Veterans Day

One of five murals by artist Richard DeRosset in the Veterans Museum at San Diego’s Balboa Park. The museum holds an impressive collection of military artifacts and paintings and hosts period dances and other educational events.

November 11, 1918 marked the signing of the Armistice ending the First World War. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent. Ten million men in uniform had died, along with countless millions of civilians. The exhausted Allied nations of Europe were relieved to be free of the bloodshed and dedicated November 11th thenceforward as Armistice Day.

France, Belgium, and Serbia still observe November 11 as Armistice Day; in the British Commonwealth of Nations it is Remembrance Day. Poland celebrates its independence from the former Russian and Hapsburg Empires. Last year was the centennial of the 1918 Armistice and included many moving commemorative events. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into the war as a late participant, delivered a stirring address on the first anniversary of the Armistice, and Congress adopted November 11 as a national holiday in 1926.

Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all the men and women who have served the nation in uniform. Those of you still in school know it as a welcome day off after weeks of intensive academic effort. The First Quarter is over and the end of the First Semester is now in sight. The full week of Thanksgiving Break is right around the corner. It is time to rest and begin to focus on your final assignments and how best to finish the term successfully.

Think of the veterans you know on this day. Our rights and privileges have been protected by their service and sacrifice. Do what you can to support them. Learn about veterans’ issues and elect public officials who will protect their federal benefits. The way we treat our veterans says something about our national character and values. These are women and men who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country. They deserve our thanks and respect.

Hand painted miniature of my Union Army ancestor with his regiment’s XVI Corps badge. Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

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

To sign up for tutoring, 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 English language schools were imposed, and finally Finney once the family 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. We went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, founded at the end of the 12th century and the heart of the Anglican Church of Ireland since the Reformation. The inaugural performance of Handel’s Messiah was held there in 1742 when the great satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was Dean. The cathedral holds Swift’s tomb as well as King William III’s chair and the battle flags of Irish regiments who served in the British Army.

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), Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), James Larkin (1876-1947), Roger Casement (1864-1916), and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915). At the grave of Michael Collins (1890-1922), our bagpiper played a lament, attracting an appreciative audience of cemetery visitors and staff.

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 slowed the bus 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.

Climbing the Family Tree

Finney (Feeney) family tree I completed in 1995 after several years of genealogical research. My great-great-great-grandfather arrived in Chicago from Canada in the 1840s with his brothers and their families. Their descendants settled across the United States from Massachusetts to California. Artwork 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. On the Irish side, I knew from childhood that my surname was originally spelled O’Feeney and was changed to Finney around the time of the Civil War. But there were few other stories of my Irish heritage passed down to me as a boy. I was hungry for more information. 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 were Irish speakers from Connaught in western Ireland. Many left the potato famine for North America in the 1840s and brought their emigration songs with them. 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.

As I continued my research, I was particularly drawn to my maternal grandmother’s Scottish roots. Her maternal grandmother, Sarah Margaret Laughery (1862-1947), was born in Iowa shortly after her father and brother enlisted in the Union Army. Her mother was descended from a Scots-Irish Pennsylvania veteran of the American Revolution who was awarded land in Morgan County, Ohio for his wartime service. His ancestors were a sept of Clan Davidson in the Scottish Highland region of Inverness. The name Laughery was originally Lochrie in the Scottish Lowlands and connected to Clan Douglas, then changed when the family moved to northern Ireland.

In 1882, Sarah married James Allen Davis, a native of Perry County, Missouri and the son of Scots-Irish, French, and Cherokee pioneers. The young couple moved to Los Angeles, California in 1886 in pursuit of land and job opportunities, where James died tragically in an accidental fire eight years later at the age of 38. Sarah returned to Iowa with her small children (including my great-grandmother Clara Belle) and remarried, this time to a one-legged Civil War veteran named Jacob Kimm, who moved his new blended family to eastern Washington to start a frontier church mission. Clara Belle married Sherman Schneider in 1910 and gave birth to my maternal grandmother in Spokane the following year.

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.

By the end of 1994 I had compiled quite an extensive scrapbook with several pedigree charts and family narratives. I visited the local LDS family history 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. 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.  That year I also found a Feeney cousin living in County Offaly, Ireland, who wrote to me with stories and information.  A genealogical society in County Roscommon I contacted by email was very helpful. I compiled an online family tree which I shared with distant relatives who found me on the internet.

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.


Ozark Battlefields

Visiting the Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in northwestern Arkansas in August 2001. My great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Laughery fought there with Company A of the 19th Iowa Volunteer Infantry on December 7, 1862. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

In the summer of 1997 my mother decided to leave southern California after twenty years and retire to Oklahoma with her partner Darrell. He was a native of Bartlesville and a member of the Cherokee Nation, whose territory encompassed most of the northeastern portion of the state. I had been compiling the family history for several years at that point and began corresponding with Mom and Darrell about our Cherokee connection. She had told me that her grandmother’s father, Missouri native James Allen Davis (1856-1894), came from Scots-Irish, French, and Cherokee roots.

