SKILLERN, WILLIAM ASBURRY
SKILLERN, WILLIAM ASBURRY (1833–1921). William Asburry (or Asbury) Skillern, credited as one of the driving forces behind the Populist movement in Nacogdoches County, state legislator, farmer, and Confederate war veteran, was born on December 27, 1833, in Haywood County, Tennessee. He was the eldest son of Isaac C. and Lucinda (White) Skillern. William’s father, a prosperous blacksmith of Irish descent, moved the family shortly following his eldest son’s birth to land near the Nacogdoches settlement, then part of the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas. Upon the outbreak of hostilities between the Mexican government and Texian settlers, Isaac Skillern enlisted with the Texas armed forces and participated in the Texas Revolution that culminated with the region’s independence and creation of the Republic of Texas in 1836.
Throughout the Republic of Texas years, the family remained in the Nacogdoches area, where, aside from a brief period working as a store clerk, William took up the occupation of farming that would remain his primary profession for the remainder of his life. He married Paralee Mary White of Tennessee on June 17, 1856, and the couple had twelve children: Laura, Isaac, twins Edward and Emma, Mary, Martha, Lucy, Ida Lee, Julia Irene, John, William, and Lillie.
As the prospect of the Civil War loomed, Skillern “believed that the Southern states should contend for their rights within the Union and was opposed to secession.” Despite his Unionist leanings, however, he reluctantly agreed to become the third Skillern in as many generations to take up arms for a major conflict (his paternal grandfather was a Revolutionary War veteran, with his maternal grandfather joining the Cherokee campaign of Andrew Jackson). In the spring of 1862 William Skillern enlisted in Company H, Seventeenth Texas Dismounted Cavalry, for the Confederate Army. Skillern saw action with the cavalry regiment until 1863, when he was sent on a mission to Brownsville to secure ammunition; he then transferred to Company A of the Eleventh Texas Infantry in the spring of 1864 and remained with this company until the cessation of hostilities in 1865. Skillern, reputedly declining offers for field commissions, served at the rank of private throughout the war but was regarded as “a good and loyal soldier” by fellow servicemen testifying on his behalf for his successful Confederate pension application in 1912.
Skillern resumed farming with his growing family in the La Nana and Decoy communities of Nacogdoches County following the war and became active in the Methodist Church, Masonic lodge activities, and eventually politics. Adopting the Jacksonian slogan, “equal rights to all and special privileges to none,” Skillern attended county, district, and state conventions of the Democratic Party, but after joining the Nacogdoches County Farmers’ Alliance he grew increasingly disillusioned with the party. When Alliance members created the People’s Party in the early 1890s, Skillern became a “zealous Populist” and was a regular fixture at every state conclave as well as being seated as a delegate at the national conventions in St. Louis and Omaha in 1892.
Under the leadership of Skillern and popular veteran Sheriff Andrew J. Spradley (who likewise had switched over from the Democratic Party), Populist candidates swept the Nacogdoches County races in the 1892 general elections—with Skillern himself outpolling Democrat Samuel B. Cooper within the county but losing the district-wide race for a congressional seat. Skillern continued to represent the People’s Party at virtually every convention at every level during this period of Populist dominance in Nacogdoches County and finally broke through as a candidate in his own right, this time for the state legislature, with a victory in the race for the Thirty-second District of the Texas House of Representatives, representing Nacogdoches County, in 1896.
Skillern was sworn in as one of seven Populist representatives when the Twenty-fifth Texas Legislature convened on January 12, 1897. Speaker L. Travis Dashiell appointed the Populist standard-bearer of East Texas to the committees overseeing roads, bridges and ferries; towns and city corporations; and agricultural affairs. Skillern neither authored nor introduced any legislation in the regular session but was outspoken during a busy special (or “called”) session that saw the passage of nine bills from the House floor. Skillern’s activity as noted in the House Journal reflected a legislator voting in line with his principles (often in tandem with fellow Populist Uriah J. Morton of Erath County), speaking out in favor of fixed salaries for county and state officials; advocating worker safety regulations in mines, factories, and railroad yards; and decrying the “railroading” of an appropriations bill as “contrary to the liberal spirit of sound and true democracy.”
The Twenty-fifth Legislature marked Skillern’s last term in public office. The Populist fervor he had helped create in his home district had begun to subside, and he narrowly lost his 1898 reelection bid to Democrat J. B. Stripling. Following the defeat, Nacogdoches County remained one of the last strongholds of Populism with People’s candidate Benjamin A. Calhoun reclaiming his old House seat in the 1900 election—but Skillern’s attitude by then had begun to echo the discontent that was splintering the party. In invectives published in Nacogdoches’s Plaindealer and Daily Sentinel newspapers, Skillern accused the local People’s Party of election fraud and bilking him out of personal funds in his previous runs for office, declaring “I shall ever contend that I have been robbed through false and deceptive pledges made me by the party.”
Despite his obvious dissatisfaction with how he believed he had been treated within the party, Skillern remained a Populist—at least in name—almost until the movement breathed its last gasp. The last known written account of his political participation appeared in the minutes of the People’s Party State Convention held in Fort Worth in 1904, naming Skillern as a presidential elector for the party in that year’s national contest. Retiring to his farm in Chireno for his twilight years, the Populist pioneer “of a generous and liberty loving temperament” who had lived as a citizen of Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the state of Texas, died on November 13, 1921, at age eighty-seven. Skillern is interred alongside numerous members of his family at Christian Cemetery in Decoy, Nacogdoches County.
Gary B. Borders, A Hanging in Nacogdoches: Murder, Race, Politics, and Polemics in Texas’s Oldest Town, 1870–1916 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006). Legislative Reference Library of Texas: William Skillern (http://www.lrl.state.tx.us/legeLeaders/members/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=3827&searchparams=chamber=~city=~countyID=0~RcountyID=~district=~first=~gender=~last=skillern~leaderNote=~leg=~party=~roleDesc=~Committee=), accessed December 11, 2013. E. H. Loughery, Texas State Government (Austin: McLeod and Jackson, 1897).
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