Virgil Young Ralston was the only one of the three children of Dr. Joseph N. and his first wife Nancy Grant Ralston to live beyond infancy. He was born in Vanceburg, Lewis County, KY, in 1828 and moved with his father to Quincy in 1832. He grew up hand-in-hand with his father’s medical practice and this small Illinois frontier town on the bluffs overlooking the mighty Mississippi. At 18, Virgil went away to medical school at Illinois College 70 miles west in Jacksonville, IL, with the idea of following in his father’s footsteps. It only took Virgil a year to discover medicine was not his calling in life. It could be the brief existence of the medical school was also a factor in his decision to return to Quincy where he studied law under the tutelage of a close family friend, Orville Browning.
After practicing law for a time, the stories of the riches found in the California goldfields diverted his attention away from Quincy. In the spring of 1852, Virgil, with several Quincy area families, led by Virgil’s long-time friend, Enoch W. Conyers, headed overland to the West Coast. From Conyers’ diary kept on the trip:
July 4, Sunday – The day was ushered in with the booming of small arms, which was the best that we could do under the circumstances… Although the noise was not so great as that made by cannon, yet it answered the purpose. Just before the sun made its appearance above the eastern horizon, we raised our forty-foot flagstaff with “Old Glory” nailed fast to the top, which waved as majestically and graceful as though it had been made of the best Japan silk… The question came up, to whom should the honor be given to deliver the oration? This honor fell to the lot of Virgil Y. Ralston… an old schoolmate of your humble servant. Unfortunately, he, with several other young men of our company, went this morning to the Devil’s Gate [located in present-day Wyoming about 60 miles southwest of Casper on the California/Oregon Trail], where they obtained a little too much “firewater”, and by the time they reached the camp were considerably under its influence. But this was the glorious old Fourth, therefore the oration we must have… several of the boys gathered around Virgil, lifting him bodily upon the end of one of our long tables, where they steadied him until he became sufficiently braced up, and then let go of him… He spoke for over half an hour, and delivered… an excellent oration.
Virgil reunited with his uncle, Judge James H. Ralston, living in Sacramento, then sought his riches in Diamond Springs, 45 miles east in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Though Virgil was only in California a little over two years, it was here his interest in politics was kindled. He was put on the Whig Party ticket for California state senator but left the state before the general election.
Back in Quincy in the summer of 1855, Virgil purchased one-half interest in the Quincy Whig and with his partner, John T. Morton, served as the paper’s co-editor. A year later, Virgil and 11 other prominent Illinois newspapermen opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, met in Decatur, IL. Their unpublicized goal was to foster the formation of a new political party in the state. Mr. A. Lincoln, Esq. of Springfield was the only outsider invited to attend. The group recommended a statewide convention be held in Bloomington on May 29th. Tradition and subsequent headlines anointed this meeting as the first Republican Party convention held in the state. Among a larger number, three notable Adams Co. residents attended the convention,Dr. J. N. Ralston, O. H. Browning, and V. Y. Ralston.
A newspaper advertisement appeared in the Quincy Daily Whig, December of 1853, announcing the formation of the Quincy English and German Seminary. Rev. J. H. Moore, recently of Paris, IL, was to be the Principal and Miss Charlotte Taylor of the same city “will take charge of the department of Music and the French Language.” In August of 1856, Virgil Y. Ralston and Charlotte Lottie Taylor were married in her hometown, Cambridge, NY. The couple had two children, Joseph W. and Charles Taylor. Joseph died in 1861 and tragically, Lottie died five weeks after the birth of Charles in 1859. She and Joseph were buried in Cambridge. Nearly thirty years later Virgil’s grandson, a child of Charles and his wife, was adopted by Virgil’s cousin, Jackson Jack Ralston a noted Washington D. C. attorney, the son of V. Y.’s uncle, Judge J. H. Ralston.
Virgil, heartbroken by the death of his wife, left the newspaper business for a time and worked as Commissioner of Deeds in Quincy. He was lured back to politics and newspapers by the Macomb[IL] Journal serving as editor and chief operating officer until the shelling of Ft. Sumter in Charleston harbor, April 1861. He answered President Lincoln’s call to arms two weeks later.
V. Y. enlisted in the 16th IL Infantry regiment at Macomb and was elected captain of Company A. From a letter written to the Macomb Journal a year later:
Our election for captain… came off on Monday last, V. Y. Ralston, Esq., was again chosen captain with only two dissenting voices. It is not known whether he will accept or not, but certain it is, that he is well liked in that capacity, and it is the earnest desire of the men comprising the company that he should be commissioned such…
Because of a tedious relationship with regimental command, Virgil did not accept the new vote of confidence from his men. Instead, he reenlisted in the 9th Iowa Cavalry regiment and became its quartermaster. Less than two years later, in April of 1864, at 35, Virgil Young Ralston quietly died from disease at a hospital in St. Louis. He was buried in Quincy’s Woodland Cemetery; yet another promising life cut too short by war.
Catalogue of Phi Alpha Society, Illinois College, Jacksonville, IL, 1890, p. 22
33rd Annual Reunion of the Oregon Pioneer Association, July, 1905, Portland, OR, from the diary of E. W. Conyers written in 1852 about the overland journey from Quincy, IL to Oregon. p. 457
Sacramento [CA] Daily Union, 7/31/1854
Charles A. Church, History of the Republican Party in Illinois…, Rockford, IL, 1912, p. 31.
The State Register and Year Book of Facts, San Francisco, 1859, p. 97.
Personal photo album of Sarah Burns Birdie Ralston in the possession of Martin Hansen, Nashville, TN
National Archives and Records Administration, Civil War Minor Pension Application, Virgil Y. Ralston aka Jesse J. Grant, Washington D. C., 1866.