Staying Informed

I have been an avid NPR listener since 1983.

Freedom of the press is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. This pillar of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is also linked to freedom of speech, expression, and association. We are free to say and think what we want, to listen to and wear what we want, to join or unjoin the associations of our choice, and to choose our own personal and business relationships. But with this freedom comes responsibility. The other side of freedom of expression is critical thinking. As students of history, politics, and economics, it is important that we stay informed of what is going on in our nation and our world. Ignorance is not bliss in the social sciences. Information is power.

America is a country obsessed with the news. Early observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and others noticed the proliferation of periodicals as well as societies, clubs, and associations. By 1800 there were 200 newspapers in the United States. By 1860 there were 3,000. Giant steam presses and the telegraph revolutionized the journalism industry. 500 artists and correspondents were sent out to cover the Civil War (1861-1865). They sent innumerable dispatches home for printing and sketches for engraving. By the end of the war, photography had joined the ranks of the burgeoning media frenzy.

Radio emerged from the First World War, and by the end of the Roaring Twenties everybody had one. Television followed in the 1950s. The original three networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC were joined by PBS in 1967 with the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act by President Lyndon Johnson. This legislation also created the framework for National Public Radio, which began broadcasting in 1971. Local affiliates gradually grew over the following decades, many of them on college campuses. Today there are more than a thousand NPR stations serving over 30 million listeners.

I became one of them in the fall of 1983 as a graduate student at UMass/Boston. I began listening to WUMB Radio 91.9 FM from my apartment in Wollaston near Quincy. The mixture of folk music, entertaining shows, and comprehensive news grabbed my attention immediately. I especially enjoyed listening to All Things Considered with Robert Siegel, Susan Stamberg, and Noah Adams. The news was commercial free and focused on in-depth analysis of complex political, social, and economic issues in a way I had never heard before.

I was an avid television news follower during my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, especially during the year my uncle was flying a helicopter in the Vietnam War. But radio news had not come under my radar. Radio was for music and television was for news. But then I went off to college in 1979 and no longer had a TV. The campus radio station at UC Santa Cruz, KZSC 88.1 FM, broadcast mostly reggae and other world music at the time, but I don’t remember listening to NPR during my time there. KZSC carried the Pacifica Evening News, as did KPFA 94.1 when I lived in Berkeley a few years later. Pacifica programming had a left-leaning slant that counterbalanced the more conservative orientations of popular AM talk radio.

I appreciated NPR’s more measured approach to political discourse and the detail into which it delved to uncover the causes, course, and consequences of current events. Prominent Democrats and Republicans as well as independent and third party candidates were interviewed during election season and in debates on contentious issues. Small business and large corporations were covered. World news was given as much attention as local and national. Thematic series were developed. Special music and other cultural programs appeared and grew. Profiles of artists, writers, and independent filmmakers attracted a growing audience.

The cable television revolution of the 1980s and beyond offered a myriad of new choices for the discerning viewer. Fox News began to offer a more conservative perspective, as did MSNBC for more liberal viewers. CNN and other Turner programs grew exponentially, covering stories that the mainstream networks had ignored for decades. Television coverage became increasingly complex in both technology and analysis. The growth of the internet in the 1990s and smartphone technology in the new millennium led to further transformations in the media. Online journals, blogs, and podcasts competed with traditional newsprint.

I took advantage of all these new outlets as they each made their appearance. My personal favorite remained NPR, however, and I found my local station wherever I lived. In the Bay Area I listened to KPFA in Berkeley and KQED Public Media. In Honolulu in 1989-1990 I listened to Hawai’i Public Radio. During my year in Kansas I followed Radio Kansas out of Hutchinson Community College. I listened to Capital Public Radio when I lived in Sacramento and Valley Public Radio when I was in Bakersfield. In Orange County I had KPCC and KCRW on the radio during my commute. When I moved to San Diego last year, I immediately found KPBS.

I paid extra attention during Presidential election years, beginning in Boston with the Reagan-Mondale contest in the fall of 1984. During my decade in church work and my twenty years as a classroom teacher, I remained informed and encouraged my students to do the same. News programs helped me produce better essays and papers as a student, better seminars and lectures as a teacher, a comprehensive genealogy scrapbook project, and a more informed choice at the ballot.

NPR entertained me on long drives and allowed me to consider important issues in greater depth and detail. Morning Edition and All Things Considered occupied my daily commute for years. Weekend Edition helped me wind down after a hectic week at work. Jazz, classical, folk, and world music programs formed the backdrop of my day to day ops and social gatherings. Special educational and cultural programs like The Thistle and Shamrock and The Thomas Jefferson Hour entertained and inspired on a regular basis.

Now you can listen to news podcasts on your iPhone or Android device. Opinion pieces, blogs, and online forums number in the millions. Search engines allow for comprehensive browsing. Sound bytes are an effective marketing tool for potential new listeners. YouTube channels give anyone the opportunity to contribute to public discourse and the dissemination of information. Attracting new online followers can lead to better programming. Many entrepreneurial startups add new media options to the menu every day.

The exponential growth in news coverage over the last fifty years has offered the contemporary reader and listener an endless smorgasbord of choice. This is a good thing in light of the First Amendment. It can also be daunting and perplexing. The best approach as a media consumer is the same as that of a serious student of history and other social sciences. Consider as many perspectives as possible while forming your own opinion. The more you listen, the more you will learn. Thomas Jefferson identified an “enlightened citizenry” as the foundation of a strong democratic society. Staying informed is an important part of achieving and maintaining an enlightened mind.

I portrayed a 19th century newsman during my participation in living history programs across the United States from 1999 to 2008. To read more, visit my James Allen Davis website here. Copyright (c) 2014 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

September 15-October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month

Latinos are the nation’s largest minority, with some estimates counting Americans of Spanish or Portuguese heritage as 20-25% of the United States population. President Lyndon Johnson created Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 from a bill sponsored by Mexican American Democratic Representative Edward Roybal (1916-2005) of Los Angeles. September 15-22 was chosen as the commemorative week because it included the independence days of Mexico, Chile, and several Central American nations. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the observance to the entire month period between September 15 and October 15.

“Hispanic” is a cultural rather than a racial designation, and pertains to anyone who has Spanish ancestry and/or was raised in a Spanish-speaking household. This, of course, includes people of all conceivable racial backgrounds. Latino/a (or the gender neutral Latinx) broadens this ethnic base to include Portuguese, Brazilian, and other non-Hispanic Latin American heritage. Chicano/a is a term coined during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to refer specifically to Mexican Americans, many of whom are descended from families already living in the Southwest when those territories were annexed by the United States in 1848.

The incredible diversity within Hispanic/Latino culture provides innumerable learning opportunities for your students, especially in history and other social science classes. There is much to celebrate, from music, art, dance, and cuisine to the annual festivals of Cinco de Mayo (commemorating the May 5, 1862 Battle of Puebla) and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta can be the focus of special lesson plans. So can elected federal, state, and local officials of Hispanic heritage; there are 38 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as of January 2019.

Landmark court decisions such as Mendez v. Westminster (1947) and Hernandez v. Texas (1954) call attention to historic civil rights struggles within the Hispanic community. I included these and others in my regular Civil Rights Movement unit in U.S. History when I taught grade 11. At the middle school level, I assigned different Latin American countries to student groups and had them construct “travel brochures” highlighting demographic, political, and economic profiles as well as the connection of those nations to cultural communities within the United States.

One of the keys to Hispanic identity is an understanding of the Spanish language. While teaching in Spanish is not a required part of social science instruction (see my blog entry on “Bilingual Education”), understanding proper pronunciation of Spanish words and names can help make some lecture topics more meaningful for your students. Individual cultures are shaped in part by their particular idiomatic expressions, including members of those communities who no longer speak the language. The three largest Hispanic communities in the United States, namely Mexican American, Cuban American, and Puerto Rican, each have their own dialects of Spanish as well as distinctive food, family traditions, and historical narratives.

A sensitivity to these varieties of Hispanic culture and identity is important in constructing lesson plans and dealing with your students and their families. There are Hispanic and Latino families, for example, of exclusively European, African, Asian, or Native American ancestry, as well as many that are a mixture of one or more of the above. Some speak Spanish and others do not. Many speak “Spanglish,” a colloquial mixture of English and Spanish that has its own slang and idiomatic cadences. Mexican culture is very different from Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Venezuelan, or Chilean cultures. The Spanish-speaking cultures of the Caribbean have their own unique characteristics.

Historical topics to highlight in National Hispanic Heritage Month can include the United Farm Workers union, the building of the Panama Canal, debates over bilingual ballots and education, legal battles over immigration and desegregation, and the contribution of Hispanic veterans in the nation’s wars. The Chicano Movement that swept across the nation’s schools and university campuses in the 1960s, particularly in southern California, helped to define a generation and call attention to long-neglected political and economic inequities. The struggle for equality in the Latina community can be a fascinating study within the broader modern feminist movement. Latinx LGBT issues are a significant part of civil rights discussions today.

Your goal as a history teacher is to paint the national story with the broadest strokes and in the largest variety of colors as you can muster. In government and economics, focusing on diversity in campaigning and business will help your students better understand the complexities of today’s society. The story of Hispanic America is a microcosm of the American story as a whole. The mixture of native culture and successive waves of immigrants from all across the world is at the heart of the Hispanic story. Celebrate this story in fun ways this month. Your students will appreciate your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.



Pilgrimage to the Auld Sod

Visiting the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary during my week in Ireland. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

I knew I was Irish from an early age. The story was that my surname had been O’Feeney in the old country, then Feeney when the English started giving us trouble, and then Finney once we reached America. When I delved into genealogical research in the early 1990s, I discovered that some of this was true. The parish records I obtained from Tulsk and Elphin in County Roscommon listed my great-great-great-grandfather as John Feeney in 1840 and one of his sons as James Feeney. By the time James and his son George were listed in La Crosse County, Wisconsin in 1870, the surname was Finney.

More research revealed a sadder story. While tenants, the Finneys (Feeneys) were Catholic “middling farmers” who had enough money of their own to get out of Ireland before a terrible blight ruined the potato crop and led to catastrophic disease and starvation. My other Irish side, the Lynches of County Clare, did not. Records show them arriving in Canada in 1849 on a “coffin ship,” a filthy ex-slaver put to new use carrying hordes of desperate Irish famine victims as ballast. Many of them died of cholera or typhus on the hideous journey, including my great-great-great-grandmother and one of her sons. But the other children survived, including 13-year-old Mary Ann Lynch, who settled with her father and remaining siblings in Chicago and married James Finney in 1856.

This dramatic personal story became the core of a decade-long obsession with Irish history and culture. I devoured every story and song I could find throughout the 1990s. This was a decade in which things Celtic were very popular. Tartan was back in. Irish pubs proliferated. Movies like Titanic, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, and Braveheart drew huge audiences, as did the stage show Riverdance. Irish bands U2, the Corrs, the Pogues, and the Cranberries dominated the charts. French Breton harpist Alan Stivell, already popular in Europe for mixing traditional Celtic music with progressive rock (I first became a fan in Boston in 1984), enjoyed a revival on both sides of the Atlantic with a series of new albums.

Since early 1992, I had been listening weekly to Fiona Ritchie’s The Thistle and Shamrock on my local NPR station and collecting books and CDs. I read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (1962) and books on the Ulster Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, the Penal Laws, the 1798 United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, the Irish diaspora in North America and Australia, the Land League, the Fenians, the Gaelic Revival, and the Easter Rising of 1916. I learned Irish songs and a little of the Irish language and held boisterous St. Patrick’s Day parties every year. I couldn’t get enough of “the Auld Sod.”

So when the opportunity to actually go there in person presented itself at the end of the decade, I leapt at the chance. By that time I was teaching high school, and a colleague of mine, who was also Irish American and an avid fan of Irish history, helped me organize an educational tour for our spring break in April of 2000. We signed up twenty kids and seven of their parents and grandparents and even took along a friend of ours who was a bagpiper. The itinerary included tours of greater Dublin, the Ring of Kerry, Galway City, Limerick, the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, Powerscourt Gardens, and the Waterford Crystal factory.

What interested me the most, of course, was the opportunity to see the land of my ancestors and visit notable historical sites. I read up on many of these as we flew over the Atlantic and landed in Shannon Airport on the western coast of Ireland. I was overcome with emotion as I stood on my ancestral ground for the first time after so many years of study and anticipation. Fulfilling a promise we had made to an Irish priest back home, my colleague and I knelt and kissed the ground, much to the amusement of our traveling companions.

We did not linger in Limerick. We boarded a short flight to Dublin and were soon walking the busy streets of the Irish capital. I took in the road signs, the eclectic crowds, the tall buildings, and especially the streets, where driving on the left took some getting used to as both a passenger and a pedestrian. Our tour guides wasted no time. They took us into the very heart of the city, where we walked the stately grounds of Trinity College and marveled at the intricate knotwork of the medieval Book of Kells in the majestic grandeur of the Long Room. I had been studying the Book of Kells and Celtic knotwork for years. I couldn’t believe I was now seeing it with my own eyes.

Our hotel was located along the banks of the River Liffey across from the famous Guinness Brewery in St. James’s Gate. From there we visited Kilmainham Gaol and stood on the site in the stonecutter’s yard where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed. Later that day we went to Glasnevin Cemetery with its forest of Celtic crosses and majestic O’Connell Tower, dedicated to the “Great Emancipator” Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) who fought for the civil rights of Irish Catholics. We paid our respects to several other notable figures of Irish history who are buried there, including Constance Markievicz (1868-1927), Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), Roger Casement (1864-1916), and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915). At the grave of Michael Collins (1890-1922), our bagpiper played a lament.

The next day we visited O’Connell Street and the General Post Office, where Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and the other Easter Rising leaders had made their headquarters. Bullet holes could still be seen in its walls, and a bronze plaque commemorated the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. We walked across the Ha’Penny Bridge and lunched at the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub (founded in 1198). I was enthralled by the architecture, the street buskers, the shops, and the statues and monuments to historic figures. On the way back to our hotel, we walked past the neoclassical dome and columns of the Custom House, where a fire set by the IRA during the Irish War of Independence burned many priceless historical documents in 1921.

Neoclassical collonade of the Custom House in Dublin, designed by architect James Gandon and completed in 1791. The building and many of its vital records were burned during the Irish War of Independence in 1921. It was rebuilt and renovated with Irish limestone in the 1980s. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

From Dublin we headed west across central Ireland. I marveled at the legendary beauty of the rolling green landscape, even more enchanting in person than it had been in pictures. No wonder Irish people are said to be able to distinguish between the seventy shades of green. In County Tipperary we visited the Rock of Cashel, an impressive medieval castle church and traditional home of Irish kings. As we drove west, we stopped in quaint little towns and stopped on several occasions while herds of sheep crossed the road. The wooly animals were painted with different colors to identify their owners and separate them when they returned home in the evening. These “commuters,” our tour guide informed us, were known locally as “an Irish traffic jam.”

After several such charming delays, we arrived at last in the international city of Galway. I was particularly interested in seeing this part of western Ireland, as I knew that my Finney (Feeney) ancestors hailed from Connaught. Some came from the windswept, barren mountains and lakes of Connemara and others from the green farmlands of County Roscommon. In Galway City we visited colorful storefronts and pedestrian thoroughfares of the Latin Quarter and Shop Street. Here I heard native Irish (Gaelic) speakers for the first time when I passed two elderly gentlemen in woolen golf caps, wreathed in pipe smoke as they conversed. I felt I was hearing the voice of ancient Ireland at last.

Dunguaire Castle near Kinvara in County Galway, named after the legendary King of Connaught. The 16th century tower has been featured in several films over the years. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

We headed south from Galway and drove through the Burren to see the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, where we climbed the O’Brien Tower and listened to our bagpiper serenade the birds above and the crowds of tourists below. A strong Atlantic wind whipped his hair and the tassle of his pipes out like the pennant on a ship. As I watched the waves crash against the cliffs, I remembered seeing this stunning vista in one of the scenes from The Princess Bride in 1987. The Cliffs of Moher have been featured in many other Hollywood movies in the years since then, including the popular Harry Potter series.

The breathtaking Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. My great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Lynch (1836-1905), was born near there and emigrated to Canada with her family in 1849. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Returning to the area around Shannon Airport, we visited Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in County Clare and enjoyed climbing its narrow staircases. We toured the shops and a dirt-floored pub called Durty Nelly’s and then attended a musical show at a nearby restaurant. The band allowed me to step to the microphone and sing “She Moved Thro’ the Fair,” a traditional Irish lament I had performed a few years earlier when I sang with a progressive rock band in Sacramento. It was an unforgettable moment. The band leader smiled when I finished the song and said, “I can hear Ireland in your voice.”

Traditional Irish phone booth in County Clare. Ireland was still using the pound (punt Eireannach) as its national currency when I visited in April of 2000. They changed to the Euro in 2002. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

We continued on to Muckross House near Killarney and drove into the sweeping landscape of the Lakes of Killarney. The bilingual Irish road signs and rugged slopes of MacGillicuddy’s Reeks filled me with awe and stirred the imagination. As we drove through a rocky landscape filled with the ruins of 19th century cottages, I thought of my Lynch ancestors and the pain and suffering they must have experienced as they faced the decision of leaving their native land. We passed the childhood home of Daniel O’Connell and monuments to Brendan the Navigator and victims of the potato famine. This entire stretch of Irish countryside filled me with a deep sadness.

Bilingual road signs in Irish and English in western Ireland’s Ring of Kerry. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Moving into southern Ireland, we visited Blarney Castle in County Cork, where most of our party climbed the stone battlements and allowed ourselves to be hoisted upside down to kiss the famous Blarney Stone. Whether or not we were granted the legendary “gift of gab” as a result, most of us were certainly chattering excitedly when we saw the showroom of the marvelous Waterford Crystal factory on our way back to Dublin. The stunning Times Square Ball, constructed from over 500 crystal panes for use in the recent Millennium New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City, was on display and being worked on by the skilled Waterford artisans.

The final leg of our tour took us to the elegant Powerscourt Estate and Gardens, impressive in their grandeur but also a solemn reminder of the powerful Anglo-Irish “Ascendancy” class that ruled the country for centuries. The Grecian and Asian themes of the gardens were well designed and maintained, but certainly not Irish in the traditional Celtic sense of the word. I felt like Tommy in Brigadoon, already slipping away inexorably from the fairy tale land of my dreams. But my reverie was interrupted by last minute duties as chaperone. We stayed our last night in a fine hotel near Killiney Bay and boarded our plane home to the United States the next day.

I watched from my window seat as our plane departed from Irish soil and kept my eyes fixed on the receding landscape as we ascended. Passing clouds obscured my view, but parted just long enough to catch a final glimpse of the verdant peninsulas of Galway and Kerry stretching their fingers of land into the Atlantic, as if they were waving a poignant farewell. My feelings in that moment were profound grief mixed with gratitude. Perhaps I had somehow accessed ancestral memories during my week there. My forebears loved their green native land, as I had come to do during my visit, but were undoubtedly thankful to escape its sad history and embrace a new life in America. I returned to my own native land strengthened and inspired by their example.

Monument to the victims of the Great Famine in County Kerry. More than two million Irish perished or emigrated in the years between 1845 and 1850, including several of my ancestors. Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Virginia is for History Lovers

Map of Virginia during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Two years after Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy, the western counties of the state seceded and formed the Union state of West Virginia.

I moved to Virginia in March of 1973 in the middle of the sixth grade. We were living in Memphis, Tennessee and my father was offered a job at Madison College (renamed James Madison University right before I moved to California in 1977) in Harrisonburg, a small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Four years earlier, the state tourism board had adopted the new slogan “Virginia is For Lovers.” The round black buttons with the white letters and red heart were everywhere when we arrived.

