, Barrows states Dr. Griffin earned the status as "second pioneer educated physician to arrive in Los Angeles”. {6} Dr. John Griffin had a sister Eliza. In 1843 she became the second wife of future General Albert Sidney Johnston and on April 8, 1845 they gave birth to a son and named him after his father. In 1860 the Johnston family was living in San Francisco while he was serving in the Army’s Pacific Department. He left his family, joined with the Confederate Army and was killed on April 6, 1862 at Shiloh. There are some that report Albert Sidney Johnston, Jr., who had recently turned eighteen years old, was headed to the battlefields of the Civil War, but we may never know why he was on the Ada Hancock however we can read what the Los Angeles Star reported on May 2, 1863:

"and that noble boy, the young, ardent, gallant Albert Sidney Johnston, the darling hope and stay of a widowed mother, where is she to turn for consolation in all this wide, wide world"? {3}

Eliza remained in California for the rest of her life.


Life went on for Phineas Banning the owner of the Ada Hancock. After building Drum Barracks soon to become Camp Drum named for Colonel Richard Coulter Drum) he received the contract to transport goods from Camp Drum to Fort Yuma. California Governor, Frederick Low commissioned Banning and Brigadier General of the First Brigade. The unit was never called into service during the war, Banning was known as the “General” for the rest of his life. He passed away on March 8, 1885 at fifty-four. The Los Angeles Herald noted in his obituary on March 19, 1885:

“He saw in the distance the coming greatness of Southern California. And worked wisely to hasten the day of its coronation…He was the embodiment of good humor, a felicitous public speaker and tireless in his labors for promoting public welfare…Like the rest of us he had his faults. He was apt at time to be peremptory and domineering, but his heart was always in the right place.”

In 1880, Phineas Banning, a lifelong Republican, endorsed his friend Winfield Scott Hancock the Democratic nominee for President. Hancock died a within a year of his friend on February 9, 1886. ​

fullsizeoutput_1b22.jpegA steamer
(similar to the Ada Hancock)
Library of Congress (Public Domain)

Next - The Hollywood Version
Is "There's gold in them thar waters”?

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2. "Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier's Life", by David M. Jordan
3. “Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913”, by Harris Newmark (Link)
6. “Memorial Sketch of Dr. John S. Griffin” (Link)