In the beginning… The Life and Legacy of William Finn

12th & Jackson, Wichita, KS

Near North High School, a serene granite memorial resides, providing a tranquil spot for some Redhawks who opt to enjoy their lunches in the cool, shaded surroundings. This memorial holds a significant tribute, honoring not only the inaugural school in Wichita but also the original location of the First Presbyterian Church, both of which share a profound connection to a remarkable individual, William Finn.

Finn was born in Brooklyn, New York, but during his early childhood, his family relocated to Rockford, Illinois.

From 1861 to 1865, he valiantly served on the Union side as a member of Company D in the 10th New York Cavalry.

In 1869, Finn made the decision to venture to Kansas, embarking on a journey that took him as far west as the railroad line reached, which happened to be Emporia. Not deterred, he managed to secure a ride on a wagon driven by W.P. “Tiger Bill” Campbell, who would later serve as a distinguished judge of the Sedgwick County District Court. He was “put up at the Munger House,” according to the Wichita Eagle.

It was during this wagon ride that Finn caught his first glimpse of Wichita, a sight consisting of merely nine shacks situated at the intersection of cattle trails.

In the same year, 1869, Finn played a pivotal role in organizing the First Presbyterian Church of Wichita, alongside thirteen other individuals.

left to right William Finn, Finlay Ross, William Peacock, Charles Schaefer.
Courtesy: Wichita Eagle, 11/5/1933

Despite not being a professional teacher, the residents of Wichita approached Finn and requested his services in instructing their children. He graciously accepted this responsibility. With an enrollment of less than twelve pupils, the school operated out of a dugout. The dugout was created by a military detachment stationed on the site in 1868. Finn charged a dollar a month for tuition.

After four months, the school was closed. Finn could not break even on the school and did not even have enough to pay for his board. A year later Miss Jessie Hunter (later Mrs. Black) opened a school in the First Presbyterian Church.

Interesting side note: In the November 5, 1933 Wichita Eagle. A story about the early days of Wichita’s education system noted that, “No doubt some future board of education will name a school for Miss Jessie Hunter, who was the first school teacher in Wichita to be paid a salary.” Check out our story on Black Elementary.

In the spring of 1870, Mr. Finn received a new assignment—to survey the expanding village. Although lacking formal training as a surveyor, he studied the principles of the science and successfully created the initial plat of the city. Utilizing a sheet of brown wrapping paper torn from a sack, he sketched the city’s layout, improvising in the absence of more sophisticated stationery.

During this time, the town consisted solely of a row of cabins and dugouts, situated along what is now known as Waco Avenue.

In the year 1872, Finn entered into matrimony with Mary Hazen.

Through his experiences, Finn discovered a passion for surveying, and he meticulously laid out claims for pioneers along the Arkansas River, extending as far north and west as Hutchinson.

Finn secured a claim near Sedgwick and started a successful mercantile and grain business in the town. He also ran a farm nearby.

Tragically, Finn’s beloved wife passed away in 1923. Together, they were blessed with four children.

Around 1910, Finn decided to close up his store and began living with his daughter, Muriel, on a farm just east of Sedgwick.

Tragically, in 1929, Finn’s life came to an end at the Axtell Christian Hospital in Newton. The cause of his death was an infection of the thyroid gland, which initially afflicted the pioneer in June.

It is worth noting that Finn held the distinction of being the last surviving member among the original thirteen individuals who initiated the establishment of the church.

William Finn Elementary 1949
Courtesy: Paul Oberg

On the day of his burial, the Wichita Beacon made an announcement that the newly constructed school at 25th and Jackson would be named in honor of Finn, paying tribute to his remarkable legacy.

Fast forward to the year 1933, when an important event took place—the dedication of the marker commemorating the first school in Wichita and its revered teacher.

Monument’s Dedication November 1933
Courtesy: The Wichita Eagle

According to The Eagle’s report, “students from numerous schools gathered in the brisk fall air, standing before the speaker’s platform. They held banners proudly displaying the names of their respective schools, while others carried American flags or gaily-colored pennants.”

Interestingly, the article highlighted that alongside the marker, there rested the very stone that Mr. Finn had utilized when he first began plotting the city of Wichita.

Significantly, it was the students of William Finn School who spearheaded the creation of the marker, driven by their admiration for the city’s first teacher and the rich history he embodied.

Finn Elementary closed in 1974. William Finn is buried at Hillside Cemetery in Sedgwick, Kansas.

Finn’s grave