Two years later, I developed an artist correspondent character for my Civil War reenacting hobby and named him after my ancestor from Missouri. In my genealogical research, I had discovered three other Civil War connections on my maternal side. Michael Schneider (1842-1900) was my grandmother’s paternal grandfather and had served in the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, chasing Confederate guerrillas through Missouri and then participating in the Battles of New Madrid, Island Number 10, Corinth and Iuka, Parker’s Crossroads, the 1864 battles for Atlanta and the March to the Sea, and the 1865 Carolinas Campaign.

My grandmother’s mother, Clara Belle Davis (1892-1966) was the daughter of James Allen Davis. On her mother’s side, Clara Belle was the granddaughter and niece of two other Union veterans, father Thomas and son Samuel Laughery from Keokuk, Iowa. The military service records I managed to obtain from the National Archives indicated that Thomas had served in Company A of the 19th Iowa Volunteer Infantry and fought at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas on December 7, 1862, before being discharged into the Invalid Corps for an eye infection developed on campaign. His son Samuel enlisted in the 8th Iowa Cavalry and nearly died of dysentery in camp. He recovered and joined his regiment in Georgia and Alabama for the final campaigns of the war.

Civil War service of my maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Laughery (1821-1879) and his son Samuel (1844-1917). Thomas fought in the December 7, 1862 Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, and Samuel participated in the 1864 Atlanta Campaign and Wilson’s Raid in 1865. Artwork Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

By the summer of 2001 I was ready to bring this information with me on my first visit to northeast Oklahoma. I drove through the Mojave Desert, Arizona, New Mexico, and Tulsa on Interstate 40 and arrived at Mom and Darrell’s home along a forested creek near Spavinaw, birthplace of baseball legend Mickey Mantle (1931-1995). Darrell had been researching some of his own ancestors from the Civil War period and we spent many hours comparing notes. I was happy to see my mother after a four-year absence and joined her and Darrell for a tour of the surrounding area. The summer days in Mayes County were sunny, warm, and humid, followed by languid, balmy evenings under the shade of a verdant forest canopy.

My mother gave me access to a big cardboard box full of old family photographs, and I borrowed several of them to copy and include in my genealogy scrapbook. A few days into my visit, we drove across the border into northwest Arkansas to visit the Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park near Fayetteville. I had been looking forward to this experience with great anticipation after everything I had learned about my ancestor’s participation there. Upon our arrival I immediately posed by a cannon at the entrance to the visitor center (see image above).

I was excited to enter the Hindman Hall Museum and immerse myself in its many engaging displays. There were uniforms, maps, artifacts, and a roster with the names of all the Union soldiers who had fought there that day. I found Thomas Laughery’s name and placed my finger on it. It was an overwhelming and magical moment for this amateur genealogist. I then toured the battlefield grounds, including the restored Borden House where bitter fighting between Union attackers and Confederate defenders had ended in a bloody stalemate before the rebels withdrew at the end of the day. Grim monuments bore witness to the three thousand men who were killed or wounded.

I returned to California with several rolls of exciting photographs and a few family heirlooms. In 2002 I was able to visit the battlefield at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, site of a March 1862 engagement northeast of Santa Fe that was relatively small in numbers but large in strategic importance. Union soldiers from Colorado and New Mexico were able to stop a Confederate force from Texas in what has come to be called the “Gettysburg of the West.” The battlefield itself was relatively undeveloped at the time and was managed under the auspices of the Pecos National Historical Park. Only a few adobe buildings and a well remained from the time of the battle, but it was still a thrill to climb on the boulders where Union sharpshooters had stood.

By the summer of 2004 I was ready to return to the Ozarks to visit more battlefields. Mom and Darrell had moved to a converted barn near Jay and Lake Eucha, a few miles east of Spavinaw. My first stop en route to their new home was the Honey Springs Battlefield near Checotah. This was the site of a pivotal fight along the Old Texas Road on July 17, 1863, just two weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. 3,000 Union troops under General James G. Blunt (who was also in command at Prairie Grove) faced off against 6,000 Confederates under General Douglas H. Cooper. The soldiers involved included white units as well as African Americans in blue and Cherokee and Choctaw cavalry in gray.

Historical marker at the Honey Springs Battlefield near Checotah, Oklahoma. The battle took place between Union forces under General James G. Blunt and Confederates under General Douglas H. Cooper on July 17, 1863.

I found this multicultural aspect of the Trans-Mississippi theater of the war particularly fascinating. Americans of all cultural backgrounds were forced to take sides in this fratricidal conflict. Mexican American Union troops had played a critical role in stopping the Confederates at Glorieta, and Confederate tejanos fought the Yankees in Texas and Louisiana. The five “Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw) had been resettled to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) after the Trail of Tears, and some of their wealthier chiefs owned slaves. Resentful of federal authority and protective of their economic interests, most of them sided with the South.

