Isabella “Bell” (Fleming) Finch

Family tree for Isabella (Fleming) Finch
Isabella (Fleming) Finch Family Tree (Updated 1 Aug 2017)

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Isabella Fleming Finch 1825-1917

Isabella was eighteen when she emigrated with her family to Canada West in 1843. Born on the Kirrandrum farm near Logierait in Perthshire Scotland on October 20, 1825, she was the eldest of Alexander and Jean’s children. Known to be kind and quick to help others in need, her strong spirit took her through many hardships of pioneer living in Derby Township in Grey County North – initially still designated as “Indian Territory” – in the 1850s and 1860s, and next in Chapman Township in the Muskoka District in the 1880s and 1890s. Throughout her adult life she was devout in her faith as a Baptist and as a Disciple of Christ, instilling in her children through scripture readings deep religious principles. “Hard-working, frugal, and God-fearing” were three adjectives that her nephew C.A. Fleming used in describing her. She needed all three qualities to persevere.

Isabella received a basic Scottish education in the Tullymet school. Spelling, she later said, was her forte, but knowledge of the Bible would have been another. Her parents valued education, as did she for her own children, three of whom would become teachers, and two who became evangelists.

Isabella and her siblings worked as soon as they were able. Isabella was herding cows at age nine, and soon earning wages cooking and cleaning. The meagre earnings went towards the future voyage to Canada.

During the long voyage to Quebec and transit to Canada West she and her sister Janet would have been steadfastly beside their pregnant mother looking after the younger children and coping with the discomforts of life below decks on a timber ship.   Once the family was settled on the leased land in Vaughan Township (north of Toronto), Isabella “hired out” as a servant in the home of  Duncan McDougald  in Vaughan Township doing general chores for $3.50 a month. She made better money in Toronto when she took a position in another home doing housework part time and serving in a jewelry store. Later she was a housemaid and companion to “Mrs Hay” in a Scottish household. Mary Hay, her mistress, was fairly young herself – about twenty-four years of age, married to Robert Hay, a business partner in the cabinet-making firm of Jacques and Hay on King Street. The Hay residence in 1846 was in the lower part of town at 45 Bay Street.   On her one day off a month Isabella would walk the twenty miles to Vaughan to give her mother half her monthly salary of $4.00.

It was likely through the Hay household that Isabella met the Abraham Finch who was working for Jacques and Hay making cabinets. Born in England he had emigrated to Canada as a child with his parents and apprenticed as a tailor in Toronto. (According to the directories of the day Toronto had about 100 residents listed as tailors.)

Isabella and Abraham were the same age – they both attended the Baptist Church – probably on March Street, east of Church Street – and sang in the choir. She took Abraham home to Vaughan on visits, where, unfortunately he failed to impress his future father-in-law by chasing after squirrels. They married May 22 1848. Rev. Ephraim Evans, a Wesleyan Methodist minister of some prominence, solemnized the marriage.

The marriage might not have been entirely to Alexander’s liking. Although Abraham had obtained a fair education from school in Upper Canada and he was employed, he had a propensity for entertaining others with stories – a jolly fellow who might not have seemed serious enough to Alexander. More critically, Abraham, as would soon become evident, did not have a pronounced aptitude for farming.  In marrying Abraham Isabella showed a determined will of her own. Her daughter Bella would later stress that her mother always maintained that she married the “husband of her choice”.

They moved to Oro Township in Simcoe Township where their first daughter Bella was born 5 March 1849. There is some evidence that Abraham had a brother John who had settled on a farm in Oro. However, they did not stay long.

Isabella could not help but be caught up with her family’s plans to acquire land in Derby. Encouraged by Isabella, Abraham scouted for land in May 1850 and submitted a petition to the Crown for 100 acres in the north half of Lot 8 in Concession 7,  not far from the Flemings on Lot 9 in Concession 6. He quickly erected a log cabin which they must have moved into that summer.

This was a young family – Isabella and Abraham were in their twenties, baby Bella only one year of age, and Jessie an infant born 24 September 1850. They had several more children in quick succession over the next ten years: Elizabeth 1852, Alexander 1854, William 1856, Jean 1858 who died at two months, and Jennie in 1859.  Without grown boys to help him and likely without money to hire a labourer, Abraham would have had difficulty preparing the land for crops.  In 1851 he had cleared only two acres on which he planted potatoes and turnips –  living would have been subsistence at best. (Canada West Agricultural Census 1851) The 1850s were hard years with famine afflicting many. The Finches had two milk cows die on them – somewhat to the disgust of Alexander who had given both to them – but there may not have been sufficient feed.

Finch log cabin in Kilsyth c 1869. Drawing by Abraham Finch.

Bella had vivid memories of their cabin and the visit of Disciples brethren one very cold, wintery day.