I would learn over the next four and a half years that Virginia was (and is) especially a place for history lovers. Eight U.S. Presidents were born there, including four of the first five. The first permanent settlement in English-speaking America was established there at Jamestown in 1607. Virginia grew from trade in tobacco, iron, and slaves to the most populous and powerful of the thirteen British colonies, and played a major role in achieving American independence from Great Britain. The preserved buildings and historical recreations at Colonial Williamsburg seek to capture the feel and significance of this bygone era.

Jamestown and Williamsburg are located near the Atlantic Coast, and I visited them both when my parents took me to Virginia Beach for summer vacation. Harrisonburg, however, is located in the northwestern portion of the “Old Dominion,” and it was there where most of my childhood historical adventures took place. The town had a population of around 14,000 inhabitants at the time (today there are close to 50,000) and was surrounded by rich farmland and the parallel forested spines of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Harrisonburg itself sat in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain, a popular hiking spot in summer and ski resort in winter.

I settled into my new school and formed friendships. I still had a few months of the sixth grade to finish before moving on to Thomas Harrison Junior High School, named after the 18th century settler who founded the town. Once in junior high, I began visiting local historic and cultural sites while delivering newspapers for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (see painted rock below). American history was my favorite class in school. I joined a local Boy Scout troop and attended a Presbyterian church that met in an old farmhouse used as a hospital in the Civil War.

My first job was as a paperboy for the Richmond Times-Dispatch when I was attending school in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

My mother was an avid history buff, and took me with her to several noteworthy places in the area, beginning with Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s stately home in the hills above Charlottesville. She was a big admirer of Jefferson and his eclectic interests. I saw evidence of these in his extensive gardens, the titles in his library, and the collection of artifacts and inventions that were displayed in every room. I marveled at the map brought back by Lewis and Clark and the scientific instruments of Jefferson’s private study. The grounds were lovely and serene and filled with flowers at the time. We had lunch at the nearby Michie Tavern, built in 1784 and a local gathering place during the first decades of the Commonwealth.

I also visited historic homes in the northern part of Virginia, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall, the childhood home of General Robert E. Lee. Like Monticello, these houses were well-kept and filled with period furniture and fascinating exhibits. I made several trips to the museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC during my time in Harrisonburg, particularly the National Museum of American History, where I saw the gigantic Fort McHenry garrison flag, known throughout the world as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The museum remains a major attraction today, along with its sister museums scattered throughout the nation’s capital.

Living in the Shenandoah Valley brought the sights, sounds, and tastes of the past alive. There were so many historic churches, storefronts, farms, schools, and battlefields that I was unable to take them all in as quickly as I wanted. The Highland Maple Festival in nearby Highland County showcased colonial arts and crafts and local bluegrass music. Grocery stores had iron horse hitching posts in the parking lot to accommodate the buggies of the local Mennonite community. Farmer’s markets offered delicious and wholesome produce from fertile fields that had been feeding the Valley for two centuries. My mother was enraptured by the recently published Foxfire book series that highlighted traditional Appalachian recipes, crafts, and medicinal remedies.

There were many recreational activities of which I took advantage. Hiking and camping in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park, canoeing down the Shenandoah and New Rivers, bicycling up and down the hilly country roads, and spelunking in local caves were all fun pastimes I enjoyed, especially in spring and summer. I attended high school football and minor league baseball games. I worked in a summer day camp for disabled adults at my church. There were art activities, live music, and holiday festivals all year. Fourth of July fireworks in the nearby village of Elkton in the Bicentennial summer of 1976 were particularly memorable.

Living in such a rich historical environment inspired me to create. I wrote a novel set on the 18th century frontier. I joined a Dungeons and Dragons role playing group in 1975, the year after the paperback rule books were first published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR). I acted and sang in school plays and musicals. I helped my mother dig, plant, and harvest in our extensive backyard vegetable garden. Afterwards we canned fruit together. I wrote letters and poetry. I collected records, costumes, and miniatures. It was a prolific time for a young artist.

In my sophomore year at Harrisonburg High School, I signed up for an independent study course that allowed me to explore a local historical topic in detail and create a special project. I decided to design a board game on the French and Indian War (1754-1763) which I entitled The Fall of New France. I met with history professors at Madison College and began drawing a playing board and pieces, as well as uniforms of the participants (see below). Virginia played an important part in the colonial struggle between England and France. Young George Washington experienced his first taste of battle at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity, just over the border in southwestern Pennsylvania, and spent the remainder of the war defending the Virginia frontier.

One of the drawings I completed for a special studies project in American history at Harrisonburg High School, a detailed board game on the French and Indian War called The Fall of New France. Copyright (c) 1976 Torin Finney.

The historical period that commanded my greatest interest, though, was the American Civil War (1861-1865), in which the Shenandoah Valley formed a major theater of operations. After Virginia seceded from the Union, the Valley provided vital food, horses, and other supplies to the Confederate armies. As such, it became a target for repeated Union invasion. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s brilliant Valley Campaign of 1862 hurled back several Northern attempts to seize the Valley. I remember visiting the monument to slain Confederate cavalry commander Turner Ashby in the woods near Harrisonburg. Ashby was somewhat of a local legend and was the namesake of our rival high school.

I visited local Civil War battlefields at Port Republic and Cross Keys and attended my first reenactment in the Bicentennial summer of 1976. Winchester to the north of Harrisonburg changed hands more than 70 times during the war. The Cedar Creek Battlefield was an interesting destination in the middle of a rich pastoral landscape, as was the New Market Battlefield, where the May 15, 1864 charge of the Virginia Military Institute cadets is reenacted annually. I enjoyed watching the 1965 film Shenandoah with Jimmy Stewart, which was staged as a Broadway musical while I was living in the Valley.

Elsewhere in the state are the battlefields of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, and the cluster of sites at Richmond National Battlefield Park, where the outcome of the war was decided in the climactic standoff in 1864-1865 between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. I also enjoyed visiting the Revolutionary War battlefield at Yorktown, which figured prominently in McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Numerous restored 18th and 19th century homes are scattered across the state and show how prominent civilians lived and struggled during these pivotal periods in history. I walked the halls and grounds of many of them during my years there.

I had plans to finish high school in Harrisonburg and stay local for college, perhaps at the iconic University of Virginia campus designed by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville. But then my father was offered a job at California State University, Long Beach in the summer of 1977, and my time in the Old Dominion came to an end. I have returned only once in the years since then, in August of 1983 when I was visiting Washington, DC before my first semester of graduate school in Boston. Harrisonburg still looked much the same, including the brick house where I lived as a teenager with its sloping acre of grass and willow trees.

It has changed considerably since then, according to stories from friends and colleagues and information I have seen on the internet. I can still recall the dogwood blossoms in spring, the fireflies of the humid summer, raking leaves in the cool autumn air, and sledding down the nearby hills in winter. But most importantly, my time and experiences in the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of Virginia nourished my love of American history. From these roots grew a fruitful career in teaching and reenacting. Whether or not I see the Old Dominion with my own eyes again, I will always treasure my memories of its natural beauty and rich past.

Another drawing from the playing board of my high school simulation game design on the French and Indian War, The Fall of New France. Copyright (c) 1976 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Cotillions and Grand Balls

Jill and I pose in our Victorian era finery before participating in the Grand March at a vintage ball in San Diego’s Balboa Park, February 2, 2019.

Some of my favorite scenes in historical epic films like Gone With the Wind and War and Peace are the ball scenes. I always enjoyed watching the men in their tailcoats and dress uniforms swirl the ladies in their hoop skirts and gowns around a glittering dance floor. I imagined myself being one of those graceful gentlemen, filling my dance card with waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles and dancing the night away to the stirring strains of Strauss, Berlioz, Lanner, and Waldteufel. I wanted to be the romantic lead in my own movie.

Although I was fond of costuming and dressing up as a kid, I did not have much background in ballroom dancing. I remember learning the Virginia Reel and some square dances in junior high in the Shenandoah Valley, but I never had formal dance training. Then I moved to southern California to finish high school during the height of the national disco craze. I learned some moves and took some dates to Disneyland, where at that time a spectacular disco dance show was held during the summer on the stage beneath the Space Mountain ride. By the time I went off to college, disco was fading in popularity. My dancing days were over, or so it seemed.

Seventeen years later, I joined a Civil War reenacting unit and began participating in living history events in northern California. Our group held a winter ball at the historic Hotel Del Monte on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. After several months of marching through mud and heat in a dusty uniform and field kit, sleeping on the ground under a dog tent, and firing my musket, it was time to clean up and make myself presentable on a dance floor. While only officers attended balls in the Victorian era, all our members to invited to participate in the event, including enlisted men such as myself.

Posing with my unit, Company A of the 69th New York State Volunteers (Irish Brigade), at our winter ball held in the historic Hotel Del Monte in Monterey, California in December of 1997. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

While I had managed to clean off the mud and dust and polish my shoes and buttons, my performance on the dance floor was somewhat lackluster. I navigated successfully through the group dances such as the opening Grand March, the quadrilles, and the closing Virginia Reel (which I remembered from school in Virginia), but I fared less successfully in the waltz, polka, and schottische. There had been a rudimentary dance lesson at the beginning of the evening, but watching an expert perform something with apparent effortlessness and trying it yourself are two entirely different things.

My dream of reenacting those famous Hollywood ball scenes had been dissipated by the reality of trying to avoid stepping on my partner’s feet or colliding with other couples moving across the floor. I enjoyed those first few balls as a soldier, particularly the costuming and venues. I attended two at the Hotel Del Monte and one in a rustic lodge in the California Gold Rush town of Murphys, all in the late 1990s. I was part of a company and had a ready made set of friends, acquaintances, and potential dance partners. But my skills on the dance floor remained undeveloped.

By the end of 1999 I began developing an artist correspondent impression as part of my budding teaching career and gradually withdrew from my military unit. I no longer camped at the venue with my company, and when I did stay overnight I usually booked my own hotel room nearby. I did not have a regular dance partner and stopped attending winter balls. I went to a few of the Saturday evening outdoor dances at some events, but more often than not I left the field after the final battle and went home to finish my sketches and dispatches.

