Rufus W. Skeels was born on August 9, 1836, in Bedford, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the son of Theron B. (1804-1887) and Samantha (King, b. 1807).
New York natives Theron and Samantha were married, presumably in New York but eventually settled in Ohio by 1833 where Theron settled on government land, and in 1836 built a farm in Cuyahoga County where he lived the remainder of his life working as a farmer and blacksmith. (Theron and his wife Samantah were both still living in Bedford, Ohio, in 1880.) By 1850 Rufus was attending school with three of his siblings and living with his family in Bedford, Cuyahoga County, Ohio. One source reported that Rufus was educated in the district schools and in Twinsburgh Seminary in Ohio where he worked for his board, and at the age of 14 left home to find work.
At the age of 16 Rufus “joined an exploring party, which traveled through the Territories of Iowa and Minnesota.” According to the Portrait and Biographical Album of Muskegon and Ottawa Counties, “He accompanied Jack Hungerford in a search for mill sites and timer-land in the interests of an Eastern land and lumber company. During the winter of 1852-53 he remained in Minnesota [and possibly Iowa], and spent his time in hunting and trapping. With his companions, he was at one time attacked by a band of Indians and was obliged to flee for his life, losing all the valuable furs and skins he had collected. At the time of the attack the hunters were gathered about the camp fire, and, being taken completely by surprise, were forced to fight at fearful odds. Two of the company were seriously wounded, yet all fought with desperate courage and reached in safety the nearest settlement of whites. About 30 Indians fell in the conflict.”
Rufus came to Muskegon County, Michigan, in 1854, and then moved to Oceana County where he built a mill just across the Muskegon County line. He subsequently bought some 320 acres of government land and farmed and cut timber and was virtually alone in the wilderness. “For seven years in his little log cabin he kept ‘bachelor's hall’, devoting his time principally to hunting. To the east his nearest neighbor lived where the village of Fremont now stands, and to the southwest he had no neighbor nearer than Muskegon, 22 miles away.”
Rufus married his first wife New York native Louisa Ball (b. 1841) in 1859, and they had at least two children: Charles F. (b. 1871) and Rufus T or F. (b. 1873). They were divorced in 1872 or 1873.
By 1860 Rufus W. was a wealthy farmer living in Dalton, Muskegon County or Fremont, Newaygo County. Indeed, it was reported some years later that Rufus “met with prosperity in his farming undertakings. As settlers have flocked to the County, improvements have been introduced, and the value of the land has increased proportionately.”
Rufus was 24 years old and probably living in Muskegon County when he enlisted as Fifth Corporal in Company H on May 6, 1861. (Company H, formerly the “Muskegon Rangers,” was made up largely of men from the vicinity of Muskegon and Newaygo counties.) According to W. W. Dickinson of Company K, during the action at Fair Oaks, Virginia, on May 31, 1862, Skeels “was among the sharpshooters, and finding he could not retreat across the slashings without exposing himself to instant death, secreted himself in a brush heap. Here he was discovered by two of the enemy. When they came within his reach he shot one of them, while the other in turn shot at him, but seeing the muzzle at the same time he saved his life, with the loss of a finger. Not having any bayonet on his own gun he was yet at the mercy of his foe. But holding the rebel piece firmly in his hands he cried out, ‘Shoot him boys, I’ve got him’.” Rufus was wounded during this action.
Rufus was reported as a Sergeant in the pioneers from July of 1862 through September, and was transferred as Sergeant Major to the noncommissioned staff on October 26, 1862, at Edward’s Ferry, Maryland. Skeels was promoted to Second Lieutenant of Company K on February 22, 1863, at Camp Pitcher, Virginia, commissioned February 21, replacing Lieutenant Miles Adams, and was probably home on furlough in April of 1863, and again in late December of 1863.
He was promoted to First Lieutenant and transferred to Company D as of November 1, 1863, replacing Lieutenant Byron Hess, and was commanding Company D from December of 1863 through February of 1864, and was reported on detached service (probably recruiting) in Grand Rapids from December 23, 1863, through January of 1864. Rufus apparently returned to duty sometime in early spring and was commanding Company D in March and April of 1864.
While the Third and Fifth Michigan regiments were engaged in the early phases of the battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864, and during a fixed bayonet charge by the two regiments to drive the rebels from their rifle pits, according to George Waldron, then adjutant of the Fifth Michigan infantry, Rufus, who was commanding Company D “captured and brought off a rebel stand of colors.”
He was mustered out on June 20, 1864 in Detroit. Rufus apparently suffered several wounds during the war including the partial loss of his right index finger from gunshot, a shoulder wound to the left side and a shell wound to the hip.
After the war Rufus returned to Michigan. By 1870 he was working as a farmer (he owned $2600 worth of real estate) and living with his wife in Thomas, Greenwood Township, Oceana County; nearby lived Joseph Stevens who had also served in the Third Michigan during the war (and who may very well have named one of his sons after Rufus). He bought an additional 1,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula, and he became one of western Michigan's more accomplished agriculturalists.
Rufus married his second wife Michigan native Francis “Frankie” A. Curtis (b. 1860) and they divorced in 1889.
He was living in Oceana County in 1872, possibly in Nashville, Barry County in 1874, but by 1880 had settled in Holton where he was working as a farmer and living with Frances and his two sons. He lived most of his postwar life in Holton, farming for many years on some 400 acres in section three. Indeed, he was living in Holton in 1882 and in 1883 when he was drawing $10.50 per month for a wounded finger and shoulder (pension no. 138,291, dated March of 1879), from 1887-90 1894, and from 1906-1907.
Besides farming in Michigan he also had mining interests in Colorado, was a prominent local Republican, a member of the Old Third Michigan Infantry Association and Grand Army of the Republic Dahlgren post no. 149 in Holton, and was an avid hunter and reportedly traveled all over the world to hunt game.
“An expert shot,” wrote one observer, “Mr. Skeels is a noted sportsman, and owns probably one of the finest hunting equipments of any hunter in Michigan. He sent to England a few years ago and had made to order a double-barreled shot-gun, carrying 35 buck-shot from 13 to 15 rods, all within a three-foot circle. This magnificent gun has brought down some of the finest specimens of game ever bagged by any hunter, and is among the most valued possessions of the owner.”
Rufus died of “congestion of the brain” and appendicitis at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1907. According to the Muskegon Chronicle he “was in good health until a week ago. He was working on a farm west of Hesperia [Oceana County], assisting in clearing it. At 11 o'clock he remarked to one of his sons, who was working with him, that he had never felt better in his life. At 12 o'clock he was stricken with appendicitis. In great pain he drove the 18 miles to his home and medical attendance was summoned. He improved until last Friday, when he was attacked by convulsions and became unconscious. He rallied late Friday afternoon, but again lapsed into unconsciousness, from which he did not recover. Dr. B. F. Black was in charge of the case, calling in consultation Drs. G. W. Nafe of Fremont and Dr. W. Garber of Muskegon; a trained nurse was also present.” He was buried in Clark cemetery in Newaygo County.
In 1911 his widow, one Frankie A. Skeels, applied for a pension (no. 962290), but the certificate was never granted.