Other tribes fought on the Northern side. African Americans joined segregated regiments under white officers in free Kansas long before the Emancipation Proclamation gave official federal authorization of black troops. Some of these Kansas “colored” units fought at Honey Springs, and I enjoyed walking along the wooden sidewalk of the grassy battlefield and reading the interpretive markers (see image above). Souvenirs and information were housed in a trailer which was serving as the makeshift visitor center (it was expanded and rebuilt in the years following my visit). There was a large diorama of the battle and literature on the war in Indian Territory.

After I arrived in Jay, I used the converted barn as a home base from which to explore the battlefields of the surrounding area. The Ozark region was one of the more crucial theaters of the war, and I was now positioned well to explore its historic locations. Mom and Darrell were located within a few hours drive of more than a dozen preserved Civil War era sites in northeastern Oklahoma, southeastern Kansas, southwestern Missouri, and northwestern Arkansas. Over the course of my week there, I managed to visit most of them.

One of my first stops was to the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Republic, Missouri near Springfield, site of the first major battle west of the Mississippi on August 10, 1861. The visitor center featured a large illuminated map and a captivating film with large numbers of reenactors, and the nearby Civil War Museum was filled with authentic weapons, uniforms, and battle flags. The drive through the rolling hills and forested glens of the battlefield was a memorable experience, especially the cannon atop “Bloody Hill” and the memorial marker at its base to General Nathaniel Lyon, the Union commander who was killed there.

Another day trip took me to Pea Ridge National Military Park in Benton County, Arkansas, a large engagement which decided the fate of the Ozarks on March 7-8, 1862. While Wilson’s Creek was a Confederate victory and Prairie Grove essentially a draw, Pea Ridge dealt the South a crushing blow from which its forces in the region never fully recovered. Over 27,000 troops were involved, with more than 3,000 killed, wounded, missing, or captured. Three high ranking Confederate generals were killed. I stood on the spot where a Union infantryman fired the shot that killed Texan General Ben McCulloch. The restored Elkhorn Tavern that was the scene of so much brutal fighting was surrounded by monuments to the dead.

Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge National Military Park, site of the pivotal March 7-8, 1862 battle between Union forces under General Samuel R. Curtis and Confederates under General Earl Van Dorn. Photo Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

Baxter Springs, Kansas was the site of one of the more notorious incidents of the western war. Confederate guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill, fresh from his attack on the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, was heading south to winter in Texas when he decided to attack a Union garrison at Fort Baxter (Fort Blair). The rebels were repulsed, and as they retreated, they ran into another Union column under General James G. Blunt. Frustrated after their failure to take the fort, they determined to make these Yankees pay.

Dressed in blue uniforms, the guerrillas managed to catch their enemy off guard and charged into them with pistols blazing. Nearly all the Union men were killed, many of them after surrendering or trying to escape. One was Major Henry Curtis, son of the victor of the Battle of Pea Ridge. Another was James R. O’Neill, an Irish-born artist correspondent for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. He had covered the Battle of Honey Springs and was traveling with General Blunt’s personal escort. O’Neill was the only known member of the “Bohemian Brigade” to be killed during the American Civil War.

The excellent Baxter Springs Heritage Center & Museum held an extensive collection of artifacts and photographs on these events. I spent quite a bit of time there before taking the driving tour that followed the course of the battle and ended at the cemetery where O’Neill and many of the other Union dead are buried (see image below). As someone who portrayed a member of the “Bohemian Brigade” on the reenacting field, seeing O’Neill’s name carved into that stone column was a poignant moment for me. Afterwards, I wanted to continue north and visit the Mine Creek battlefield in Linn County, Kansas, but ran out of time and had to return to Jay for the night. I simply could not see everything in one week.

Monument to Union non-combatants killed at Baxter Springs, Kansas on October 6, 1863. Artist correspondent James R. O’Neill’s name is at lower right. All of these men were shot down in cold blood after surrendering to Quantrill’s guerrillas, leading many to call the incident the Baxter Springs Massacre. Photo Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

I spent my remaining time closer to my base, visiting sites within the Cherokee Nation in northeast Oklahoma. I went to Fort Gibson, a marvelously restored 19th century frontier outpost that changed hands during the war. The Cabin Creek battlefield was the closest site to my mother’s house and the most secluded, with a circle of stone monuments hidden in a shadowy forest grove. The Murrell mansion or Hunter’s Home near Park Hill is one of the few stately mansions that survived the war period. And the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah is an outstanding display of traditional culture and crafts as well as extensive exhibits on Cherokee history, including the Trail of Tears and the role the tribe played in the Civil War.

By the time my visit was over, I realized how much more I could have seen if I had more time. I was grateful for what I was able to do, however, and returned to California to share my photos and stories with reenacting friends and my middle school and community college students as the new school year began. 2004 was a busy year for historical journeys. My trip to Lancaster and Antietam preceded the week in Oklahoma, and 140th Franklin was held in Tennessee that October. The historical importance of the Ozark region during the Civil War period astounded me. I continued to pursue my research and incorporated what I learned in my U.S. history classes and living history presentations.

