American Civil War veteran abandoned his first family

John F. Skyring was an early resident of Wellington County, and one of a handful of men from this area who enlisted as a soldier in the American Civil War. He was British by birth, and probably of Scandinavian ancestry. He came to North America with his father and two siblings at the age of 11, arriving in New York City in the fall of 1833.

The family eventually settled in Thorold, near Welland. As a young man John worked as a labourer. By 1860 he had married and was working and living in Fergus with his wife Susannah and two young children, Harriet and William Henry, born in the late 1850s.

Up to this point in his life, John Skyring’s career was an unremarkable one. But with the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and the newly formed Confederacy in 1861, Skyring left his family and enlisted in the American Army, signing up with the 29th Ohio Infantry.

A number of Canadians and Wellington County residents enlisted for service in the America Civil War, most for the Union side, but it was by no means a common thing to do. Some of the men who signed up had strong opinions on the issues behind the war. Others were running from something at home, and a few were simply adventure seekers.

The historical record leaves no clue as to Skyring’s reasons for joining the Union Army, or why he signed up with a unit based in Ohio. Perhaps it was simply an impulsive thing for him to do: he was virtually abandoning a wife and a couple of small children. As well, he was not young, though at 39 there were other soldiers of his age taking an active role in the war.

It appears that Skyring was either wounded or injured, probably in 1863. Early reports had him on the fatality list, and that is the information his wife back in Fergus seems to have received. At least that was the story she presented to the public, and continued to do so for the rest of her life.

John Skyring, though injured, was very much alive. As well, he had moved on in life. He seems to have forgotten that he had a wife and two children back in Fergus.

He took a new wife, named Isabella and 20 years his junior, and settled in to a life of seeming domestic bliss at a succession of addresses in Cleveland. He found employment as a salesman, a new line of work for him.

At some point in the 1870s John and Isabella Skyring, with their children Frank, Isabella, and Charlie, moved west and north to Isabella County in Michigan. Their new home was in the geographic centre of Lower Michigan, about 80 or 90 miles northeast of Grand Rapids.

Here John found employment as a bookkeeper. The elder son, Frank, worked as a labourer from the time he was 14.

Effective Oct. 22, 1891, John Skyring became the postmaster of Isabella, Michigan. He was then about 70 years of age. Isabella was a small place, so his income from the position was not large. Nevertheless, it may have been some sort of patronage appointment that would provide Skyring with a modest income when he no longer had the stamina for more onerous work.

In any case, it would seem that the postmaster’s job did not provide him with an adequate income because five months after his appointment he filed an application for a war pension, based on his service in the Civil War.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, Skyring’s first wife continued to struggle. She stayed in Fergus until sometime in the 1870s. Then she moved to the north of Wellington County. In 1875 she was renting a property in Hustonville, in Maryborough Township near Moorefield.

She was still there six years later. By then she was in her mid-50s, and lived with her daughter Harriet, who was then 23. Son William appears to be the chief breadwinner for the household. The 1881 census lists his occupation as a labourer, indicating the family lived modestly. It is quite possible that both Susannah and her daughter Harriet accepted casual employment as domestic help, a situation that was typical of the period for people in their circumstances.

William eventually undertook an apprenticeship as a stone mason. He married, relatively late in life, in 1899 when he was in his early 40s. He continued as a mason, living a quiet life in Moorefield. His sister Harriet also married eventually, to a man named Sam Fitzgerald, who was more than a decade her junior.

Hopping across the border to the land of the free to begin a new life was far from common in the 19th century, but examples do pop up in the historical record from time to time. John F. Skyring succeeded in establishing a new life and a new family after his involvement as a Union soldier. It is impossible to say whether he intended to abandon his first family when he decided to enlist.

It is also impossible to say whether there was any contact with his first wife after his enlistment in 1861. Harriet Skyring always passed herself off as a poor widow, but she may have known that her husband had embarked on a new life and there may even have been some indirect contact between the two.

Passing herself off as a widow would save her the embarrassment of relating the true course of events: it seemed much more respectable to be a wartime widow than a jilted and abandoned spouse.

John Skyring died at his adopted home in Michigan on Feb. 21, 1900. He had become a solid and patriotic American citizen. There is no evidence that he ever returned to Canada to see his old home in Fergus.

Crossing the border to begin a new life was a relatively easy thing to do in the 19th century. There were few government papers to fill out and file, and people were much more accommodating to strangers who might be running from an unpleasant domestic situation.

Some Canadians went to the United States to obtain a divorce. Others, like Skyring, simply ignored their old lives and began anew. Divorce at that time was virtually impossible in Canada, but much easier in some American jurisdictions. Still, there were costs, and potential disapproval from people who opposed divorce in principle.

On the other hand, there was always a danger that a first spouse might suddenly appear and create a fuss about a current one. That was a risk that John Skyring took, and fortunately for him, as was often the case, his first wife did not pursue him. She remained content to pass herself off as a widow, and both parties retained their names.

In many cases such as this, one or both parties changed their name informally, which  makes them all but impossible to track. And for later generations in cases like this, the true story was usually forgotten or plastered over.

Deceit and duplicity in human affairs are nothing new. There are, no doubt, other similar cases to that of the Skyrings buried in the historical records of Wellington County.


Stephen Thorning