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Skedaddling to Canada and Back

Posted on January 30, 2013 at 9:20 PM


 The Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Canada.

Wikimedia Commons

 by Kathy Warnes


 Americans and Canadians have been hurrying or skedaddling across each others' borders for centuries. In fact, the word skedaddle has roots in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Linguists and ordinary people are still discussing where skedaddle first saw the light of speech and thedictionary. Some people think the word originated in Sweden or Denmark and immigrants brought the word to England. Others think it came from a Scottish dialect and still others say skedaddle comes from the Irish word sgedadol which means scattered. 


 The London Times weighed in onthe argument in November 1862 when a correspondent flatly stated that the word“skedaddle” was not a Yankee invention. The correspondent said that the word“skedaddle” was commonly used in Dumfriessseire where it means to spill any liquids in small quantities. Skedaddle also applied to coals, potatoes or apples, and other items falling from carts traveling from one place to another.“But skedaddle does not apply to bodies of men scattered,” the Times correspondent concluded.


 Despite the controversy surrounding its origins, Skedaddle moved into solid print during the American Civil War. The New York Tribune of August 10, 1861, recorded a Secessionist retreat by observing that “No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they skidaddled, a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the Seceshers make of their legs in time of danger.”


 The word skedaddle quickly crossed over into civilian use and expanded to mean“leaving in a hurry.” It just as swiftly crossed the Atlantic and appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1862, and in 1867 surfaced in Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Last Chronicle of Barset.


 Canadiansand Americans officially began their version of skedaddling during the American Revolutionary War, although people had crossed the borders for the more benign reasons like fur trading and commerce and for less peaceful reasons during the French and Indian War. During and after the American Revolutionary War, about 50,000 Loyalists or colonists wanting to stay loyal to Britain fled north to the territory that would later become the Dominion of Canada. 


 During the War of 1812, the United States invaded what were then the British Colonies in North America, (Canada) several times, and many Americans believed that Canadians would regard them as liberators. Although American armies did penetrate to York, then the capital of the Upper Canada, and burn it, they weren’t successful in capturing Canada and skedaddled back across the border. After the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, Americans and Canadians began the task of establishing a more solid and peaceful common border.


 The American Civil War Brings a Golden Age of Skedaddle


The American Civil War energized the word skedaddle on both sides of the Americanand Canadian borders. Ironically enough, while the union of the United Stateswas disintegrating, Canada was still in the process of forming its federatedunion. In 1861, Canada consisted of the United Province of Canada – parts of what are now southern Ontario and Quebec- and the separate colonies of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia and Rupert’sLand.


 The American Civil War divided the Canadians as well as the Americans. The Canadian military, Tories, and people from Nova Scotia favored the South while people from New Brunswick and most English speaking people west of Quebec favored the North. French speaking people were mostly neutral.


 After four years of witnessing and fighting in the bitter American conflict,Canadians recognized the power of a united country. Two years after the Union had won the American Civil War, Canada passed its Constitution Act in 1867 and became the Dominion of Canada.


In the meantime, during the Civil War, Americans and Canadians skedaddled back and forth across the border. In a desperate effort to enlist soldiers to fight for the North, American President Abraham Lincoln offered men money to sign up to fight and in 1862, Congress passed a draft to obtain soldiers for the Union Army and the draft law also said that a prospective soldier could hire a substitute to go to war in his place.


 Some Canadians decided to go to war to earn the generous bounty. Many Canadian males who lived in rural areas where they had scant hope of scratching out a bare living by farming. Others lived in urban centers where they could find only low paying jobs, if they could find one at all. The bounty and the $25.00 to $30.00 a month for fighting in the Civil War attracted them more than the 25 to 50 cents a day they could earn at home. Border cities like Buffalo and Detroit featured a brisk human trafficking in soldiers. Other Canadians fought because they thrilled to the adventure of war and others fought as a private crusade against slavery.


 Twenty first century historians estimate that between 33,000 and 55,000 men and women from Canada served in the Union Army and around 12,000 in the Confederate Army. Some Canadian soldiers already lived in the United States and others signed up when Union Army recruiters visited Canada


 A Few Canadian Soldiers in Michigan Regiments


 The Fifth Michigan Volunteer Infantry was organized at Fort Wayne, Detroit and it mustered into service on August 28, 1861 with a total of 900 officers and men. Canadians enlisting in the Fifth Michigan included Thomas Birchall, 32, in Company B, Jeremiah Patcheaud, 23, and Theodore Sharp  23, both of Company F. William Graham 25, and John Morgan, both of London, Canada West, were unassigned. TheFifth Infantry saw much action, including Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg and after the war ended, it arrived back at Detroit and disbanded on June 17,1865.