Charcoal sketch I drew of a period ball in Anaheim, California in January of 2004. In the character of an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, I spent more time observing the dancing events than I did participating. Copyright (c) Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Then I met Jill. She was dressed as a Union vivandiere, following the troops into battle and helping to dress the wounded. We became friends and I learned that, among her many other talents, she was a professional ballroom dance instructor who had been operating her own wedding dance business for many years. She designed first dance choreography and had a background in both ballet and competitive ballroom dancing. She was also a professional web designer and had worked for many years creating an online presence for a variety of performers and entrepreneurs. She created a beautiful website for my correspondent impression and began teaching me dance steps.

I had found the dance partner of my dreams. In addition to teaching me basic salsa, tango, swing, foxtrot, and rumba steps, Jill helped me navigate the “period dance” floor at reenacting events. We became members of a local living history organization together and attended their winter ball at the R.M.S. Queen Mary in Long Beach, California in January of 2005. The famous ship was now a hotel and her grand ballrooms, cabins and decks formed the ideal venue for an historic celebration. Jill wore a lovely new ball gown and I had a new tailored black woolen suit.

Never mind that we were dressed in Victorian garb on a ship first christened in 1934 and associated more with World War II than with the War Between the States. If we wanted to be “period correct,” we would have been dancing on the 1863 full-rigged ship Euterpe (rechristened Star of India in 1906 and now part of San Diego’s Maritime Museum). Notwithstanding this historical disconnect, we had a great time at the event. My waltz, polka, and schottische steps began to steadily improve under Jill’s tutelage. She taught me how to navigate the dance floor, how the center was reserved for couples dancing at a slower pace and the outer ring for speed.

When we returned to the Queen Mary for another winter ball in January 2006, I was holding my own, no longer stepping on feet and deftly avoiding mid-floor collisions. I began to acquire other ballroom skills as well, such as how to put together my ensemble, proper table and social etiquette, and the art of conversation. I had considered none of this when I portrayed a soldier. All I needed to know then was how to demonstrate the manual of arms, how to march and wheel into line of battle, how to salute and obey orders, and how to load, fire, and clean my musket. Now that I was moving in a different circle, I had to learn to move properly.

Jill and I attending a winter ball event at the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California in January 2007. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

By this time I owned a proper tuxedo with tailcoat and several period cravats and vests. Jill had an impressive collection of ball gowns and other accoutrements. We had a circle of new friends who attended the cotillions and balls with us and formed our regular partners in the quadrilles and other group dances. We attended two outstanding events at the Mission Inn in Riverside (see image above) in the winters of 2007 and 2008. We also drove north to Pasadena’s Masonic Temple to participate in regular events there. Other balls were held at Riley’s Farm in the foothills of Oak Glen and at church halls and country clubs across southern California.

Declining attendance and rising operational costs in the wake of the Great Recession put a damper on the expensive reenacting hobby in general and the ball season in particular, and by 2009 there were not as many grand dance events to attend. We did go to a spring cotillion in Orange County for many years (see image below), but by the end of summer 2011 we decided to retire from the hobby altogether. We packed away our ball costumes and focused on other things.

Attending a spring cotillion in Orange County, California in 2010. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Seven years later, we decided to leave Orange County and move to San Diego and the scenes of some of our former adventures. I retired from full-time teaching and Jill relocated her wedding dance business. After several years of helping her demonstrate steps for her couples on a part-time basis, I began doing so regularly. We dusted off our Victorian costumes and attended a local Viennese ball at Balboa Park (see top image). I continued to work on my dance skills, focusing particularly on aspects of technique such as shifting weight and proper positioning of head, hands, and feet. Jill had been cast in several television programs and films during her time in Orange County and we began discussing the idea of using our reenacting gear for new purposes.

Historic dances are both fun and instructive, and local groups across the country and the world still participate regularly in them. They are windows into a forgotten time and opportunities for exercise and interaction among people who share a common interest in the past. The internet can direct you to the activities in your area and people to contact if you want to become involved. For those who wish to be transported into a world of elegance and grace, the period dance floor is always waiting.

Taking our place on the dance floor for the opening waltz of a period cotillion in Orange County, California in 2008. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Shadowing His Steps

Civil War campaigns of my great-great-grandfather, Michael Schneider (1842-1900), who served for more than four years in Cleveland’s Company G of the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

In the spring of 1992 I was living and working in central Kansas and thinking of taking a vacation. My sister was living in Savannah, Georgia at the time with her family and offered to let me stay there for a few days. She had been there for a few years and wanted to show me her new house. I had been working hard since my arrival in Kansas the previous summer and was ready for a break. With fond memories of my previous cross-country road trips and an interest in the historic sites of the South, I decided to go. I set aside two weeks for the round trip and started to pack.

I decided to take U.S. 50 northeast to Emporia, where I would follow Interstate 35 to Kansas City and then pick up I-70 across central Missouri and southern Illinois and Indiana to Dayton, Ohio, where I would attend a national retreat held by Brother Roger Schutz (1915-2005) and the Taize Community at the university there. From Dayton, I would take I-75 south through Cincinnati and Louisville all the way to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I would merge onto I-40 southeast to Asheville, North Carolina. From Asheville, I-26 would take me through South Carolina to the junction of I-95 for the final short leg of the journey into Savannah.

I finished my final preparations and took off in early May. I was looking forward to seeing Ohio, Tennessee, and North Carolina again, all scenes of my childhood that I had not visited for decades. My maternal grandmother was buried in Bedford County, Tennessee and I planned to pay my respects there on the way back. I knew from my studies of the Civil War period that Savannah was captured by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in December of 1864 and offered to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Unlike the rest of Georgia, Savannah was spared the torch and preserved with its stately colonial and Victorian architecture for future generations to enjoy.

What I did not know is that I would be retracing the steps of a Civil War ancestor, Michael Schneider (1842-1900), who was born in the German state of Wurttemberg and settled in Cleveland, Ohio with his immigrant parents. My new genealogy hobby was in its infancy and I had no idea yet that my grandmother’s grandfather had marched with Sherman through Georgia and participated in the capture and occupation of Savannah. Moreover, the route I would be taking had many other parallels with the locales of his wartime campaigns. Much of my planned route would take me within a few miles of where he had marched from 1861 to 1865.

I set out in early May and made good progress across Kansas and into Missouri. Route 70 was bordered by thick forests, once the scene of innumerable “bushwhacker” hideouts during the Civil War. Guerrilla chieftains like William Clarke Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson used the thick cover and hidden creek beds of western Missouri as a base from which to launch raids on Union garrisons, columns, and settlements. I remember the density of the forest cover in one of the campgrounds where I stayed the night. Other than the modern interstate highway and some roadside truck stops, the wild character of that country had probably not changed much since the 1860s.

Unbeknownst to me, my ancestor Michael Schneider’s regiment, the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry of Fuller’s Brigade, began their first wartime campaign by chasing these guerrilla bands through central Missouri, trying to thwart their raids and prevent young men from enlisting in the Confederate Army. They marched to the aid of Colonel James A. Mulligan (1830-1864) and his 23rd Illinois (Chicago’s Irish regiment, in which another of my distant relatives served) at Lexington, but were too late to relieve the siege there and prevent Mulligan’s surrender. The 27th Ohio continued their march, passing through towns like Sedalia, Syracuse, and Milford before moving southeast to participate in the Battles of New Madrid and Island Number 10 in early 1862.

Continuing along I-70, I took a detour to the picturesque Missouri River town of Hermann, an historic settlement of German immigrants at the heart of the “Missouri Rhineland.” While my ancestor did not pass through Hermann during the war, the German architecture and cultural attractions I saw there would have certainly been familiar to his eyes, as his youth in 1850s Cleveland was spent in a similar immigrant neighborhood along the shores of Lake Erie. Most German immigrants sided with the Union in the Civil War, having fled political persecution in the German states. Many were ardent abolitionists and loyal members of Lincoln’s Republican Party.

My trip continued uneventfully across the mighty Mississippi and on through the corn and soybean fields of southern Illinois and Indiana. Before arriving in Dayton, I stopped to visit a seminary classmate in the small town of Fort Recovery, Ohio, right across the Indiana border. This was near the site of a famous 1791 battle between soldiers of the young United States and Native American warriors under Chief Little Turtle. The museum and visitor center were fascinating and included a reconstructed bastion of the 1793 log fort. Just to the east of here in Columbus, my ancestor had enlisted and trained at Camp Chase during the first wartime summer of 1861.

The Taize retreat in Dayton was edifying and I enjoyed meeting pilgrims from around the world who had come to learn and pray. I was privileged to meet Brother Roger in person, a friend of Mother Teresa (1910-1997) and a respected spiritual leader throughout the world until his tragic assassination in 2005. After leaving Dayton, I crossed the Ohio River and continued south into Kentucky. Ironically, my ancestor passed by here at the end of his wartime service on his way to muster out with his regiment at Louisville in July of 1865.

Moving through southern Kentucky and into eastern Tennessee, I was pleased to experience the sights and sounds of the Great Smoky Mountains again. I had enjoyed traveling through the Smokies as a boy, particularly the trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the majestic Grandfather Mountain. I could smell the sweet pines along the thickly forested interstate highway and even caught a passing glimpse of a mountain lion making his way up the rugged slope. My ancestor’s regiment had not served in this part of Tennessee, but they had fought at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads further west and helped to garrison occupied Memphis, where I lived from 1971 to 1973 and attended 5th and 6th grade.

My route took me briefly through the mountains of western North Carolina. I was unable to travel eastward to visit Raleigh and the Outer Banks, where I spent much time as a small boy learning about Blackbeard, the Wright Brothers, and many other figures and events from local history. South of Raleigh is the Bentonville Battlefield, where my ancestor fought his final engagement on March 19-21, 1865 before marching north to participate in the Grand Review in Washington after the Confederate surrender. Bentonville is a well-restored Civil War site that I have yet to visit. I did pass nearby in 1984 during my road trip from Boston to Florida, but had no idea at the time of my ancestor’s involvement there.

