George Preston Finlay, lawyer, legislator, and Confederate soldier, was born in Augusta, Perry County, Mississippi, on November 16, 1829, the son of James and Cada (Lewis) Finlay. Later that year his family moved to a farm some two miles south of Brandon, Mississippi, and there Finlay was reared and educated. During the Mexican War he served as a private in Col. Jefferson Davis's famed First Mississippi Rifles but was discharged at Camargo in 1846 due to ill health. He graduated from Brandon College in 1849 and then read law in the office of local attorney E. H. Lombardin. He served briefly as postmaster at Brandon in 1851 and then, in October, entered law school at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He graduated in March 1852 and was admitted to the bar at Brandon. John Henry Brown observed that Finlay "inherited nothing except a stainless name," so for nine months he taught school in Hinds County, Mississippi, while saving for passage to Texas. He moved in November 1853 to the Calhoun County community of Lavaca. There, on November 16, 1854, he married Carrie Rea. The couple had three children.
In 1854–55 Finlay edited the Lavaca Register. He established a partnership with J. J. Holt in 1857 and was appointed notary public in 1858. He served as a state senator in the Ninth Legislature (1860–61). At the end of the session he raised and was elected captain of an infantry company for Confederate service in Victoria County that was attached to Col. Robert R. Garland's Sixth Texas Infantry. When the regiment was captured at Fort Hindman at Arkansas Post, Arkansas, on January 11, 1863, Finlay was imprisoned first at Camp Chase, Ohio, and then at Fort Delaware before being exchanged at City Point, Virginia, on May 6, 1863. Thereafter he and the remainder of the regiment were consolidated with Col. Roger Q. Mills's Tenth Texas Infantry and saw action at the battle of Chickamauga before Finlay was transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Department to serve as judge advocate on the staff of generals John B. Magruder and John George Walker with the rank of colonel.
In 1866 he made an unsuccessful run for Congress from the Fourth District, but in November 1872 he was elected to represent the Twenty-fourth Senatorial District in the State Senate of the Thirteenth Legislature. The campaign was characterized as "one of the bitterest and most hotly contested campaigns ever witnessed in the State." Finlay served as chairman of the judiciary committee and the committee on military affairs but declined renomination in order to move to Galveston, where he established a partnership, George P. Finlay and Brother, with his younger brother, Oscar E. Finlay. Finlay represented the Thirty-fifth Congressional District in the House of Representatives of the Sixteenth Legislature in 1879 and was reelected to the Seventeenth Legislature in 1881. In both of these terms he served as chairman of the judiciary committee and in 1881 came in second to George R. Reeves in balloting for speaker of the House. In 1882 he ran unsuccessfully against Thomas P. Ochiltree for the United States House of Representatives from the Seventh Congressional District. Finlay was nicknamed the "Father of the Public Schools" in Galveston, for organizing the public school system and serving on its board of trustees from 1881 to 1887. On July 10, 1883, his accusation that a former superintendent named Gwyn had behaved "with boorish uncouthness, partiality, favoritism and conduct unbecoming a gentleman toward lady teachers and applicants" produced a major controversy in the school system and provided a "profound sensation" for the community. He also served as city attorney in 1878 and from 1885 until 1889, although his nomination in 1885 was initially rejected by a city council at odds with the mayor. In 1893 Finlay was appointed collector of customs for the port of Galveston.
In his prime Finlay stood six feet, four inches tall and was known as "Tall Sycamore." He was an ardent Democrat who attended every state convention from 1865 until at least 1881, a Mason, a Knight Templar, and an Episcopalian. He died in Houston on March 24, 1911, and was buried in Austin.
Is history important to you?
We need your support because we are a non-profit organization that relies upon contributions from our community in order to record and preserve the history of our state. Every dollar helps.
H. L. Bentley and Thomas Pilgrim, Texas Legal Directory for 1876–77 (Austin: Democratic Statesman Office, 1877). Biographical Encyclopedia of Texas (New York: Southern, 1880). Dallas Herald, October 6, 1866, November 23, 1872, November 15, 1873, April 24, 1875, January 22, 1876, January 31, 1881, May 11, 1882, July 12, 1883, May 28, 1885. Lewis E. Daniell, Personnel of the Texas State Government, with Sketches of Representative Men of Texas (Austin: City Printing, 1887; 3d ed., San Antonio: Maverick, 1892). History of Texas, Together with a Biographical History of the Cities of Houston and Galveston (Chicago: Lewis, 1895). E. W. Swindells, A Legislative Manual for the State of Texas (2 vols., Austin, 1879–83). Homer S. Thrall, People's Illustrated Almanac: Texas Handbook and Immigrants Guide for 1880 (St. Louis: Thompson, 1880).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Thomas W. Cutrer,
“Finlay, George Preston,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 28, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
January 1, 1995
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: