Tuesday, February 2, 2010
James Finley Visits the Maumee Country as a Missionary
James Finley was both a rough pioneer and a fervent missionary for the Methodist Church. He worked the rudest of farms in Highland County, Ohio, but also served eight times as a member of the Methodist Church’s General Conference. Like many pioneers, he lost everything by signing a note from which the borrower absconded. He drank, fought, and cursed as a young man. After a religious conversion in 1801, he preached, brought Methodism to the Wyandot Indians, and served for many years as the chaplain of the Ohio Penitentiary. His preaching was so fervent that he was nicknamed “Father” Finley. If ever there was a “before and after” case, Finley filled the bill.
Finley’s home ground was southern Ohio. He was born in 1781 on the North Carolina frontier. His father, also a preacher, moved the family to Virginia, Kentucky, and finally Ohio, where Robert Finley helped found the city of Chillicothe. The father hoped to educate his son as a doctor, but the young Finley would have none of it. “My recreations were with the gun in the woods....” he wrote later, and made wilderness hunting his chosen career. He married in 1801, and settled land in Highland County.
At first, the young couple had little to live on. As a hunter, Finley never starved, but an all-meat diet created a longing for cereals and vegetables. He built a bark cabin, slept in a pile of leaves, and worked for several years to convert his wilderness clearing into a farm. When the he made the aforementioned loan and lost everything, Finley started over.
He was a roistering frontiersman to be sure. He was called the “New Market Devil” for his willingness to throw a punch. But Finley was exposed to the preaching that swept through the Ohio Valley in the 1800s, and was converted to the Methodist Church. He became an itinerant preacher in 1809, and began a lifelong pursuit of converting both pioneers and Native Americans.
Finley spent many years working among the Methodist missions of Upper Sandusky. They Wyandot Reservation of Upper Sandusky was one of the last in Ohio before the Indians were forced to move west by the federal government. A mission church built by the Methodists at the time still stands in Upper Sandusky.
James Finley and some of his Wyandot coreligionists visited the Maumee Valley in search of converts in 1823. He recounted the story in his book Life Among the Indians (1857). His travels through the Black Swamp and north as far as Monroe, Michigan make interesting stories worth reading in Finley’s own words:
“At the conference held in Urbana, Ohio, September, 1823 I was reappointed to the superintendency [sic] of the Wyandott mission...At this conference I was instructed to extend my labors to the Ottawas and Chippewas, at Saginaw Bay...Having made arrangements for our journey to the north, we started December 10, 1823. Our company consisted of Mononcue, Squire Gray-Eyes, and Jonathan Pointer, for interpreter...After toiling hard, we reached the west branch of Portage river. The sun had sank behind a cloud. We stopped under the branches of a beech-tree, cut wood for the night, scraped away the snow, stretched our tents, and Mononcue soon prepared some supper by roasting our meat on a stick, and boiling some spice-wood twigs...The country through which we passed was flat and swampy land, interspersed with some of the finest sugar trees I have ever seen in the northern part of the state. Among these are many sugar camps, where the Indians make sugar and catch raccoons. This is their spring employment, from the first of February to the first of April. The men take several hundred raccoons in one of these hunts, and the women are employed making sugar.
On the morning of the 12th we set out at an early hour. Our path led through a part of the Black Swamp, lying between the west and north fork of Portage river. The swamp was almost impassable. As the ice was not strong enough to bear our horses, they were continually breaking through. One of our horses was twice mired. This swamp extended about eleven miles. We reached the north fork, where we entered the plains, which continued to the Maumee river.
These plains are, for the most part, thin land, and interspersed throughout with bogs, or low, wet places, and often covered with water for half a mile. Our traveling now being more pleasant, my friends conversed with me about the country, and I learned that this tract of land, lying between Portage river and the Maumee, which was all plains, interspersed with groves of timber, covered a large extent of country, and was used every fall for the ring hunt. This is made by setting fire to the leaves and grass in a circle of fifteen or twenty miles; and the fire drives all the game into a pound, where they are shot down in immense quantities. Sometimes as many as five hundred deer have been killed on one of these occasions. The raccoons climb the trees in the groves of timber, and are caught in great abundance....
This day was dark and cold. Sometimes the snow fell so fast that we could hardly discern the trace. Late in the evening we reached the lower rapids of the Maumee river, and forded it just above the principal rapid. The ford was seemingly dangerous, on account of the fissures in the rocks, some of which were deep and narrow. The swiftness of the stream was such, that it seemed almost impossible, should the horses stumble and fall, that we could escape drowning’ but we had no other way to get across, and, protected by a kind Providence, we passed in safety....” [Life Among the Indians, pp. 377, 380, 383-5.]
Finley’s trip north took him as far as the River Raisin and Detroit, before returning south to Urbana. He, like many other explorers, saw the Maumee valley with its river, swamps, and unpredictable native residents as an obstacle to further travel rather than a destination in its own right. James Finley died in 1861 and is buried at Eaton, Ohio. He had a goal of winning people to his own brand of Christianity. Whether the reader agrees with his beliefs or not, we can appreciate his leaving written accounts of a new world which is now our homeland.
[Besides the quoted material from Finley’s Life Among the Indians; the author also used Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio (1888), pp. 456-62.]