After participating in the capture of Savannah, my ancestor marched north into the Carolinas with Sherman’s Union forces. His regiment participated in the third day of the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina on March 21, 1865. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

Interstate 26 took me southeast from the Smokies into South Carolina, where I passed through Columbia, the state capital. Fuller’s Brigade was there on February 17, 1865 when Sherman’s forces occupied the city and then left it in ashes. Whether or not Union invaders or the retreating Confederates ignited the blaze is still a matter of debate. What is beyond doubt is that war is cruelty, as General Sherman himself so famously said. I would like to think that my ancestor never personally burned someone’s home or business and did not make war on civilians. But even to this day, Sherman and his men are still seen by many in the South as merciless invaders.

I-26 merged into I-95 near the town of Whetsell, and I continued southwest toward the Georgia border. I drove through the vast wetlands and marshes fed by the Salkehatchie River, scene of yet another of my ancestor’s exploits. After leaving Savannah and heading into South Carolina at the beginning of February 1865, Sherman’s engineers began constructing log “corduroy roads” through what was thought to be an impassable swamp. Confederate assumptions about Yankee mobility in the area proved to be incorrect, and an attempt to block Sherman’s advance at River’s Bridge was unsuccessful. The blue columns continued inexorably north.

When I finally arrived in Savannah, I was not disappointed. The famed “Hostess City of the South” was even more lovely and enchanting in person than she had been in pictures. There was much to see there. Founded in 1733, the city was a prominent port in colonial America and was the target of a British assault during the Revolutionary War. Many 18th century original and reconstructed buildings remain from that era, particularly in the popular tourist area along River Street. I had just missed the big St. Patrick’s Day parade there, but I did enjoy strolling among the brick storefronts and cobblestones. An annual pirate festival celebrates another lively chapter from the city’s history.

After Georgia’s secession from the Union in 1861, local Confederate forces occupied Fort Pulaski, named after the Polish soldier who gave his life defending the city against the British. The fort’s strategic location on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River protected Confederate commerce and blockade runners until Union rifled cannon bombarded it into submission in April 1862. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there and recognized its bastions years later when I watched the 2010 movie The Conspirator, which was filmed there under the direction of Robert Redford.

Apparently the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump was being filmed in Savannah around the time I was there, but I was unaware of when and where that was happening. I did get to see the Ron Howard film Far and Away in the local theater, which tied in well with my ongoing family history interest. I went to the Green Mansion, where Sherman set up his headquarters after occupying the city in 1864, and the Colonial Park Cemetery, where some of the gravestones still leaned to one side after being kicked by Union cavalry horses corralled there. Others were, according to local legend, vandalized by vengeful Yankee troops.

The stately colonial squares with their wrought iron and ornate fountains were filled with white canvas tents and campfires for a time during the two months of Union occupation. Confederate prisoners had been locked up in a makeshift camp along Bay Street, and thousands of escaped slaves from across Georgia and the Carolinas poured into the city in search of Sherman’s protection. All of this I learned while I was there, but I had no idea my direct ancestor had been a part of the occupying forces. The Civil War still lingers in Savannah, both in the lucrative tourist trade and the more subtle ambivalence about the meaning of the conflict.

Period engraving of General William Tecumseh Sherman and his army entering Savannah on December 21, 1864.

After my time in Savannah was over, I decided to head home by a different route. I drove northwest on Interstate 16 to Macon and then headed up I-75 to Atlanta. I was unwittingly following in reverse the very route my ancestor had taken when he left Atlanta in November 1864 on Sherman’s famous (or infamous, to many Southerners) March to the Sea. Sherman’s columns laid waste to the local countryside in a deliberate effort to crush the Confederacy’s industrial and agricultural infrastructure. Homes, businesses and farms were burned, livestock slaughtered, and railroads demolished, leaving one Confederate observer to describe how stark rows of burnt chimneys marked the passage of the invader.

When I arrived in Atlanta, I visited the spectacular Cyclorama with its 360-degree panoramic painting of the July 22, 1864 Battle of Atlanta, completed by German artist Friedrich Wilhelm Heine in 1886. I had visited the museum as a boy and remembered it affectionately, but was unaware of the contribution my own ancestor during the battle. The 27th Ohio was part of General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, and was the first unit to be hit by the Confederate assault on “Bald Hill” on July 22. The 27th checked the enemy advance for a time, but sustained close to 50% casualties. They also lost General McPherson himself, who was killed by Confederate pickets. Michael Schneider survived the carnage, but many of his comrades did not.

Detail from the Atlanta Cyclorama painting by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine. My ancestor’s regiment, the 27th Ohio of Fuller’s Brigade, was heavily involved in the day’s fighting on July 22, 1864 and sustained close to 50% casualties.

I also visited the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park while I was in Atlanta. There was much to see and do and the city had expanded significantly in the years since I went there as a boy. I continued north on I-75 and returned to Tennessee, this time driving to the small Bedford County town of Normandy and visiting my maternal grandmother’s grave. The simple stone lying peacefully in a grassy field behind an old barn next to several other generations of her adopted family brought back sad memories of her memorial service there 18 years earlier. I stood in silent reflection and placed a rose on the stone.

This small act of homage tied in to my ancestral pilgrimage in ways I did not foresee at the time, for it was her grandfather’s Civil War campaigns I was unknowingly retracing. Several years later I became involved in reenacting the war as a Union soldier and correspondent, in part to recognize the role my ancestors had played in saving the Union and ending slavery. I believe my grandmother and her grandfather had both guided my steps on that 1992 road trip. Later that year, I returned to California and changed careers, eventually becoming a full-time history teacher for twenty years. I would like to think that I did my part in passing down the family story and honoring the deeds of my forebears.

My certificate of membership in the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. I joined in 2001 and remained an active member until 2006.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Chasing Sunsets

Bushwhackers cheating at cards with a “captive” President Lincoln at Lil’s Saloon in Calico Ghost Town, February 2009.

I grew up back East with a romanticized view of the West, fed by a childhood obsession with the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and classic western movies. Whenever tedium, frustration, or restlessness overtook me, I would escape into the forbidding cinematic landscapes of Sergio Leone, where gritty gunslingers would square off against each other to a dramatic score by Ennio Morricone. Somehow the “Wild West” seemed like a place where problems had simple solutions, courage and individualism were rewarded, the past didn’t matter, and dreams could come true.

Such a perception certainly drove the growth of the West in American history, from the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush all the way to Hollywood and the Silicon Valley in our time. I was no different. When my father announced in 1977 that we were moving from the Shenandoah Valley to southern California, I was ecstatic. I had images of movie stars and Mickey Mouse, suntanned surfers and endless summer. No more shoveling snow in winter, no more scraping mud off galoshes in spring, no more sweating all night in drenching summer humidity. I would be footloose and fancy free in La La Land.

The trip west in August of that year provided enough awe-inspiring sights to reinforce such optimism. From the vast expanses of west Texas to the Painted Desert and Grand Canyon, the West seemed to live up to everything I expected it to be. I had never seen mountains in Appalachia over a few thousand feet in height, so when my eyes first took in the massive dome of Sandia Crest outside Albuquerque, I thought I had landed on another planet. The warm, vibrant colors of Santa Fe and Sedona, the thrill and terror of sudden flash floods, the brilliant artwork of Hopi and Navajo artists, and my first taste of authentic Mexican food all intoxicated my senses.

This rapture was soon checked by the vast, scorched landscape of the Mojave Desert, which we had to cross in August during daylight hours to reach our final destination on time. Several hours of nervously watching the temperature gauge on our rented Ryder truck and pit stops in 100-degree roadside rest areas were followed by a grueling ascent up the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains. When we finally reached the top of the crest and beheld the sea of smog stretching out below as far as the eye could see, my heart sank. This was not the West of my dreams. I had arrived in an overcrowded, noisy, congested, polluted inferno.

To be fair, this was the Inland Empire during summer rush hour, which even in 1977 was intolerable. If I had arrived at sunset on a Sunday or amidst the green hills and wildflowers of early spring, I might have had a more favorable first impression of the place. Nonetheless, my maiden view of southern California was not a Ma Joad moment out of The Grapes of Wrath. After we finally made it to Long Beach and settled into our new rented home, my initial shock did not wear off. Orientation week at my new high school of 3,000 students was overwhelming (having come from a school in Virginia a quarter of that size). I got lost on campus and stumbled home in tears of bewilderment.

I did find my bearings eventually, making new friends in class and learning my way around. While not everyone was a movie star or a surfer, I did get to see Hollywood and spent the summer after graduation riding the waves in Huntington Beach. I got to meet Mickey Mouse when I visited Disneyland and later worked there as a custodian on one of my college winter breaks. Summer was not endless in California, but there was little humidity (at least in those days) and I did not have to shovel snow in winter (I visited the snow in Yosemite and Mount San Jacinto instead). I went off to college in the northern part of the state and realized that California was actually several states in one.

My interest in the “Old West” had not abated, however, and when I finished my second graduate degree in 1991 and moved to Kansas to begin my working career, I took with me the images of the recently released Dances With Wolves. During my fifteen months on the prairie, I felt a little like the character of Lieutenant Dunbar, stranded in an alien yet fascinating place and seeking a new “tribe.” I found it in the stories of my ancestors (see my blog entry on “Climbing the Family Tree”), and returned to California in the fall of 1992 ready to begin my life anew.

I lived for six years in Sacramento, working in office jobs and exploring the historical sights of the surrounding region. There were and are many shadows of the Old West there, from Old Sacramento and Sutter’s Fort in the state capital to the Empire Mine and Columbia State Historic Park in the Sierra foothills. I visited them all and enjoyed their educational and inspirational value. I spent some time with my late cousin Agnes in her historic 1852 farmhouse in the hills above Sutter Creek and listened to her stories of Gold Rush California as well as family history anecdotes.

