Recently my cousin’s son, while cleaning out the family attic, discovered a paper sack of clothes: two women’s “waists” and a baby dress. The sack was labeled “Mary Nettie Finney,” but who was Mary Nettie? As is often the case, we knew our grandfather’s side of the family much better than our grandmother’s side, the Finney side. I went to my grandmother’s careful notebook and found the following page. Mary Nettie, called “May,” my cousin’s mother’s name as well, was our grandmother Beulah’s younger sister, who married Chester Orr as a young woman and died in childbirth. The child was a second baby and a girl. The first was a boy who survived. Chester Orr remarried presumably.
The oldest Finney my branch knows about comes from the work of Donna Marie Finney Selnes, wife of Marvin Selnes, who did a good deal of reseach in 1979. She is now in a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s. Therefore she is not aware that there is a television series called “Finney” that is along the same lines as "The Sopranos.” I don’t know whether she would consider that some kind of betrayal or laugh at the incongruity of a such a family having the same name as our highly respectable ancestors, but I suspect the latter.
Luther Humphrey Finney (our grandmother Beulah’s grandfather) was born in 1819 in Vermont and died in Algansee, Branch County, Michigan in 1884. He was evidently riding on a load of hay going into the barn and either hit his head hard on the top of the door or was knocked to the ground. He had been married twice, first to Elizabeth A. Blanchard, who was six years younger than himself. With her he had two children, Samuel Wixom (b. 1843) and Mary Ann (b.1846). In 1852 he remarried Matilda Palmer, in Butler, Branch County, Michigan. It was a Justice of the Peace wedding. Her parents were from New York, but we know no names. She died in 1885 in Michigan, surviving her husband by a year. They had had a son, named Herbert (“Bertie”), born about 1864 and dying sometime before 1880 as a child.
Luther may have had an older brother named “Romanta” who sold him some land for $258 in 1841. Romanta’s parents were born in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Luther may have moved to Michigan on his marriage to Elizabeth Blanchard or he may have met her there.
In 1863 Luther’s daughter, Mary Alice (17), married James A. Ransom (24) in the middle of the Civil War (April 1861 to April 1865). Her brother, Samuel, was the official witness. In the next year he joined the Union Army but was mustered out about fourteen months later because of ill health. By that time his new half-brother, Herbert (“Bertie”), would have been about a year old. There is no way to tell whether the birth of the baby had any relationship to Mary Alice’s marriage or Samuel’s enlistment, but it would be an interesting situation for reflection in a novel, since this son died as a child.
The second daughter, Florence (“Flora”) married Jason Wagar. We have no date, circumstances or subsequent events.
Samuel’s enlistment description says he had “dark hair, black eyes, light complexion and a height of five foot, five inches.” He was expected to serve in the First Regiment, Michigan Light Artillery, but in June 1864 he was in the hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and in December was hospitalized in Nashville with “chronic conjunctivitis.” It may have been something similar to what swept the Plains Indian tribes as trachoma. In May, 1865, still struggling with his eyes, he was mustered out in Quincy, Michigan.
Mary A. Stevens (aged 18 and born in Ohio but living in Quincy) married Samuel (24) in August, 1967, at her family home. Samuel’s sister, Mary Alice Finney had died in 1866. Since Samuel and Mary Alice had been close, one wonders how much his sister’s death inclined him to marry “Mary A.”
In 1886 the family moved to South Dakota. By this time there were four children: Orra (17 yrs), Beulah (14 1/2), Mary Nettie (13 yrs) and Bert (9 yrs). Bert was Donna Selnes’ grandfather, Beulah was my grandmother, Mary Nettie’s clothes turned up in my cousin’s attic. During the first year in South Dakota, the family lived in a sod house while they built a simple wooden house. I think Beulah missed Michigan, a wooded place. She told about walking with her mother along a narrow forest path and meeting a group of Indian men who stood aside to let them pass. As she passed them with her head high, she heard one of the men say (she claimed), “Squaw heap brave.” I think this was apochryphal, but the men probably were approving or at least benign.
The “Dakota Boom” ended in 1887 and one of the prairie-clearing blizzards hit in 1888. In 1890 Mary Nettie (17) married Chester Orr at the family home in Burkmere. In 1893 she gave birth to Bertie Raymond Orr and they soon moved to Neepawa, Manitoba. where she died in September, 1897, presumably in childbirth. No one in her birth family had seen her after she left. They don’t sound very approving of Chester.
In 1872, Orra Luther (23) married Mary Lewis Nelson, a widow with a five year old daughter, Julia Nelson. Orra and Mary’s first child was Orra Leslie Finney (b. 1893). Beulah’s notes indicate another boy, Leo, (b. 1885) and then a pair of twins, but nothing about them. They moved to the state of Washington, Orra joined the Army and was sent to Philippines where the story thins out. He returned to South Dakota in 1913, emigrated to Manitoba with Sam and Beulah Strachan but a year later returned to Faulkton S.D. where he died in 1921. There are hints of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and alcoholism.
Bert went on farming in Faulk County, South Dakota, marrying Tillie Erickson in 1904. Bert died in Wisconsin in 1936 after moving there with Tillie two years earlier to be near a daughter. His obituary says, “Mr. Finney was a quiet, unassuming man. His business associates speak of his honest and integrity and his desire to deal fairly with all. His family speak of his kindly nature and his loving devotion to home and family. He met difficulties uncomplainingly. He had unwavering faith in the future of the county which had been his home for a number of years.”
I met “Aunt Tillie” as a very old woman and was much impressed by her liveliness and spirit. “Gee, kid!” she said, “It’s great to see you all!” She gave birth to six children and lost only the last one, Archie Ray, as a baby in 1922 but survived herself until 1969.
I’m beginning to read analysis that compares the consequences of the Homestead Act to the Indian version, the Dawes Act, which also divvied up federal territory into private ownership. I’m very interested in this research as it develops.