“… It was a stormy blustery morning in January. Father had fed the stock and had done the chores and had set down to read, saying that it was too stormy to cut down trees – which was winter employment. A knock came to the door. As father opened it a swirl of snow blinded us children. Our house at that time was only one room and there was no porch. Three smiling black clothed men appeared. After greetings, brushing and sweeping out snow, there stood three gentlemen named, C.J. Lister, James Black, and James Kilgour. They talked and talked, ate of our frugal repast, read and prayed and went away. After that family prayers were not neglected in our home. … ” (C.A. Fleming by Dorothea Deans)

The Flemings helped each other. C.A. Fleming, eldest son of John, recalled how his aunt, after an accident in which he broke his knee, had devised a method to drip cold water from a bucket onto his knee to reduce the swelling (C.A. Fleming by Dorothea Deans)  C.A. also recollected that, “Her mother [Jean Fleming] often visited the family. In summer it was quite easy to spend an hour or two together of an afternoon. In the deep snows of winter, she was often driven by the father or one of the brothers, as they had the only horses in the settlement for quite a number of years.”

Abraham continued as a tailor, keeping a small shop on the property, but probably not to great demand in the small rural community of Kilsyth.  Some money came from the children when they were old enough to work as field hands or teachers. Abraham also sold off parts of the lot and obtained some money through mortgage financing. By 1871 they were reduced to 66 acres, of which 30 were in crops and 10 in pasture. Where others got 70 or 100 or more bushels of spring wheat from their lands, Abraham was getting only 16 bushels. Although they had pasture land they had very little livestock – two older horses, one milk cow, one horned cattle, and one sheep – no oxen.

They had a large family to provide for.  Isabella bore thirteen children over 24 years beginning with Bella in 1848 and Lily the last in 1872 when Isabella herself was 47.

Finch Family – left to right, Abraham Finch, Isabella (Fleming) , Lucinda (baby) and Bella

In the mid-1870s Abraham and Isabella made the rather startling decision to pull up stakes in Kilsyth and take up land grants in Chapman Township in the Magnetawan area of the Parry Sound District near Cecebe.  The Province was offering  grants to 200 acre lots at no cost other than terms for erecting a cabin and clearing land. Did Isabella persuade Abraham – Abraham who had been a lackluster farmer? There was no land for her sons left in Derby. Perhaps she saw the Parry Sound District as their chance at wealth. She had seen how well her parents and brothers had done in Derby Township. Surely with determination and grit they could make a better life for themselves.

Some offspring had already left home:

  • Elizabeth, the third daughter – a bright, young girl, ran a small store and the local Mechanics Institute library in a small frame building on the farm. She died in 1873 after giving birth to a boy Benjamin out of wedlock. The boy must have died also. Might this – which was surely seen as a scandal – also have been a factor in the Finches moving?
  • Bella, a woman with her mother’s kind heart and her father’s gift for stories  became a teacher at age  sixteen, married George Herald in 1874, and adopted three children. The Heralds moved to Sundridge in the Parry Sound District to be near Isabella.
  • Jessie, also a teacher, married James Trout, of a prominent family in Wiarton in 1872, and in later years was also a support for her mother
  • Alexander Heneage, the eldest son, became a teacher and then a minister of note in the Church of the Disciples of Christ. Ultimately he moved his family to Lidstone, Manitoba where he farmed. In the 1870s he was the minister at Walters Falls, Ontario. He and his wife took in his young sister Lucinda in 1878 so that she could finish school.

For the move to Magnetawan, Abraham and his son William each registered for a lot.  William “located” in Chapman Township deep in the Parry Sound District on  Lot 13, Concession 1, 2 June 1877; and Abraham and Isabella, 12 January 1878, on the adjacent lot, Lot 14 .  William, and likely his brother Abraham, had gone up in 1877 to  build the log shanty and clear some timber. The land they encountered was much more rugged and inhospitable compared to that in Derby Township. Parry Sound Village on Georgian Bay in the late 1870s was a lumber town of about 800 people. Chapman Township was part of the Magnetawan area through which passed a rapidly flowing river of the same name. Chapman was well inland and tended to be hilly, rocky, and pitted with lakes. The Guide Book and Atlas of Muskoka and Parry Sound Districts (1879) reported that Chapman had 45,456 acres of land and 3,120 of water.  The Magnetawan area, then heavily forested, was assessed to have good agricultural land, but when cleared of trees was  revealed to have shallow soil that washed away easily to expose the underlying, untillable rock.

But the Finches would not have known this. They boarded the steamboat to Parry Sound, and made their way with some livestock and implements over rough trails the fifty miles inland to Magnetawan. Chapman Township was filling rapidly with settlers, and the hamlet of Magnetawan quickly grew with steamboat lines on the river, and new stores and churches. Income for all settlers would come first from selling their timber.  Some succeeded in agriculture, but many did not.