During my time in Sacramento I became involved in the reenacting hobby, and attended some events in historic western locales, including Nevada City and Murphys. Some of these areas still evoke days gone by with their wooden sidewalks, historic storefronts, and forested country roads. When I moved to Bakersfield in 1998 to begin my teaching career, I determined to continue my search for signs of the Old West. My new living history impression of artist correspondent permitted me to render each event in whatever likeness and direction my imagination took me.

One of my favorite venues was Fort Tejon State Historic Park, a restored 1850s outpost in the mountains south of Bakersfield. I joined the Fort Tejon Historical Association and participated in monthly reenactments there over the entirety of my seven years in the area. The fort was only a half hour drive from where I was living and working and many drawings of my sketch portfolio were completed there (see the image below). The adobe and wooden buildings, ancient live oak trees, and well-kept grounds were inspirational to me as an artist and still attract thousands of visitors every year.

Charcoal sketch I completed as Harper’s Weekly artist correspondent James Allen Davis during a Civil War reenactment at Fort Tejon State Historic Park in Lebec, California. Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

After my partner Jill (who came up with the title for this blog entry) and I began reenacting together at the end of 2004, we chose several southern California venues with a connection to the Old West, including Wooden Nickel Ranch in Menifee, Old Town Temecula, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum in Vista, and Calico Ghost Town near Barstow. These sites have restored 19th century buildings and machinery and hold annual events that highlight local history. Costumed reenactors and performers entertain large and enthusiastic crowds. Imagination has been combined with commerce, just as it was when the West was young.

Jill making rope at Calico Ghost Town with our friends Lyn and Joe. Photo Copyright (c) 2010 Torin Finney.

Near the busy Las Vegas Strip is Red Rock Canyon, a dramatic and breathtaking wilderness area that boasts many natural and educational attractions. For three years (2006-2008), Jill and I attended a reenactment at scenic Spring Mountain Ranch at the foot of the mountains there and presented to a local Civil War round table group. As you can see from the sketch below, I found the setting of the event extremely inspiring. The crisp mountain air, wild burros, restored ranch buildings, and pristine desert vistas lent themselves to imaginary western journeys filled with danger and daring. It was hard to believe that such a wild place could be found so close to the bustling boulevards and crowded casinos of “Sin City.”

Panoramic sketch I completed in 2007 during the annual Civil War reenactment at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park near Las Vegas, Nevada. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Old Town San Diego, which has been California’s most popular state historic park for the past fifty years, attracts thousands of people every month to its restored adobe and wooden frame buildings, special holiday events, and scores of specialty restaurants and shops. Old Town has been a favorite destination of ours for many years. The state park presents a different version of the Old West, focusing on the commerce and culture of the early Californios and their impact on the growth of the region. It combines education with business and tries to preserve a time in California’s history that has largely passed into legend.

Jill and I have been coming to Old Town together since 2005. Here we are in front of the historic Cosmopolitan Hotel in 2008, ten years before we retired to San Diego from Orange County. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Of course, most of these sites have been restored and refitted with modern conveniences to meet the needs of contemporary tourists. The rather nasty side of the “real” Old West of cholera, dysentery, illiteracy, violence, theft, starvation, drought, prostitution, and racial intolerance is not something most visitors are looking for. Calico, for example, went from a booming silver town in the 1880s to an abandoned wasteland twenty years later, its population decimated by disease, disappointment, and despair. This is not the West that appears in movies and dime novels.

But people see what they want to see, and the West of the silver screen is still popular. From recent remakes of The Magnificent Seven and True Grit to this year’s feature film reviving the story and original cast of HBO’s Deadwood series, tall tales of lawmen, outlaws, settlers and soiled doves continue to command large audiences, both at home and abroad. For all its failures and faults, the American West still represents wide open spaces and exciting possibilities. For my part, I have no plans to leave it anytime soon. As an adopted Westerner, riding off into the sunset has become a way of life that works for me.

Business card Jill designed for my correspondent impression from a photograph taken at Calico Ghost Town in 2007. The website she created for me can be accessed by clicking here. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Boston and Beyond

Passing through Connecticut in March of 1984 during my first year as a graduate student in American Civilization at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

In the fall of 1982 I was in my senior year of college at UC Santa Cruz and uncertain what to do after graduation. I was busy working on my thesis on the nisei soldiers of World War II (see my blog entry on “Ghosts of Manzanar”) and wasn’t giving much thought to my long term future. Faced with the sluggish economy of the early Reagan years, I decided to postpone the issue of career choice by applying to graduate school. I had enjoyed the American Studies program at UCSC and began researching other schools that offered a higher degree. I narrowed my search to five: four doctoral programs and one which offered the Master’s level only. I took the GRE and sent off my applications and transcripts.

Two of the doctoral programs accepted me in the spring but offered no financial assistance. Another rejected me outright and the fourth never responded to my application. The M.A. program in American Civilization at UMass/Boston was the only school that accepted me with financial aid. They proposed a full tuition waiver and part-time work as a research assistant for the entirety of my enrollment in the program. With few other alluring prospects and eager for a change of venue, I heartily accepted the offer.

I graduated with honors from UCSC in June of 1983 and headed home to southern California. For my trip to New England, I booked a “drive-away car” that belonged to a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. This was a popular way to get across the country in those days for young people like me who did not own their own vehicle. All I had to do is pay for gas and deliver the car to its owner in the same condition in which it was entrusted to me. In early August 1983 I set out eastward, mostly along Interstate 80 through the Upper Midwest. This stretch of the country was new to me and I enjoyed driving through the Rocky Mountains and the sea of corn from Nebraska to Ohio.

When I reached New York State, I headed north to visit one of my favorite childhood destinations, Fort Ticonderoga. This historic bastion on the heights of Lake Champlain played a pivotal role in both the French and Indian War (when it was called Fort Carillon by the French under Montcalm) and the American Revolution. I had not been here since I was a boy, and I was excited to walk again along the stone battlements and see the cannon, uniforms, muskets, and other displays that are so well preserved there. The day was bright and sunny and the spectacular views of the lake remain vivid in my memory.

I then headed up Route 9 to the Plattsburgh Ferry, which took me across Lake Champlain to Grand Isle, Vermont and down U.S. 7 to Middlebury, where I delivered my car to its owner and rented a vehicle for the remainder of my trip. I reached the interchange to Interstate 90 in western Massachusetts and made the final leg to my uncle’s home in Pembroke, just south of Boston. I set to work right away combing the classifieds for apartments and eventually found a second story flat in Wollaston, an old working class neighborhood near Quincy. I borrowed my cousin’s truck to visit the place, met my new roommate, and moved in with my typewriter, portable radio, undergraduate library, and modest assortment of mostly winter clothing.

I lived, worked, and studied in the Boston area from August 1983 to December 1984 as a M.A. candidate at UMass/Boston. I was the youngest member of the American Civilization graduate program and the only one from California. Copyright (c) 2014 Torin Finney.

A week later my classes began. Having no car, I took the MBTA Red Line from Wollaston Station to JFK/UMass Station at Columbia Point. A shuttle took me from the train station to the university campus, a stark collection of red brick high rises hugging the windy Boston Harbor coast next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a tall, angular white and black frame structure designed by noted architect I. M. Pei (1917-2019). I met Dr. Irving Bartlett (1923-2006), the founder and head of the American Civilization program, and thanked him for reading my senior thesis on the nisei soldiers of World War II and deciding to take me on as a graduate student. After visiting the campus bookstore, I registered for my fall schedule and settled in for a new semester.

My time in Boston was taken up for many months with lecture and discussion, term papers, and hundreds of pages of reading. I met Dr. Gordon Zahn (1918-2007), a retired sociology professor at UMB and a famous Catholic peace activist, who turned me on to the story of Ben Salmon (1888-1932), the World War I conscientious objector who became the topic of my Master’s thesis. Dr. Thomas N. Brown (1920-2009), a noted scholar of Irish-American history, agreed to serve as another faculty advisor. I also met Dr. James C. Turner (now a professor emeritus at Notre Dame), who was working on a biography of Harvard intellectual Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) and to whom I had been assigned as a research assistant.

My first jaunts through metropolitan Boston were in this new capacity. Dr. Turner sent me to Harvard’s Houghton Library to review Norton’s papers that were housed there. The MBTA Red Line continued north from Columbia Point through downtown and west across the Charles River to Cambridge, where I disembarked at Harvard Station and made my way across the historic Ivy League campus. The modest brick buildings and manicured quads belied the world renown of the famous Americans who had attended there, including seven U.S. Presidents (Barack Obama – who is my age – became the eighth when he enrolled in Harvard Law School five years after my time in Boston).

I presented my credentials from Dr. Turner to obtain permission to handle the rare manuscripts and dove into hours of poring over handwritten documents. I wore thin plastic gloves to protect the fragile century-old sheets of paper from the oil of my fingertips. As my own research on Ben Salmon progressed, I spent a lot of time in the grand interior of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. By the end of my first semester, all this close detail work had compelled me to get my first pair of reading glasses. I visited the student optometry clinic at Boston University near Fenway Park and obtained my first prescription for a very reasonable price, then jumped right back into my grueling reading regimen at a renewed pace.

I did take a few trips outside Boston in that first semester, including a visit to New York City and Thanksgiving with my mother’s cousins on the Jersey Shore. I took another drive-away car to Chevy Chase, Maryland, then took the DC Metro to the Smithsonian Museums I remembered so fondly from childhood. The 20th Anniversary March on Washington was taking place and I heard speeches by Coretta Scott King and Gloria Steinem. I drove down Interstate 81 through the Shenandoah Valley to Harrisonburg, my first time there in six years, and saw the house where I lived for four and a half years during junior high and high school.

