Anna Mary McKee Halsey

1865, Milesburg, Centre County, Pennsylvania ‒ 1948, Omaha, Nebraska

Heraldic artist, teacher, genealogist, and social scientist, Anna Mary McKee Halsey was a highly energetic and artistically creative woman who, along with her prominent husband, made significant cultural contributions to Omaha, Nebraska in the early 20th century. She was born in 1865 in Milesburg, Centre County, Pennsylvania as the oldest of seven children of William Bergstresser McKee, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and Sarah Jane Norton. Her ancestors, like many settlers in that area, were Irish Presbyterian immigrants dating back to the early 17th century. While growing up, she moved often with her family because her father served churches around the Midwest in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, and Michigan.

Anna attended Lindenwood College, a Presbyterian finishing school in St. Charles, Missouri from 1880 to 1883, and then earned her teaching certificate from Normal Institute in Princeton, Illinois in 1883. After a year as a teacher in Arlington, Illinois, she, then 19, went to Los Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, four miles south of Taos, to serve as principal of a Presbyterian plaza school. One of the earliest white women in that territory, she worked with Pueblo Indian children for one year (1884-1885). Her church companion was Alice Hyson, and their assignment was to grow outreach of the Presbyterian Mission School.

Although Hyson stayed on and dedicated the next 31 years of her life to being a missionary in the western territories, Anna left to follow Walter Halsey, a Presbyterian teacher, whom she had met in New Mexico. They became engaged and both enrolled in Lake Forest University, Illinois. However, as a woman planning marriage, she was forced by the University administrators to withdraw from the school, which meant abandoning her plans of formal education to become a teacher. She and Walter had to wait four years to marry because it was a rule violation for any students, male or female, to be married. When Walter graduated in 1889, the couple married in Ashton, Illinois. He then served as principal of Ashton schools.

Blocked when a young woman from her career goals, she committed herself to a path with her husband as they moved across the Midwest over several decades to seven communities with a growing family of six children. However, in 1902, their lives settled geographically because they moved to Omaha where they spent the rest of their lives. Walter immediately enrolled in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and by 1908, he became part of the founding of the University of Omaha “on the Christian principals of the Presbyterian Church and with the Bible as supreme authority.” (Wakely 293)

Nebraska historian Jim McKee has written the following about circumstances of this municipal university, which in 1966 became a part of the University of Nebraska system: “A group of Omaha citizens met in the summer of 1908, which formed the nucleus of the original board of trustees and agreed that the new university should be Christian based but free from ecclesiastical control. The principal structure on the 10-acre tract was an elaborate Victorian mansion originally built as a simple farm house at 3612 North 24th Street by Henry Meyers in the 1870s, enlarged to 20 rooms by C. E. Mayne in 1885, and purchased by attorney John I. Redick in 1889. In 1908, the property was owned by John’s son Oak Redick, who was on the new university’s original board. Initial funding was bumpy but the new school opened on November 14, 1909 in the Redick mansion with Daniel E. Jenkins from the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary as its first, albeit unpaid, president. The initial class of 26 had classes in the mansion itself with the exception of science which met in the carriage house.” (McKee, 4/12/2015)

Jenkins was President and Walter, for the first year, served as the mathematics department. Walter was also Dean of Faculty, a position which lasted from 1908 to 1918, when he was forced to retire due to health concerns. The year before his retirement, the original mansion structure “was disassembled and shipped by rail to an island in Shetek Lake at Currie, Minnesota for use as a hotel/restaurant.” (McKee, 4/12/2015) By 2016, the building was no longer on the island according to Janet Timmerman, Murray County, Minnesota historian. (Pierson)

During these years, Anna never submerged her desire to educate and often enhanced her teaching with her art talents. She counseled students and taught part time at the University during the years of her husband’s employment. As a watercolorist, she won a special prize from Aksarben, an Omaha social and philanthropic organization, for her multi-scene narrative, Coronado Discovering Quivera. Her theme was the Spanish explorer in Nebraska hoping to find gold in what he thought would be the magic city of Quivera. However, in contrast to the real Coronado, Anna’s Coronado, according to the Omaha World-Herald, learned the moral value lesson that the “true gold of Quivera is its wonderful yield of corn and wheat.” (5/20/1924)

In the early 1920s, Anna became an art teacher at what was described as the “ungraded” Benson Central School. With the students, she conveyed both creative skills and American patriotism by overseeing construction of elaborate geographical-historical exhibits. Included was a rendering of the settling of Jamestown Colony titled Marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe; and The First Thanksgiving ‒ a co-mingling of Indians and Pilgrims at a table with small pewter serving objects. This Thanksgiving exhibit received special attention because it was installed at the Omaha Board of Education offices. Anna also made up ‘officially’ for having been deprived of a college graduation at Lake Forest University by enrolling at the University of Omaha and graduating in 1925 at age 60 with a bachelor’s degree in education. With this professional certification, she then undertook student psychological testing for the Omaha Public Schools.