My mother passed in February 2019 in Rogers, Arkansas, not far from the Prairie Grove battlefield where her ancestor had fought to save the Union. I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to spend time with her and Darrell in 2004 and the wealth of information I was privileged to share with my students on this important chapter in American history.

Looking out over the now peaceful Pea Ridge Battlefield landscape in Benton County, Arkansas in the summer of 2004. 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.


Crossroads of the Pacific

Named the Sandwich Islands by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778, Hawai’i was an independent kingdom from 1795 to 1893, when the last reigning queen was deposed in a coup by haole (Caucasian) sugar planters. Five years later the islands were annexed by the United States. Nearly six decades of territorial status were followed by statehood in 1959, when Hawai’i became the 50th star in the American flag. Many Native Hawaiians still call for political and cultural sovereignty.

One of the classic writer Mark Twain’s lesser known works is the autobiographical Roughing It (1872), an account of his time in the mining camps of California and Nevada during the years of the Civil War. The book also includes reflections on the four weeks he spent in the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1866 on special assignment with the Sacramento Union. With typical sardonic humor, he describes a bucolic, isolated world filled with lush verdant landscapes and languid natives bathing in warm, clear waters, caressed by tropical trade winds. The Honolulu he visited was a sleepy little Polynesian capital where ships from all over the Pacific came for trade, beach parties, and relaxation.

Such is the image of the islands he brought back to the mainland to form part of the stand-up routine that made him a star on the Victorian lecture circuit. This view of Hawai’i endured well into the 20th century and still lingers in the marketing campaigns of the tourist industry there, the largest in the state. Up to ten million visitors come in and out of the islands every year and pour more than $16 billion into the local economy. Most of them spend their week or two cloistered in luxury hotel rooms or Airbnb’s and funneled out to well-known tourist attractions in rental cars or guided buses. Much effort is expended to create a positive, memorable experience that will encourage tourists to return for another visit.

Growing up in North Carolina and Virginia, I had little interest in Hawai’i and did not give the place much thought as a boy and teenager. Other than the photographs of the Pearl Harbor attack I had seen in my history textbooks, my only other image of the islands was that of the hula girl playing the ukulele and wearing flower leis and a grass skirt, probably from seeing the Tikimaster Leilani dashboard doll bouncing near the steering wheels of big rigs pulling into truck stops along Interstate 81. Hawai’i seemed to be on the other side of the world from me, a faraway and exotic place I assumed I would never see.

My prospects of visiting improved dramatically when I moved to southern California in 1977 to finish high school. Ten years later, in my mid-20s, I had the opportunity to spend a week on the Garden Isle of Kaua’i. My earlier indifference was soon dispelled by the vibrant colors of the tropical mountains and native hibiscus, the intoxicating fragrances of ginger and plumeria, the delicious flavors of kalua pig and lomi salmon, the sweetness of guava, starfruit, and flame papaya, and the breathtaking vistas of the Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon. The Leilani dashboard girls came to life in the spectacular luau shows I attended. I was entranced, and determined to return as soon as possible.

I had my chance two years later while completing a graduate degree in theology at the GTU in Berkeley, California. One of my requirements was to complete a month of “cross-cultural experience,” hosted by a local pastor in a community different from where I had grown up (see my blog entry on “Cross-Cultural Perspectives”). Longing for an opportunity to return to Hawai’i, I welcomed the opportunity to participate in an intersession program on the Wai’anae coast of O’ahu. I flew out of San Francisco for Honolulu just after New Year’s Day in 1989 and made my way up O’ahu’s leeward coast.

As soon as I arrived in Wai’anae, I realized I was in a completely different Hawai’i than what I had seen and experienced on my Kaua’i vacation. The tourist Hawai’i of luaus and luxury hotels was absent in this economically depressed and traditionally Hawaiian cultural area. In spite of its aridity, Wai’anae boasted some tropical flora and fauna, but I found myself exposed to the reality of economic inequities that dated back generations. Unemployment and poverty were visible everywhere. Housing conditions were poor. People had to grow their own food and build their own shelter. In some areas, drug use was rampant. It was hard to believe that this place co-existed in such close proximity to the glittering “paradise” of Waikiki.

One of the first people I met was a local Native Hawaiian teacher and taro farmer who was busy developing what he called “alternative tourism.” This involved immersion in the local Hawaiian culture, reading and “talking story” on Hawaiian history, and participation in native agriculture. The goal was to encourage visitors to boost the grassroots economy and the continuity of historic Hawaiian communities rather than fuel the growth of the more mainstream, sanitized, multinational tourist industry in Honolulu and elsewhere. He taught me how to plant taro, or kalo, which had been a staple crop of the Hawaiian people for generations and represented their cultural history and identity.

I learned about the Hawaiian concept of ‘ohana, much more inclusive than the standard western understanding of “family,” and the true meaning of the word aloha, which in its form of aloha ‘aina encompassed a deep and abiding love of the land. He said with a wink that his people called Caucasians like me haole, which loosely translated from Hawaiian as “without soul.” The more I learned about historic relations between white Europeans and Americans and Hawaiians, the better I understood the origins of this term. It reminded me of the Spanish word gringo, used for “foreigner” in Mexico but carrying with it a derogatory tone derived from a sad history of prejudice and discrimination.