Isabella and Abraham, who were now in their fifties,  left the comforts of Kilsyth and nearby Owen Sound, then bustling with industry and marine activity, to take up pioneer living again. Isabella, who had been close to her mother through all the Derby years, would never see her again, and many years would go by until she would visit with her siblings.

They had four sons at home: William was single, twenty-two, and a farmer; Abraham Lincoln was five years younger (17); Andrew Johnson younger still (15), and Robert Nelson only thirteen. Of the daughters, Jennie was nineteen and would have been some help to her mother for a year or two.  Sarah and Lilian (Lily) were very young – Sarah nine, and Lilian six – attending a school would have been difficult in this backwoods county.

C.A. Fleming described the hardships:

“The move was made on May 1st, but the cook stove and most of the furniture was stored at Parry Sound. It was not til November that the cook stove etc were brought home. How the good wife managed to care for that still large husky family without even a fireplace is more than  the average person could understand, yet that is a sample of the pioneer hardship that only some women undergo for the sake of their families.  Years of hardship followed and were patiently endured, she giving her best services cheerfully to her family, training them in right principles as a Christian mother spending a few hours on Sundays reading the scriptures and teaching them God’s word both by precept and example”

Sadness befell them almost immediately.

Jennie, who in 1881 married James Victor Crawford, owner of a steamer line out of Wiarton,  died suddenly  of a “spinal disease” a few months later.

Abraham Lincoln – called “Aby”, to whom Isabella was especially attached, contracted typhoid fever and died in June 1883 far from medical care, the only doctor being French speaking.   C.A.Fleming had said that Abraham, “…was the pride of the family, six feet three in height and weighing 190 pounds at the age of twenty, and without a peer in either work or sport in the district and in timber camps.”

William married Martha Jane Austin in 1882 and in 1886 received a patent to his land, but by 1891 had given up his farm (as had so many others) and moved to Brandon Manitoba with Martha and their three children. La grippe, a severe influenza, claimed him in 13 January 1897. His wife was left a widow with several young children.

Somehow Abraham and Isabella carried on in their “vine covered cottage”  with Bella and her family being their nearest support.

Sarah and Lilian had moved to Parry Sound where they were boarding together in 1891 and were employed as dressmakers – perhaps they had acquired some of their skill through their father. Lillian moved to Sudbury where she married John Gordon Henry, a successful businessman and later mayor of the city. Sarah made her way to Detroit and married the widower Andrew Harkness in 1897. Lucinda was also in Detroit 1899 – 1901 where she trained as a nurse. Many times she came to the aid of family members who were ill and needed care. In 1912 she married Edward Clare Fitzgerald, a widower in the lumber business and living in Sudbury.

Like so many others, Isabella’s son Andrew left the Parry Sound District in the 1890s for  Saskatchewan, although he did marry Lillie Jane Best a girl from Magnetawan in 1909. Robert was still farming in 1891, but married Jennie Ann Duncan in 1897, became an evangelist for a time, and moved his family about – Toronto, Vancouver.

After Abraham died 6 December 1908 Isabella stayed in their cottage during the summers   and spent her winters with her married daughters: Jessie Trout in Wiarton, Lucinda Fitzgerald in Webbtown, Lilian Henry in Sudbury, Sarah Hartness in Detroit.   Lucinda, held a family reunion on Isabella’s 90th birthday in 1915. That winter Isabella travelled to Kilsyth and Owen Sound to be with sisters Jessie (Janet) Agnew and Jennie Fleming. She died 11 June 1917 in Wiarton of a paralytic stroke, and was  buried in Berridale Cemetery, Strong Township, beside her son Aby and the “husband of her choice” Abraham.

Isabella Finch – 1915

Robert  Nelson, youngest son,  wrote a memorial poem to his mother, and in the last stanza, released her from her toil.

You had your share of labour here;
Your work was nobly done.
We know you wear a Victor’s crown
Which you have truly won.

4 thoughts on “Isabella “Bell” (Fleming) Finch

  1. Gwen,
    Amazing what you have written. You have pieced together the story of Abraham & Isabella & their children. I now have a new sense of Isabella. Also more curiosity of what life was like in Chapman Twp or more likely wondering how she survived so well. I will go there hopefully this summer & do another search for the property.
    My (Great) Aunt Lou was so kind & glad to see us in Wiarton when we visited around 1948. Who knows, maybe I can search out the descendants of the Great Uncles who moved out west.
    Thanks so much for this history, Carole.


  2. Wonderful information. William finch would be my great grandfather. I have been trying to find information about abraham finch’S family parents and where he was born in England.


  3. Someone else that wants to know about Abraham Finch. He was my great-grandfather & Lillian Finch was my paternal grandmother & William Finch’s youngest sister. (Still haven’t figured out how to use dropbox) but would like to connect with Joan McGogy please.

    Gwen, this is just wonderful finding a Finch relative (who probably lives out west) is curious about Abraham.


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