In 1918, her husband retired from the University, and joined her in activities related to one of her major interests, genealogy. They began researching their own heritage and traced his roots to the 15th century and hers to the 16th century. With symbolism linked to their ancestors, they created coats of arms, which she designed and painted and placed in their home. Then people across Nebraska and in Kansas and Iowa saw what they were doing, and a market developed for Halsey-researched and designed family crests with accompanying genealogy. Like the Halseys, many of these people wanted to be linked to the story of white settlement and pride of place ‒ patriotism. Of the great interests in researching ancestors, historian Jim McKee (no relation to Anna) commented: “By the 30s everyone but the American Indian perhaps realized they had all come from somewhere else and there being no TV, perhaps clubs, china painting and genealogy easily became the ‘in’ pastime.”

On July 20, 1930, the Omaha World-Herald newspaper featured the couple, especially Anna, in a multi-column article under the heading: “The Spell of the Coat of Arms.” The text had the following:

“An Omaha genealogist is Mrs. Anna M. Halsey. She not only traces family lines, but with the assistance of her husband, Prof. Walter N. Halsey, paints coats of arms for her clients. Both are personally as well as professionally interested in the work. They have ancestral lines that are as noble and run back as far as any that Mrs. Halsey has traced for other people, and they have coats of arms of their own as splendid as any they have fashioned for the trade. Indeed at the home, 2738 Crown Point Avenue they will resolve to emulate the character of the ancestors whose bravery and merit were symbolized in the escutcheon before them. The study of genealogy, says Mrs. Halsey, enables one to trace the progress of civilization and inspires patriotism in young and old. She emblazons herself as ‘a successful genealogist and heraldic artist.’ In her appeal to her public she modestly states that ‘she has had the honor of painting a number of heraldic designs for patrons in Omaha and three states of the middle west which have received universal commendation. It is her pride that this work is something better than a mere copying of conventionalized designs. She makes a full study of each grant of arms from the original blazon. She has been able to maintain the explicit and rigid requirements of the king of arms and of the science of heraldry and at the same time appeal to one’s artistic sense by balance of design, the harmony of tint and color, and the proper emphasis of the significance of the charge in her works.’ All of which makes her works ‘comparable to the productions of a true artist.’“

This activity made her of special interest for the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a patriotic organization founded in 1890 dedicated to historical documentation and education related to the beginnings of the United States, especially the wars of independence from Britain. Members have in common patriot ancestors of the American Revolution. At Omaha’s Paxton Hotel in 1931, Anna exhibited armorial bearings in watercolor and metal at the DAR Regional Conference and also at the State Convention in York, Nebraska, at the Omaha meeting of the DAR at the Blackstone Hotel, and at De Voe and Reynolds Art Store in Omaha. (Bucklin 37) A circumstance that made Anna of special interest to the group was that, in 1916, she had written for Nebraska a prize-winning pageant for the semi-centennial celebration of statehood and “was honored by being allowed to sit near President Wilson and his wife in the reviewing stand.” (Omaha World-Herald, 7/20/1930).

In December, six months after Anna and Walter had the attention from the feature article in the Omaha World-Herald about their heraldry activities, Anna was in the society section of the same newspaper under this heading: “Mrs. Halsey Goes to Hull House.” According to the article, Anna was going to spend nearly a month with Jane, an “old friend,” who was at that time one of the country’s leading suffragettes and founder in Chicago of one of the most well-known settlement houses in the country. As an employee of the Omaha school board, Anna, “an intelligence examiner and investigator, will continue her work along these lines in Chicago institutions, and will do research in that city” until “some time in January.”

At this time, she was 65 and lived on to age 83. She died in Omaha in 1948, outliving her husband by seven years. She showed that life could be rich with many trails.

Anna Halsey is not represented in the Museum of Nebraska Art collection.


Sources:, 2016
Bucklin, Clarissa, Nebraska Art and Artists, pp. 36-37, Print
“Cumberland County, Pennsylvania,” USGenWeb Archives, Web, Apr. 2015
DAR: Daughters of the American Revolution, Web, Apr. 2015
Dawdy, Doris Ostrander, Artists of the American West, Volume III, p. 188, Print
Falk, Peter Hastings, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art, Volume II, Print
McKee, Jim, Emails to Lonnie Dunbier, Apr. 10, 2015, Apr. 11, 2015, Apr. 12, 2015
“McKee, William Bergstresser,” The Ministerial Directory: Of the Ministers in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Volume 1, edited by Edgar Sutton Robinson, p. 411: Cincinnati, Ohio: Ministerial Directory Company, Press of Armstrong & Fillmore, 1898 (Google books)
“Margaret Catherine Alice Hyson,” Wikipedia, Web, Apr. 2015
Omaha World-Herald newspaper: 5/20/1924, 6/20/1930, 12/21/1930
Petteys, Chris, Dictionary of Women Artists Born Before 1900, Print
Pierson, Douglas, Email to Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, Oct. 18, 2016. A resident of Shetek, he interviewed Murray County historian Janet Timmerman and learned that she “right away knew about the building that was moved from the University of Omaha. The building she says is no longer on the island, and either had a fire or was taken down at some point.”
Wakeley, Arthur Cooper, Supervising Editor, Omaha: The Gate City and Douglas County, Nebraska, Volume I, pp. 293-294, Print

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier
Museum of Nebraska Art Project:
Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825 to 1945