This story was presented to me in compelling detail when I read Shoal of Time by Gavan Daws (1968), perhaps the best single-volume history of the Hawaiian Islands. I was amazed and enthralled by the accounts of the Tahitian migration to Hawai’i, the unification of the islands under King Kamehameha, the incursion of the Congregationalist missionaries in the 19th century, and the gradual takeover of the island economy by their descendants, culminating in the acquisition of Pearl Harbor and the 1893 coup and overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917).

The Hawaiian flag was originally adapted from the red ensign of the British East India Company by King Kamehameha I (c. 1736-1819). Eight stripes were included to represent the major Hawaiian Islands. The red, white, and blue colors were intended to encourage trade with France, Britain, and the United States while remaining aloof from the political turmoil of those three great 19th century powers.

I found that I was even more fascinated by my experience of the “real” Hawai’i than I had been by the tourist version, and after returning to the Bay Area at the end of January 1989, I made plans to complete my one-year full-time internship program there if I could. I was delighted to be approved for the assignment, and returned to Honolulu on August 19. I moved into an apartment in the Makiki neighborhood inland (or mauka in local parlance) of Waikiki and only a few blocks from my internship parish.

My new hosts were most gracious, showering me with fragrant flower leis as soon as I stepped off the plane in Honolulu and scheduling several stimulating activities to acclimate me to the community. I met Governor John Waihe’e, the first Native Hawaiian governor in U.S. history, at a special reception for all the seminary interns held at the historic governor’s mansion. The members of my internship committee hosted me for lunch and dinner in their homes and gave me a wealth of information on both local history and social customs I would need to know. I visited the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, one of the best depositories of Hawaiian history and artifacts in the state.

In addition to pastoral duties such as preaching and teaching, planning worship services, singing in the choir, attending staff meetings, helping with house blessings and weddings and memorial services, visiting the sick and infirm, harvesting bananas at a local tropical hunger mission, and serving food to the homeless at an inter-denominational soup kitchen, my first few months were also spent visiting many notable historic sites. I went to the restored Kawaiaha’o Church and adjacent museum, built from local coral on the site of the original 1820s New England Protestant mission. I learned some of the Hawaiian language and enjoyed broadcasts and live performances of Hawaiian music.

I visited Iolani Palace, traditional residence of the Hawaiian royalty, and Hanaiakamalama, the summer home of Queen Emma between 1857 and 1885. I remember welcoming in the 1990s with long strings of Chinese firecrackers and participating in the celebration of Kamehameha Day on June 11. Touring the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor was a memorable experience, with its engaging museum and visitor center and the evocative memorial straddling the wreck of the doomed ship. I could see its somber smokestacks and battlements in the clear waters, directly beneath fresh flower leis and droplets of oil still seeping to the surface.

Momentous events were happening around the world at that time, and Hawai’i’s location in the central Pacific made it a natural crossroads for any number of international figures. I remember meeting with Chinese pro-democracy students who had fled the carnage in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and taken refuge with the Chinese congregation that shared our building facility. I met the Coptic Pope and his entourage, who was visiting from Egypt for an ecumenical service at the local cathedral. I conversed with Filipino Cardinal Jaime Sin and several of his colleagues, who had opposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos and supported the People Power Revolution that elevated Corazon Aquino to the presidency in Manila. I visited Marcos’s recent grave on O’ahu and drove past his widow Imelda’s gated compound in Makiki Heights.

The civil war in El Salvador was still raging, and I met a former soldier who had deserted rather than participate in the slaughter of civilians committed by the U.S.-financed Salvadoran armed forces. He was living on a communal farm in Wai’anae under the protection of a former Catholic priest who had fled the Philippines because of anti-Marcos activities. The premiere of the Paulist film Romero was followed by news of the brutal murder of six Jesuit scholars and their housekeepers in San Salvador by U.S.-trained special forces that November, and I participated in special classes and services on American foreign policy in Central America.

That fall also saw the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I watched all these pivotal events on live television and took advantage of the forum for discussion and learning afforded me by my congregation. Many parishioners and members of my internship committee were connected to the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, either as students or faculty, and there were lively activities and dialogues all through those months. My biography of Ben Salmon had just come out (see my blog entry on “Discovering New Stories”) and there was much interest in me as a guest speaker in various venues. It was truly an exciting time, and Honolulu was an exciting place in which to make the most of it.

Throughout the year, I had the opportunity to participate in many other historic commemorations and celebrations. 1989 was the bicentennial of the arrival of the first Chinese workers in Hawai’i, and I was treated to a spectacular fireworks show in Honolulu Harbor sponsored by the People’s Republic of China. That year was also the centennial of the death of Father Damien (1840-1889), the Belgian priest who had served the leper colony of Moloka’i and eventually succumbed to the disease there himself. I read his biography by Gavan Daws and attended the celebration at his statue in front of the state legislature building.