Back in Boston, I made my way downtown to Boston Common and toured the Massachusetts State House, built at the end of the 18th century, and the historic Beacon Hill neighborhood behind it. The narrow, gaslit cobblestone streets and stately, well-kept Georgian brick row houses brought me back to an earlier time in American history. Facing the State House on the Common was the moving Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), which was dedicated in 1897 to the bravery of the African American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and their young white commanding officer. Shaw was killed with scores of his men in a doomed assault on Confederate Battery Wagner in Charleston on July 18, 1863. Their story was later immortalized in the 1989 Edward Zwick film Glory.

Detail from the 1897 Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on Boston Common, dedicated to the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first all-black regiments to fight for the Union in the American Civil War.

Boston is known worldwide for its historic Freedom Trail, which includes tours of the State House, Boston Common, the Park Street Church, and the Granary Burying Ground, final resting place of John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and many other heroes of the American Revolution. I made my way to Faneuil Hall and the Old State House, site of the infamous Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. Not far was the U.S.S. Constitution Museum, commemorating “Old Ironsides” and her victories for the fledgling American navy in the War of 1812. As I stood on the plaque at Filene’s in Downtown Crossing that read HUB OF THE UNIVERSE, it was hard as an historian to disagree with such a perception of this amazing city.

Boston’s Freedom Trail includes many noteworthy historical sites, including the graves of American patriot leaders and the restored U.S.S. Constitution.

By the new semester in January I was getting my feet wet as a graduate student and then freezing them every day as I walked back and forth through the snow and ice from my apartment to the Wollaston MBTA Station (double woolen socks did little to ameliorate my notoriously poor circulation, even at the tender age of 22). I entertained myself by listening to WUMB Radio 91.9 FM (the UMass/Boston NPR station); attending retreats at the Paulist Center, the MIT Chapel, and St. John’s Seminary in Brighton; exercising at the UMB campus gym, going to movies at the discount theater in Wollaston, and browsing through a basement used book seller in Harvard Square. The Red Line took me where I wanted to go and I took advantage of the many opportunities for adventure and enlightenment.

When the snow finally began to thaw, I ventured further afield to see more of New England and beyond. I visited western Connecticut (see above photo) and drove through New Hampshire and Vermont to spend a few days in Quebec and Montreal. I went to the end of Cape Cod and visited Walden Pond in Concord, where a pile of stones commemorated the site of Henry David Thoreau’s secluded cabin. The demands of my academic load prevented me from seeing some of the more well-known historic sites, including Salem and the living history displays at Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. But I was privileged to enjoy two autumns in New England with their brilliant changing foliage, an exhilarating celebration of the senses I will not soon forget.

At the end of April 1984 I joined my roommate on a road trip down the length of Interstate 95 to Florida, and thence across the entirety of Interstate 10 to California, where we parted ways and I headed north to see old college friends in Santa Cruz. One of them offered me a job as a bilingual counselor at a CYO summer camp in Sonoma County (see my blog on “Teaching as Vocation”) and I spent nine weeks there working with several groups of 9-10 year old boys from a group home operated by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. I enjoyed my summer in the California sun and contemplated plans to enter seminary after I finished my thesis at UMB. By that time I had taken an interest in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and a career in the ministry.

When I returned to Boston at the end of August in another drive-away car (this one belonging to a Harvard medical student), I was well into my Ben Salmon thesis and done with my work as a faculty research assistant. I worked as a work-study intern at a local peace organization and finished writing my first draft. By the end of the fall semester I was done with my coursework and left Boston and New England. I finished my thesis in Oakland, California in the spring of 1985 and rewrote it three years later in Berkeley for a book contract with Paulist Press.

I have not been back to Boston since. My time there was a seminal event in the gradual evolution of my teaching career. The American Civilization graduate program at UMass/Boston turned out to be an ideal honing ground for secondary teachers. Many of my classmates were already teaching at Boston area high schools and others eventually joined the faculty of the UMB program itself. The question of future career that had perplexed me in Santa Cruz was resolved in the long run by my training in Boston. I never anticipated in 1983 that I would enter the classroom fifteen years later as a professional educator and remain there for two decades. But that is what happened, and I am grateful for it.

The effects of the experiences I had in Boston formed the foundation of a lifelong vocation in the learning and teaching of history and the other social sciences. For those of you considering applying to one of the area’s more than sixty colleges and universities, I highly recommend a visit there. The historical treasures of greater New England continue to offer transformative learning opportunities to all serious students of America’s past.

Visiting a dormitory room at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in the fall of 1984 during my final semester in Boston. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


The Heart of the English-Speaking World

A trooper of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment standing guard in London in December 2003. I arrived there on Christmas Day and returned to California on New Year’s Day 2004. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

The 18th century British essayist and literary critic Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” I only came to fully appreciate these words after spending a week in the city myself. My experience there was so transformative that I cannot remember the pre-conceived notions about the place I harbored before I went. London is truly a world city, and in it I was introduced to the world in unexpected and enlightening ways.

My maternal grandfather was born in London in 1911. His mother was from Three Bridges, Sussex south of the capital and his father came from Rye, New York. They met while she was on holiday with American relatives on the Jersey Shore in 1910. My grandfather was raised in Staten Island, but his mother eventually retired to England, and as he grew older he traveled regularly to London (see photo below). Later in life he moved to the American Southwest, but he took his British cultural roots with him.

My maternal grandfather (left) in London on business with an engineering colleague around 1961, the same year I was born in New Jersey. Westminster Abbey stands in the background.

He died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1991, the same year I moved from the Bay Area to Newton, Kansas and began devoting a lot of time to genealogical research (see my blog entry on “Climbing the Family Tree”). I focused largely on my Irish and German roots at first and gave little thought to my English ancestry until my mother showed me a photograph of my great-grandmother and a series of fine engravings done by her father, a Victorian era London artist named Owen Hanks. This piqued my interest, and I began looking for an opportunity to learn more.

It arrived in the fall of 2003. I was in my sixth year of teaching in Bakersfield, California and my third teaching 7th grade world history. The state curriculum covered the medieval and renaissance periods as well as the age of exploration and rise of European empires. This had not been the focus of my studies in college and graduate school (my major was American Studies), so I was doing a lot of reading and watching documentary films (my favorite was Simon Schama’s outstanding series A History of Britain) to stay ahead of what I was assigning my students in their textbook. So when the opportunity to spend a week in London over my winter break presented itself, I welcomed the chance to see first hand some of the places I was studying.

I flew out of Los Angeles and arrived at Heathrow Airport on Christmas Day 2003. The movie Love Actually was in theatres and posters advertising its release were emblazoned on many of the bright red double-decker buses. Garlands, tinsel, bells, and red ribbon were everywhere. The weather was cool but clear, peppered by the proverbial London Christmas rain shower. I took an entertaining ride in a classic black London cab and arrived at my hotel in Bloomsbury near Tottenham Court Road. That evening I treated myself to a pint and some chips at a local pub and celebrated my arrival in the historic British capital.

My hotel was within walking distance of the British Museum, and I spent several days exploring its stimulating exhibits. I was particularly taken with the Celtic ironwork and jewelry, the collection of African and Asian artifacts, and the overall floor design that resembled the spokes of a gigantic wheel. The Museum was celebrating 250 years and its halls were filled with evidence of the expansion of British power and influence across the world over the course of that period. I took a circuitous route back to my hotel through a light rain, visiting a local bookstore and making note of several historic homes marked by the iconic Blue Plaques. As I took in the sights and sounds of centuries, I had no doubt that I was standing at the heart of the English-speaking world.

The British Museum was founded in 1753 and became a depository for cultural and artistic treasures from across Britain’s world empire. The Museum was celebrating 250 years in the heart of London when I visited there in 2003. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

I wasted no time in taking in as many sights as I could. I made liberal use of the London Underground, known locally as “The Tube,” and visited Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and the theatre district of the West End. I took photos of the statues of Lincoln, Cromwell, and Churchill in Parliament Square and conversed with a crowd of protestors decrying the war in Iraq. I toured the stage and gift shop of the restored Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, where Shakespeare had produced so many of his classic works.

Walking past the site of the original Globe, which was under renovation at the time, I visited Southwark Cathedral and the outdoor vendors of the Borough Market. The Anchor Bankside and Brewery and other historic pubs and restaurants were fascinating historic stops. I also went to the Golden Hinde, the 1577 restored sailing ship that carried Sir Francis Drake around the world at the end of 16th century. I wanted to take in every attraction and read every monument.

The highlight of the week was my tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I reached by crossing the Thames on the Millennium Bridge with its sweeping views of river traffic and historic dockside buildings. The exterior of St. Paul’s was being renovated at the time and its western face was covered with a large canvas painted in the outlines of the building. I took a series of pictures of the courtyard statues, including that of Queen Anne (1665-1714), who was the reigning monarch of Britain when the new St. Paul’s was completed in 1710. Looking up to the massive 365-foot cathedral dome, I immediately saw the inspiration for the United States Capitol and so many other neo-classical structures in the States.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London. The previous 13th century building, built on the ruins of an 11th century church, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 during the reign of King Charles II. Sir Christopher Wren’s neo-classical reconstruction was completed in 1675 and remained the tallest building in London until 1967. Damaged by German bombardment during World War II, a massive renovation project was begun in 1996 and completed in 2011. Photo Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

The interior of St. Paul’s was indeed breathtaking. The beautiful dome, stained glass, monuments, and chapels were overwhelming in their grandeur and intricate detail. St. Paul’s remains an active church serving the entire city, and I joined the rest of the many visitors in maintaining silence in this hallowed space. As a history teacher, there was so much to see and photograph. The tombs of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, tattered 18th and 19th regimental colours, monuments to the cavalry regiments of the Crimean War and the British generals killed at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, and a myriad of other memorials occupied my interest for more than an hour.

Then I went downstairs to the Crypt. Here was (along with Westminster Abbey, which I was only able to photograph from the outside due to the immense crowds waiting to get in from a driving rain) Britain’s equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery. Florence Nightingale, General Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Kitchener, and so many other historic figures were entombed or memorialized in the dark chambers and corridors. I felt as if chapters of a history textbook were opening before me and taking on three-dimensional form.

I was particularly excited to come upon the memorials to Britain’s Victorian era “Bohemian Brigade” – famed correspondent William Howard Russell (who covered the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Indian Mutiny, the Franco-Prussian War, and many other campaigns), combat artist Melton Prior (see image below), and a bronze plaque remembering the British journalists killed in the Anglo-Sudan War between 1883 and 1898. I stood there for several moments in silent reverence and reflection.

Memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral Crypt to artist correspondent Melton Prior (1845-1910), who covered many campaigns of the Victorian era for the Illustrated London News. Photo Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

London is a walking city, and there was much to see by strolling through its historic neighborhoods. I enjoyed the peaceful lawns and paths of Hyde Park and watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. I visited the Victoria and Albert Memorials and the statue of Charles I and the Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square. I toured the grounds of Kensington Palace, including the statue of the young Queen Victoria (1837-1901), and watched a holiday juggling performance in Covent Garden. The historic shops, pubs, restaurants, and homes were all interesting to see and photograph.

London is also an international city, and the people, businesses, and restaurants I saw and visited all bore witness to the worldwide reach of the once-mighty British Empire. The people of London reflected the same diversity as the cultural and historical exhibits I toured at the British Museum. Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Singapore, Malaysia (formerly Malaya and Sarawak), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean islands had all left their mark on the character of this vibrant metropolis.

There was so much to see. Sadly, I ran out of time before I could tour the National Portrait Gallery, Kew Gardens or the Imperial War Museum, but I did visit several of the London War Memorials, including the Cenotaph at Whitehall and the Royal Artillery Memorial, with its evocative wall of names reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C. I took pictures of monuments dedicated to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). I took in a show and a New Year’s Eve party in the West End and had a long conversation on Victorian drawings with one of the curators at the British Museum. All in all, it was a wonderful week.

I returned with much new material to share with my middle school students, and later with my high school sophomores when I taught modern world history for ten years in Orange County. But my week in London yielded much more than curriculum resources. I connected with my English roots and gained a new appreciation of British influence on the development of today’s world and my own identity as an American. Dr. Johnson had been right in 1777. For anyone interested in history, literature, art, science, fashion, music, world cultures and cuisine, and international commerce, there is no tiring of this cosmopolitan and historic city along the Thames.

The bust of Zeus and part of the vast collection donated to the nation by King George III (1738-1820) in the King’s Library at the British Museum. The library had been fully restored to its original Georgian glory just before my visit in December of 2003. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Climbing the Family Tree

Finney (Feeney) family tree I completed in 1995 after several years of genealogical research. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Compiling a family history may seem like a relatively easy task at first. As long as the relatives have oral histories or some written records and artifacts to share, a basic narrative can be constructed to pass down to the next generations. Many families do this and do it well. Others show little knowledge of or interest in the family tree. Anyone from this kind of background is on their own, and starting from scratch can be daunting. Constructing a pedigree chart or any other genealogical tool can require patience and diligence if information is not readily available.

Fortunately, I had grandmothers who appreciated and encouraged my interest. My father’s mother had stories, photographs, and some family tree charts, especially for the Finney side, which was of Irish and German extraction. My mother’s mother did not have too many stories for me, but she did pass down a collection of Civil War medals that had belonged to her grandfather (see image below). My mother did provide me with some information, but she did not have many historical details at her immediate disposal. She said her side was mostly German with some Polish, French, Scots-Irish, and Cherokee mixed in.

Civil War medals belonging to Michael Schneider (1842-1900), passed down to me by my maternal grandmother in 1974. I had them mounted and framed in 1995. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

My maternal grandmother died in Virginia in 1974 when she was 63 and I was 13. A few years later I moved to California and went off to college. Busy with school and work, I did not return to my genealogical interest for many years. Then in the spring of 1992, after moving to a small town north of Wichita, I began listening to an NPR show on Radio Kansas called “The Thistle and Shamrock”. Scottish radio host Fiona Ritchie had developed a thematic program highlighting the connections between Appalachian folk music and traditional Celtic songs and ballads from northwestern Europe. I was able to listen to the entire hour each Sunday afternoon as I drove through the long expanses of wheat and sunflowers along U.S. 50.

As someone of Irish and Scottish heritage who spent much of my boyhood in Appalachia, I quickly became an avid fan of her show. I knew from childhood that my surname was originally spelled O’Feeney and was changed to Finney around the time of the Civil War. I visited the local public library and checked out everything they had on Ireland. Digging deeper, I discovered that the name Feeney was Fiadhne in Gaelic and was derived from ancient legends of Irish warriors. The Feeney clan was from Connaught in western Ireland, and that many had left the potato famine for North America in the 1840s. When I first heard the poignant lament “Green Fields of Canada” by the Irish band Deanta on Ritchie’s weekly broadcast, I was surprised to find myself overwhelmed with emotion. Something had struck a deep chord.

When I returned to California that fall, I continued to listen to “The Thistle and Shamrock,” this time on Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. I continued my genealogical research, contacting relatives on both sides and compiling primary and secondary sources. One of my father’s cousins sent me an extensive notebook with many helpful names and dates. Another lived in an historic 1850s farmhouse in the Gold Rush town of Sutter Creek, only a few hours drive from where I was living, and I spent a day with her as she shared family photos and stories. From these family records, I began constructing the family tree chart pictured above.

On my mother’s side, I found three Union Civil War soldiers, Ohioan Michael Schneider and father and son Thomas and Samuel Laughery from Iowa. Family charts listed the regiments in which they had served, and with just this information I was able to order their military service records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It was a thrilling moment to receive and open these documents and read through them for the first time. Here before my eyes were the signatures of my Civil War ancestors and the stories of their wartime service. The medals wrapped in tissue paper from my late grandmother suddenly took on human form.

I began filling out a pedigree chart for both sides of my family and drawing individual charts for each branch (see handmade diagrams below). I filled in as much information as I could from the family history records at my disposal, including birth, marriage, and death dates, full names, birthplaces and places of death, and baptismal and other church records. When I ran into a dead end, I had to look elsewhere. In the 1990s when I was heavily involved in this activity, that meant calling courthouses and making road trips across the country. The internet was first making its public debut and online genealogical resources were in their infancy. I had to use “old school” methods.

One of the charts I compiled on my paternal ancestors from Hannover, Germany. My great-great-grandfather Heinrich Meiring fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 before emigrating to Canada and then Oregon, where his daughter married George Finney and gave birth to my grandfather in 1900. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

Most of the vital records offices I contacted by telephone were very helpful. I managed to obtain a few death certificates on my father’s Irish side and some photographs from the German side. More family heirlooms arrived from distant relatives. One sent me my great-grandmother’s Roman Catholic Confirmation prayer book from 1885. Another sent me my grandfather’s 1919 high school yearbook from Sheridan, Oregon. I contacted the historical societies of several of the counties in Oregon and Ohio where my ancestors had lived and was able to glean some bits on land and marriage records.

I returned from a visit to my mother in Oklahoma in the summer of 2001 with a large collection of family photographs and memorabilia, which I photocopied and returned to her. By the end of 1994 I had compiled quite an extensive scrapbook with several pedigree charts and family narratives. I visited the local Mormon library, which kept an impressive genealogical collection that was available to non-members such as myself, and was able to gather a few more details on dates and locations. Then I came up cold. There were no more details to be found, at least in the sources available to me. I had to fill in the blanks myself.

I began by researching the time periods and locations in which my ancestors lived. I studied the history of the Irish potato famine, including the ordeal endured by passengers on the notorious “coffin ships” across the Atlantic in the 1840s. I read British historian Cecil Woodham-Smith’s classic The Great Hunger (1962) and exchanged a series of letters with my father’s cousin in Portland, Oregon who had done extensive research on that period. I ordered the regimental histories of my Civil War ancestors’ units from the Ohio and Iowa state archives and included them in my scrapbook. Armed with more contextual information, I began asking more specific questions of relatives and was able to fill in some more blanks.

Finney family portrait from 1885 in front of their home in Gervais, Oregon. My Irish great-great-grandparents, James and Mary Ann Finney, stand at left; their daughter Ella in the center, and my great-grandfather George and his brother Ed at right. Photo courtesy of my late cousin Agnes Grady.

Then in the summer of 1995 I decided to take a road trip north from Sacramento to Marion County, Oregon. I learned that my great-great-grandparents from Ireland were buried in the St. Louis Catholic Cemetery outside the small farming town of Gervais. It was a long drive in the heat and humidity along Interstate 5. When I finally arrived at my destination, I was overwhelmed to stand in front of my ancestors’ graves. Buried with James and Mary Ann Finney was their son Francis (Frank), who was the fourth of their seven children to die before the age of 30.

Scores of other Irish and French immigrants were buried around them. The peaceful surrounding fields, silent tombstones, and white wooden church where my great-grandparents were married a century earlier seemed to have changed little in appearance since that earlier time. Afterwards, I visited the graves of my German immigrant great-great-grandparents and Irish-American great-grandparents in nearby Salem. All in all, it was a life changing experience. I felt a deep connection to my roots and this land that I had not sensed before. I felt the presence and blessing of my ancestors.

Standing at the graves of James and Mary Ann Finney, my Irish-born great-great-grandparents, in the St. Louis Cemetery in Gervais, Oregon in the summer of 1995. He died on New Year’s Day in 1905 and she followed him six weeks later on Valentine’s Day. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Over the next two decades, I added more information to my genealogy scrapbook as online resources became more available. Ancestry.com and familysearch.org are among the many excellent tools with which to conduct research. Vital records from counties and states across the country as well as federal military records can also be obtained by digital means. But in the end, an old-fashioned phone call, conversation, or road trip is still the best way to learn some things. Find out who has the photos, the stories, and the artifacts in your family. That is always a good place to start. Genealogy can become a rewarding, lifelong hobby. Understanding your roots can help you live a more grounded and fruitful life.

Hand drawn pedigree chart for my paternal Irish side. In the end, I discovered I have Irish, Scottish, French, English, Polish, German, and Cherokee ancestry. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.