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Leaburg Settler Claimed He was 'Huckleberry Finn:' Was He?

The Springfield News Friday, July 24, 1970, p. 1


In spite of the fact be called himself "the biggest liar on the McKenzie River," Benjamin Franklin "Huckleberry" Finn, an early Leaberg settler, claimed in all seriousness to be the "original Huckleberry Finn."

If Finn was not the model for author Mark Twain's (Samual Clemens) masterpiece about a mischievous waif's experiences along the Mississippi River, he was indeed an outstanding liar. The story he used to tell about having known Clemens is quite plausible in many respects.

According to records kept in the old Finn family Bible, Benjamin Finn was born In Schoolcraft, Mich. Tucked between the leaves of that Bible, descendants found his marriage licence. Those records and the marriage license, and other documents offer conflicting reports on a crucial factor in the believability of Finn's claim: his date of birth.

Finn said that, when he was 25 years old, he and Clemens traveled from Missouri to Denver, Colo. In Denver, he said, Clemens worked as a reporter while he did "some bricklaying" Finn was a bricklayer by trade. It was during this time that Clemens began writing "Huckleberry Finn," he declared.

(Finn described those alleged experiences to the Seattle Times in an interview published, June 24, 1917, See page 6 for a copy of that article and an additional story.)

Between the lines of the history books, there is room for the events in Finn's account to have transpired -- if all the dates matched up. But somewhere under the shroud of time those dates have become confused, and what actually happened remains anyone's guess.

It is more orless indisputable that Clemens was born Nov. 30, 1835, that in 1862 he served two weeks in the Confederate Army during the Civil War before "retiring," that he then traveled west to prospect for silver, and that later in 1862 he began working as a reporter for the Virginia City (Nevada) Territorial Enterprise.

Family records available to the Springfield News do not list Finn's birthday as such. But all sources indicate he died Feb. 11, 1919. According to the family Bible, he was aged 95 years, 11 months and 6 days -- that makes his birth date March 4 or 5, 1823, depending on the method of calculation used.

Finn's marriage license originally said he was married Nov. 30, 1861 when he was "about 27 years old", but the ink-written date was later changed in pencil to read Nov. 30, 1851. No one knows who made the change or why, but the Bible record shows that the couple had a child as early at 1854. If the 1851 wedding date is correct, and Finn really was 27 years old at the tlme, then it is probable that his birthday was, indeed, March 4 or 5, 1823.

But if Finn were born in 1823, he was 12 years older than C1emens. That way, if Finn had been 25 years old when he and Clemens were supposed to have been in Denver, Clemens would have been 13 years old.

But the marker on Finn's grave at the LeaburgGreenwood Cemetery says he was born March 4, 1832. In such case, he would have been an almost exact contemporary of Clemens. It is unknown how that date came to be inscribed on Finn's headstone except that such figures are normally obtained from family records.

Assuming Finn was born in 1832 and he was 25 when he and Clemens went to Denver, the year of their trip was 1857.

Whether Finn was married In 1861, as the license originally indicated, or in 1851, as the recorded birthdays of his children suggest,lying about one's age in order to get married is said to have been a common practice. In the family Bible, along with their dates of death, the exact ages of the Finn children have been entered on the basis that they were born in 1854, 1855, 1862, 1864, 1867 and 1869.

In an Interview with the Seattle Times, Finn's brother, Erastus Alevenza, confirmed his claim to have been the prototype of "Huckleberry Finn."

Asked to explain himself, Erastus told a Times reporter, "Mother called him Benjamin Franklin Finn. There were six children, two girls and four boys all born in Lorain County, Ohio (Benjamin's marriage license says he was born in Schoolcraft, Mich.).

"When dad died the boys were all bound out but Huck didn't stay. He ran away. He hired out on the boats running up and down the Mississippi River and the Ohio and the Missouri.

"After a while the war broke out and Huck joined the Army. That's where he and Hank (the author's nickname, he said) Clemens got acquainted. Hank was in the quartermaster's department and Huck helped him. I suppose they were two of a kind and got together on the story part."

It is believed that Finn did serve in the Civil War -- veterans still place a United States flag over his grave. And, according to Mrs. Clayton H. Nestle of Vida, a niece who used to know him, Finn regularly drew a $50 a month government pension. She said she knows because she used to cash it for him.

However, the chances of Finn and Clemens having met during the Civil War are slim. Clemens served only two weeks in the Confederate Army during l862, before deserting.

Never the less, Erastus declared his brother's claim was true. "I was in many of those pranks myself," he asserted.

"You see," he continued, "I traveled with Huck part of the time after I ran away from my foster father."

Mrs. Nestle told The News she remembers when one of her uncle's cousins, Ed Rice of Hanna, Ind., and his family visited in the Leaburg area many years ago. Rice announced that he had documentary evidence, proving Benjamin to have been Clemens' friend and the model for his novel. Mrs. Nestle does not have any idea what that "proof" might have been, and members of the Rice famliy are not readily available for comment.

Benjamin's son, Peter, did not believe his father's story.

Perhaps casting the longest shadow across Finn's story, is the fact that he was notorious for his tall yarns. He also claimed Finn Rock on the McKenzie River was named after him because he pulled it out of the middle of the road with his team of mules when he found it in his way.

Although most people doubt Finn was able to move the massive rock, it is fact that the formation was named after him.

Having previously visited Oregon, Finn and his wife, MaryAnn, brought their family to Leaburg in 1871. They had six children, and aome of the sisters later married into the Belknap and Wycoff families, other prominent names in the history of the McKenzie River area.

Descendants of the immediate Finn family, still living in the Leaburg area, include Mrs. Nestle and J. Earl McClellan, the son of Arthur Peter Finn. (Additional Stories on Page 6)