In January 1990 I visited the Big Island of Hawai’i, and learned about the powerful influence of the Kilauea volcano at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and the Hawaiian goddess Pele associated with it. I visited Kamehameha’s birthplace at Kapa’au near the Mo’okini Heiau (traditional Hawaiian temple). On the southern tip of the Big Island, I spent some time at the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park and then drove up the Kona coast to see where Captain Cook met his end at Kealakekua Bay. On Maui in May, I went to the historic town of Lahaina, capital of the Hawaiian kingdom between 1820 and 1845 and destination of early whaling ships and the first American missionaries.

My year in Hawai’i ended far sooner than I wanted it to, and I returned to the mainland on August 19, 1990, exactly one year after arriving in Honolulu to begin my internship. I went back for two weeks in June of 1991 to visit old friends and colleagues. That was 28 years ago, and I have not returned to the islands since (yet). My experiences there left an indelible impression on my senses, my memory, and my understanding of American and Polynesian history. I still harbor plans to travel or even retire there one day. Its pull is still that strong.

If you have not yet visited Hawai’i and plan to go there one day, remember to do your homework. When you arrive, explore hidden parts of the islands. Get to know the local people and learn their history, their culture, and their customs. You will enjoy a far richer experience than what the standard vacation package has to offer.

Part of my painted rock collection to commemorate the thirteen months I served as an intern pastor or “kahu” on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

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

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



140th Franklin

2004 image (by period photographer Wendell Decker) of eight of the twelve “Bohemian Brigade” living historians who attended the 140th anniversary Battle of Franklin event in Spring Hill, Tennessee. I am third from left in the linen duster.

After participating in the 140th Gettysburg event in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2003, I was determined to attend more large reenactments on a regular basis. The smaller events I attended every month back home in California were no longer enough to satisfy my hunger for reliving the American Civil War period on a grand scale. My artist correspondent impression had attracted some interest in national reenacting periodicals, and I longed to reach a greater audience with my sketches and dispatches.

As planned at Gettysburg, those of us representing the “Bohemian Brigade” on the reenacting field began expanding our internet presence. My friend Michael Farnsley augmented the section of his website on “Fellow Bohemians” to highlight our various impressions, and by the summer of 2004 he had a dozen or so featured with photo and bio. The Camp Chase Gazette, a journal which focused on reenacting the Civil War period, included an article I wrote on portraying the artists and correspondents. By this time I had amassed a considerable collection of sketches and dispatches and began distributing them to a growing list of email subscribers.

Michael and fellow Gettysburg event veteran David Foote let me know they would be attending the 140th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Franklin near Nashville and encouraged me to join them again on the field. The event was scheduled for the first weekend in October (rather than November 30, the actual date of the battle in 1864) in Spring Hill, Tennessee, just south of the battle site and the locale of another fight that had preceded the slaughter at Franklin. Michael’s old army unit (of which David’s son Josh was still an active member), the 9th Kentucky (U.S.), agreed to host us again in their camp. This time I would travel alone and bunk with Michael in his A-frame tent rather than book a hotel room.

I had also been corresponding online with Tom Grandy, a reenactor from Colorado who portrayed a Southern correspondent for the Richmond Daily Examiner. He and I exchanged several lively and engaging “period” letters in the personae of our Civil War characters. This exchange evolved into the interesting scenario of a hypothetical dialogue between North and South. We shared some of the letters with our online community and built interest in the idea of our meeting in person at Franklin.

An Ohio reenactor named Eric Tipton contacted me and offered to create a webpage on my impression for the Camp Chase Gazette‘s online presence. Eric and I shared a Civil War connection to the Buckeye State (my ancestor Michael Schneider served in Fuller’s Ohio Brigade and had entrained with them at Camp Chase during the war) and I was flattered and encouraged by his interest. He let me know he and his company would be at Franklin as well. I looked forward to meeting him and his group, which was a respected “campaigner” unit, i.e., one which strives for meticulous authenticity in its historical portrayal.

All these preparations unfolded as my school year was ending in Bakersfield, California, and as summer school began, I made plans to attend the annual Civil War Days event at the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Museum is a restored 19th century town complete with homes, barns, shops, businesses, and a school. Rick Brouse and the other organizers had contacted me with an invitation to participate in the civilian portion of the program. I went in mid-July and enjoyed the experience immensely. When I returned, I used the sketches and dispatches I created there to continue to build interest in the Franklin event.

The new school year began at the end of August and I spent the first month of the semester shoring up my plans for Franklin as well as getting my students on track in their history classes. I was teaching 7th grade world history and coaching an after-school drama club at the time during the day and teaching the U.S. history survey course three evenings a week at the local community college, so I had a captive audience of all ages with which to share my Civil War reenacting hobby. I gathered more online subscribers to my James Allen Davis dispatches and made my final travel arrangements.