 Born in Canada in1844, Robert F. Dodd enlisted as a Private at Hamtramck, Michigan, in Company E, 27th Michigan Infantry. At Petersburg, he acted as an orderly and volunteered to help carry the wounded  from the ground in front of the Crater under heavy fire.  He died at Petersburg on July 30, 1864, and he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on July 27, 1896. At least 29 soldierswho had been born in Canada won the Medal of Honor.


 American Soldiers Skedaddle to Canada


Americans skedaddled across the Canadian border just asavidly. On August 11, 1862, the Toronto Globe reported that “an extraordinary number of  Americans are here to escape being drafted.” The same day the Milwaukee Sentinel noted that from fifteen to twenty refugees were taken from propellers on the way to Canada to escape the draft.


 On November 4, 1862, the Burlington, Vermont Press reported that the United States Marshal at Rouse Point was stopped from twenty to thirty men a day who were attempting to escape over the border to Canada to avoid military service. The Press noted  that “yesterday an able bodied young man by the name of Horace Edgerton from Pawlet in Vermont, was detected in an attempt to slip across the line in women’s clothes.”


 The flow of American skedaddlers continued into 1863. The Detroit Advertiser of March 15, 1863,said that the number of skedaddlers climbed daily in Windsor, “though for the honor of Michigan, we are happy to say that they are by no means all from this State.” The Advertiser said that  Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa contributed their fair share of skedaddlers to Canada. According to the Advertiser, there were over 400 of the skedaddlers in Windsor and some of the Windsor citizens estimated the number to be as high as a thousand. There were also a large number in Amherstburg, Sandwich, Chatham, and scattered through settlements along the Canadian frontier.


 The Advertiser reported that the public houses in Windsor were filled to capacity and all of the public houses were occupied by what it termed “a class of people who live on cold meals and sleep on the floor.” Many of them were seeking employment, offering to work for fifty cents a day and board. The Advertiser noted that an intelligent Canadian had told them that not less than 4,000 or 5,000 of therunaways had crossed over the Detroit River to Canada during the past two months.The Canadian said, “As a general thing they are orderly, and the Windsor people have no cause to complain, so long as their guests are in funds and pay their board bills promptly. ”The story concluded  that the skedaddlers were cowards and that the Canadians heartily despised them as well as their fellow Americans.


 Historian Marcus Lee Hansen presented the story a little more gently when he wrote that many of the deserters were experienced  farmhands and were welcomed at first because of a labor shortage in many parts of Canada. Canadians appreciated their skill and willingness to work for lower than average pay. By 1864, the number of skedaddlers had increased enough –some estimate as high as 15,000-to upset Canadians who felt they were competing for Canadian jobs.


 The Hartford Post of July 27, 1863, reinforced Marcus Lee Hansen’s point when it said in a July 27, 1863 story that the number of Canadians arriving in Hartford had increased and the increase happened in other cities, including Boston where over two hundred had arrived the day before. According to the Post, “there has been so much skedaddling from the States into Canada that it has greatly reduced the demand for and price of labor, so that the Canadians themselves find it to their advantage to come here and offer themselves for substitutes, realizing the large premiums offered.


 After the Civil War ended, the American government offered an amnesty proclamation in May1865, assuring draft dodgers that they wouldn’t be punished if they returned home.  Marcus Hansen wrote that people who had moved to Canada before the Civil War moved back to the United States. Many Canadian skedaddlers followed the pattern by moving back to Canada.


 Skedaddling into the Twentieth Century

 During World War I, many Canadian soldiers who didn’t want to enlist to fight overseas skedaddled into the United States for refuge- at least until 1917 when America entered the conflict. World War II featured a close cooperation of Canadian and American forces and government sanctioned skedaddling.


 Americans who resisted the Vietnam War during the 1960s and early 1970s skedaddled to Canada  in large numbers. The liberal governments at the time focused on maintaining Canada’s sovereignty and autonomy from the United States, so they granted the refugees asylum and most Canadians welcomed them.

In his book Northern Passage:  American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, sociologist John Hagan estimates that about 50,000 Americans skedaddled north  to avoid fighting in a war they considered unjust.  John Hagan himself protested the war and escaped to Canada to avoid fighting in it.


 Americans and Canadians have left a long tradition and trail of border skedaddling, and descendants on both sides of the border!



Hagan,John. Northern Passage:  American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada.Association for Canadian Studies in the United States, 2005.

Hansen,Marcus Lee. The Mingling of the Canadianand American Peoples. Vol 1: Historical. The Relations of Canada and the UnitedStates, Ayer, 1940.

Vinet, Mark. Canada and the American Civil War.Wadem, 2001.

Winks,Robin W. The Civil War Years: Canada andthe United States, McGill, Queens University, 1999.


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