When Union soldier John Fenton was laid to rest in the summer of 1862, one of hundreds of thousands of soldiers to succumb to infectious disease during the Civil War, he left four orphaned children: Sarah Alice, eighteen; Harriet, seventeen; John Albert, fourteen; and George W., ten.
The Fenton family had emigrated from England to America circa 1848-49, and had settled first in Ohio. That is where John’s wife, Ann (Bowskill) Fenton, died at some point between 1852-59. John and his children then moved to an area known as Buckeye Prairie near Pana, Christian County, Illinois, and in 1861, at the age of forty-six, John volunteered for Company M of the 3rd Illinois U.S. Cavalry. His children were thus left without a parent to look after them—first temporarily, and then permanently.
What became of the children? There is some indication that they may have resided with the family of James and Eliza Tylar during John’s absence at war; one daughter was a domestic in their household as of 1860, and at the time of John’s death in 1862, a hospital steward wrote a letter expressing John’s desire that his children give his best wishes “to Mr. Tylar and others that I have forgotten their names.” It seems perhaps more likely, however, that the children may have been hired out to different households when John enlisted, and it is unknown how their living situations may have changed when word was received of his death.
Sarah Alice Fenton, who was known as Sallie, married in 1863 to Frederick Augustus Stockbridge, a widowed farmer fifteen years her senior. Together they had six children: Clara Violet, Nellie Jane, Elva Cecelia, Chester Foote, Emily Grace, and Frederick Fenton Stockbridge. Sarah’s eldest daughter, Clara, became the wife of Baptist minister Reverend Henry Stills Black, and with him traveled west. While in northern Idaho’s Silver Valley, Clara became acquainted with a photographer who was in need of an assistant, and she recommended her younger sister, Nellie, for the job. Nellie ultimately spent the next six decades as a photographer in Wallace, Idaho, with her work—now held by the University of Idaho, and also on display at the Barnard-Stockbridge Museum—providing a rich historical record of the area. Sarah did not settle in Idaho herself, nor did she follow her daughter Elva to Oklahoma, her daughter Emily to Oregon, or her son Chester to eastern Washington; she remained in Pana for most of her adult life. Eventually, however, some years after she was widowed, she moved to western Washington state to live with her youngest son, Frederick, and she died in Tacoma in 1927 at the age of eighty-three.
Harriet Fenton, or Hattie, as she was called, never married. She lived out her life in Pana, where she spent some time supporting herself as a domestic servant and as a dressmaker before moving in with her sister’s family. By 1887, she was known to be suffering from breast cancer, and in 1893, at the age of forty-eight, she passed away as a result of what the local newspaper called “petrifying cancer.” Newspapers far and wide printed this fact, stating briefly and without further detail, “A large portion of her body was completely petrified.”
John Albert Fenton followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Union army in 1864 at the age of sixteen—although he claimed to be eighteen. He served in Company H of the 61st Illinois Infantry, survived the war, and in 1874, married Ella Elvira Cogan in Parke County, Indiana. They had four children, two of whom survived to adulthood: Harry Cogan and Anna A. Fenton. Harry, notably, graduated from Wabash College and became a reporter, working for the Indianapolis News as well as the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. He then served as secretary to Indiana Governor Warren T. McCray and became further involved in Indiana politics, eventually serving on the state’s alcoholic beverages commission. Anna married in and lived out her life in Indiana. As for John himself, he worked for many years as a teamster and then as a foreman at a Crawfordsville, Indiana brick factory before his death in 1919 at the age of seventy-one.
George W. Fenton, the youngest of the four, left Illinois in 1871 at the age of nineteen, having likely spent most of his teenage years as a farm laborer. In the company of two other ambitious young men, he made his way to Saline County, Kansas, where he settled in 1872. The following year, he married sixteen-year-old Sarah Ellen Hall, and they had three daughters: Minnie Belle, Alpha, and Anna Leota Fenton. All three went on to marry and have children of their own, ultimately settling in Minnesota, Colorado, and Iowa, respectively. George, however, faced an untimely end when he was accidentally shot and killed by his brother-in-law in 1880 at the age of twenty-eight.
Did the eleven far-flung grandchildren of John Fenton ever meet? It seems doubtful. The cousins were likely aware of each other, at least at one point; when John’s surviving children pursued a military pension in 1887, documentation was required regarding the names and ages of his children and, as George was deceased, the names and ages of George’s children as well. Within the pension file is a letter that Sarah’s teenage daughter Elva penned in response to a request for information, which noted, “Uncle George was born in Monroe Falls Ohio and died at in Saline Co. Kansas Oct. 10 1880. We have no record of his children’s age and the letter which had them in is lost. As near as we can remember Minnie will be 12 next June Alpha 10 next March and Leota 8 next Feb.” In the years to come, however, as the families of John’s children and grandchildren became even more geographically dispersed, further contact may well have ceased.
Copyright © 2022 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.Continue reading