I flew out of LAX into Nashville on Friday, October 1 and was met by Michael at the airport. I had not been to Tennessee in many years (I attended 5th and 6th grade in Memphis in the early 1970s and had passed through Bedford County in 1992 to visit my maternal grandmother’s grave), and it was a thrill to see the old sights again. We arrived at the event near Spring Hill and registered, and then made our way across the cool autumn fields with their changing leaves into the camp of the 9th Kentucky.

I was glad to see those boys again, and we spent some time catching up on the events of the past year since we had last met at Gettysburg. There was also a small contingent of Danish lads in the company who had traveled all the way from Copenhagen to quench their thirst for an authentic American Civil War experience on an actual battlefield site. They informed us that this period from our history attracted quite a bit of interest in Europe, information verified by my experience interacting with the crowds at the Gettysburg event and gathering online supporters.

Steve Diatz, who portrayed a New York Herald correspondent and was the fourth member of our “Bohemian Brigade” at Gettysburg, also showed up at Franklin with his impressive field kit and ensembles. I also ran into Ohioan Eric Tipton, who gave me a warm welcome and introduced me to some of his comrades in arms. We obtained our correspondent passes from the Provost and met General Mark Dolive, the event’s Union Army commander. General Dolive was a gracious host and informed us that he had 3,000 muskets under his command. The Confederates had around 7,000 showing up for the event, and plans were made to have several of their units “galvanize” into blue-coated Yankees to even out the odds for the battle scenarios.

One of the grand highlights of that first day was my face-to-face meeting with my friend Tom Grandy in the Confederate camp. He was dressed in a black slouch hat, gray suit, and campaigner bedroll (see image below). We embraced and exchanged stories and agreed to fall in together in between battle engagements. I also met Michael Sanchez, who was portraying an artist from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and had traveled with his partner all the way from Utah to attend.

Falling in at Franklin with my friend and colleague Tom Grandy (left), who portrayed a correspondent for the Richmond Daily Examiner. Tom passed away in 2006 and is greatly missed. Photo Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

John Nevins, a reenactor I knew from California, also made a surprise appearance as a New York Tribune correspondent. He apparently had been inspired by my impression at the Kearney Park event in Fresno and began developing his own newspaperman character. Cincinnati artist and engraver Shawn Kohrmann represented the German language press and shared some fine pastels and French blue cotton paper with me. Alan Lloyd from Colorado and artist Jim Hoffmann from Kentucky were also portraying newsmen. In all, twelve reenactors from across the United States had stepped forward to cover the Franklin event as members of the “Bohemian Brigade.”

The Friday battle scenario was designed to recreate the November 29, 1864 fight at Spring Hill, Tennessee, which preceded the larger battle at Franklin. Following Eric’s unit and the other Union columns, we marched down worn dirt paths that had been trodden by the very men whose deeds we were portraying. This realization alone made my hair stand on end. We passed by an old cemetery that held graves dating back to the War of 1812 and took our positions along its stone wall to view the action. I began a sketch and took a series of photographs, including the one below of Michael drawing our battle lines moving forward.

“Bohemian Brigade” reenactor Michael Sanchez sketching the first day’s action at the Franklin event near Spring Hill, Tennessee, October 1, 2004. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

I soon discovered that 140th Franklin was more of a “campaigner” event than the one at Gettysburg. There were more bedrolls instead of A-frame tents, fewer civilian impressions, more distressed uniforms, and leaner men wearing them. Many of the Union soldiers wore Hardee-style and other black slouch hats in various stages of condition rather than kepis, to remain truer to the character of the western campaigns. There was also some suspicion of my ensemble (in line with General Sherman’s notorious distrust of the press), with its straw hat and light colored duster and trousers, and I was suddenly surrounded once by Union pickets demanding to see my pass. The entire event had a harder and grittier feel to it than the more Fourth of July picnic atmosphere at Gettysburg.

As at that earlier event, I enjoyed walking through sutler row in between the engagements and interacting with the public. One reenactor who portrayed a traveling professor and showman had followed my website and was delighted to make my acquaintance. I bought a commemorative poster of the event and had all my journalist colleagues sign it. There was a period embalmer and a full display and model of the C.S.S. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that had been brought up from the bottom of Charleston Harbor just a few years prior. The period musicians present were outstanding.

The second day’s battle portraying the actual fight at Franklin was truly spectacular. Many of the Union and Confederate units marched all day through the dust and dark to muster a realistic air of grime and exhaustion. Authentic trenches, rifle pits, and artillery emplacements were built. There was even a scale recreation of the infamous cotton gin house where so much savage fighting took place. The assaults of Cleburne’s division and the other rebel units were breathtaking. The cacophony of shot and shell filled the air for more than an hour. Pungent black powder smoke singed my lungs and nostrils. The battle flags rose and fell. Orders were bellowed and reinforcements rushed in. It was a perfect and awful “universe of battle.”

When it was over, scores of Confederate prisoners, sullen and exhausted, were herded behind our lines where we correspondents were finishing up our sketches and dispatches. Tom Grandy had been captured as well, and we escorted him to General Dolive’s headquarters, where he was paroled and delivered into our “custody” at the camp of the 9th Kentucky. We gave him a fine cigar and sat around the campfire together, regaling our recollections of the day’s action as the sun set over the horizon and illuminated the surrounding grassy fields with a golden glow. It was a perfect ending to a memorable day.

The third day’s fighting recreated the December 16, 1864 Battle of Nashville, and we marched into another end of the battlefield behind the army columns under General Dolive’s personal command. He was mounted on a white charger and cut quite the commanding figure. The rebels were entrenched on a hill that could only be accessed through a dense forest of low trees and undergrowth, and several thorny bushes and branches made a vain attempt to grab hold of my duster and haversack to hinder my progress. I did manage to finish a fine sketch and make my way safely back to Union lines.

I was compelled to leave the event early because of my flight home to California, and Michael was gracious enough to interrupt his own experience to drive me to the airport. Franklin had been a marvelous experience on many levels and I enjoyed its aftermath for many months. By the time the semester ended and I went off to winter break, I had much to share with my online readers and my new life partner, web designer and fellow reenactor Jill Forbath. Within six months, Jill had created an amazing website highlighting my campaigns. We began taking the field together and presenting at school and community events until our retirement from the hobby in 2011.

The “Bohemian Brigade” continued to grow over those years following the Franklin event. Several recent publications by professional historians and journalists have called attention to this important group of the American Civil War period. There are now correspondent reenactors of the “Millennial” generation in many countries across the world, still schoolchildren when I attended Franklin, who joined the hobby as young adults and post their artwork and impressions on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram. Their continued efforts ensure that the vital historical contributions of these brave 19th century artists and correspondents will not be forgotten.

Reenactors of the “Bohemian Brigade” posing for the camera of Mr. Wendell Decker at the 140th Franklin event, October 2, 2004. 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.

Labor Day Weekend

Hand painted stones from a 2014 art project I called my “Rock Resume.” Happy Labor Day Weekend! Copyright (c) Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 after several states had already begun honoring the contribution of the working classes every year on May 1, known as “May Day.” President Grover Cleveland favored moving the holiday to September to avoid associations with more radical labor movements such as socialism and anarchism, which had long recognized May Day as International Worker’s Day. For more than a century, Labor Day has thus been observed on the first Monday in September.

Labor Day weekend is considered the end of summer and marks the beginning of the new school year. Many of you have this weekend to rest after the first week of school. You have met your teachers and your classmates and have some idea of where the school year is headed. This is a good time to set your goals for the semester and create a schedule for yourself in which to accomplish those objectives.

This country was built by hard work. Many of you hold jobs outside of school. Labor Day is a good time to recognize the efforts of workers, including those who are members of labor unions. As you can see from the collection of painted stones pictured above, I have held many jobs over the course of my life. In all those jobs I worked with people who accomplished great things.

Make this semester one of your outstanding accomplishments. Create a weekly discipline for yourself and complete all your assignments in a timely manner. The rewards will be worth your efforts.

In the meantime, enjoy the holiday weekend!

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

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

Bastille Day

Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Today marks the day 230 years ago that ordinary citizens of Paris took to the streets to storm the infamous Bastille prison. Long a symbol of royal despotism in France, the Bastille held valuable stores of gunpowder in its vaults. The mob killed the guards and governor, seized the powder, and later tore the hated dungeon apart brick by brick. Three tumultuous years later, the centuries-old Bourbon monarchy was replaced by a new French Republic.

July 14 has become as important a day in France as July 4 is in the United States. The national holiday is celebrated by huge crowds with parades, parties, and a spectacular fireworks show from the Eiffel Tower. Today France is the sixth largest economy on earth and a leader in the 28-member European Union. People around the world still admire the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Today also marks the one year anniversary of my retirement from full-time classroom teaching and the inauguration of Mr. Finney’s History Tutoring here in San Diego. I hope you find my blog entries and postings on Instagram helpful as you strive for success in learning.

Raise a glass today to the heroes of 1789 and the birth of modern Europe’s first republic. Vive la France!

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

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

Independence Day

Historical flags displayed in my classroom from 2001 to 2018. The “Betsy Ross” flag with its circle of thirteen stars was first designed in 1777.

Happy Fourth of July! We are only seven years away from America’s 250th birthday. I still remember with fondness the historic festivities of the Bicentennial in 1976 when I was a teenager in Virginia. President Ford danced with Queen Elizabeth at the White House. Tall ships, elaborate fireworks, exciting parades, rousing speeches, television specials, and living history demonstrations all captured my young imagination.

In the 43 years since then, our increasingly diverse population has grown by 50% and our role in the world has expanded significantly. Our identity as a pluralistic nation continues to evolve, fed by the hopes and dreams of both newcomers and each new generation of Americans. The principles of equality and human rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence continue to inspire millions around the world.

Independence Day marks the halfway point of the calendar year and the last major holiday before the new school year begins. Whether you have the entire summer off or just today during your summer school session, I hope this day is fun and relaxing for you and yours. Put on something red, white, and blue, find your way to some fireworks, and join in the celebration!

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

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