Sunday, 28 July 2013

Samuel McPherson... a storm in a glass of good Scotch?

It's been a big, big weekend for me, genealogically speaking (and my son started school, but back to the dead-people stuff). Jill Ball's recommendation has brought many of you over to read my blog, and there's also been some events connected to an ongoing family saga, so it's probably a good time to share this one. It's a big mess, but it's a great story, a ripping yarn even. I'd say apologies in advance to offended family members were it not for the fact I'm not sorry at all. Well, I'm sorry a few people were upset by it, but I'm not sorry it happened.
Ok... so, to begin at the beginning.
My grandmother is:
  1. A McPherson
  2. Very fond of all of her family
  3. Full of stories about their past.
My great-uncle Ron and my grandma, who is rocking a 'Black Watch' pin her dad bought her while on leave from the Western Front. Because the family is Scottish. Apparently.

One of her stories about the past was about her grandfather, Samuel James McPherson. He was a teacher at Scotch College. He dedicated many years of his life to education, and was later memorialised at the school in the naming of their History Prize (Why? He taught accounting and book-keeping!) As in the best of stories, he died of a heart-attack just outside the school property when on his way home one evening, just a few days before he was about to retire. He was at least 73 at the time.

Samuel James McPherson, as seen hanging on the wall of my grandmother's childhood home

He was very stern, and would think nothing of thumping one of the kids with his slipper at dinner-time then going back to talk as though nothing had every happened. Someone in his family was African and that's why we all tan so easily and have birth-marks. And he was Scottish. Apparently. Or, as Grandma describes it, Scotch, which I always found somewhat disconcerting. What can I say? She is virtually a teetotaller and probably doesn't realise how it sounds.

Great-great grandpa, is that you?

The official records told me somewhat more than that. He married a German woman while working in Melbourne. He worked at a number of elite Adelaide private schools. He was highly regarded and raised his children to succeed in professional or personal endeavours (never both: a story for another time). His mother could not write. Nobody seemed to know what year he was born in exactly, or whether he was born in South Africa or Ayrshire. But he was the son of John Henry McPherson, a Scotsman sailing from the ports of South Africa, and Betsey Geyer. And he was Scottish. Apparently.

I met cousins of my Grandmother's (who are just wonderful, wonderful people, and I wish I could have found something better for them in the research process). They told me about Samuel's career, complete with his references, showed me photographs of him, told me about his incredible children. They WERE incredible. I'll be blogging about each and every one of them at some point. There was the sailing and shipwreck stories about his arrival here from South Africa, and the stories about his mother, a great cook and boarding-house keeper, and his father, who died in a horrible accident in the St. Vincent Gulf. He was a sailor, but like most, he couldn't swim, so the one time he got knocked into the water that was it. And Samuel was Scottish. Apparently.

Report of the Death of John Henry McPherson

I don't know why, but I kept digging. Maybe it was to get facts. Maybe it was because every newspaper article which mentioned Samuel said he was John Henry McPherson's son, even the ones which were nothing to do with his father at all, and the lady doth protest too much. Either way, I ended up discovering a South African record indicating that Samuel's mother had been married before, not long before either, to a man named George Bagshaw. He was NOT SCOTTISH. Apparently.
One thing led to another, as they say, and next thing I was collaborating with a Bagshaw researcher and another McPherson cousin who was keen to discover the truth. We found out that:
  1. Samuel was the name of George's father, and James was the name of his step-father, meaning Samuel was either George's son or John, Betsy's second husband, was unusually accepting of his wife's first marriage to the extent that he would name his first-born son after people of significance to his wife's first husband. Yeah, I'm not buying it either.
  2. There was a baptismal entry for a Samuel James George Bagshaw, son of George Bagshaw, which matched Samuel's headstone's implied age of birth.

I have a clearer picture of the headstone, but this one is from my grandma's album and dates from the 1930s, so it's the oldest one

The McPherson cousin and I are pretty convinced that Samuel was the son of the first husband. We still really value the second husband. He was the man who raised Samuel; Samuel was obviously very fond of him and he had huge input into the cultural identity of our family and no doubt lots of other aspects we will never know or understand. Naturally there are a few in the family who are/would be deeply upset by this revelation that they are not genetically McPhersons and not genetically Scottish, and that's been a real downside to the whole process. I can understand their concerns: if anyone were to suggest I was not a McDermott, I know I'd really struggle to accept their theory. However, I choose to take a bigger picture view in the nature vs nurture debate and look at the fact that John McPherson still stamped his own distinctive flavour on our branch of the family, genetic input or not. He is my great-great-grandfather (adoptive) and George Bagshaw is my great-great grandfather (genetic). John Henry is one of only two people I've ever bothered to enter using the 'custom relationship' features in Family Tree Maker 2012, because as far as I'm concerned, he still rates.

To help shed some light on things my grandmother took the very avant-garde step of taking a DNA test, and we also bought one for a Bagshaw relative to try and settle matters. (Grandma is not hip with the 90-something kids!) Unfortunately it wasn't conclusive in that there was no match to Bagshaws, well, yet. However, the company (ftdna) did provide a genetic profile of my grandmother which showed that some of her DNA originated in Africa and that a further percentage was from South Asia. In case anyone is wondering, my mother's test with them shows 100% western European, so they don't just throw African in the mix for everyone to support a pre-existing human-origin hypothesis. There had always been a family story about Africa, both from Grandma and her cousin, and this proved it. At this point I supposed that given the Bagshaws originated from London, Betsy/Betsey Geyer must be the origin of this 'exotic' DNA, despite her Germanic surname.

As you've surmised, a few members of the family have been less than delighted about this discovery. Not because they have any issue with being, as my husband so charmingly put it, "part eggplant", but because they were used to thinking of themselves as having origins in the Scottish highlands.

"From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas —
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the

That sort of thing. I've been quite troubled about having robbed them of their dreams of tartan and bagpipes, although in fairness the family were raised with those by John, so they are still part of who we are.

That's been the state of play for a little while now. Fast forward to the weekend, when my Bagshaw relative forwarded me some new information he'd been working on. He still has contact with family in South Africa, and as many of you would know, you pretty much can't research South African ancestry without a local contact. He has been doing further research on the Bagshaws, and has discovered a few items of huge interest which have left me really floored, to say the least!

My Bagshaw ancestor, George, was the child of Samuel Bagshaw and Margaret Connolly. It turns out that Margaret was born a slave. By the time of her marriage to Samuel she was listed as "free slave" (still in the slave marriage register). She was the daughter of a slave and 'woman of colour', in St Helena. Her father J Connolly was a British (well, probably Irish but serving in the British army for profit) soldier in St Helena (as was Samuel Bagshaw) during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte!!!! Only just over 5000 population, and there were my ancestors and Napoleon!  There are so many potential stories there that I just can't even begin to get my head around it. The slavery, Napoleon, Samuel's grandmother's triumph against the odds and her experiences when the family lived in England for a while, Samuel Bagshaw's family's reaction to his marriage to a former slave, how a man whose grandmother was a freed slave became a school-teacher to Adelaide's establishment, how his first cousin was president of the SA Stock Exchange... I just can't even.

Now if it had turned out we were connected to this guy, THAT would have been even weirder!

Edited to add: Elizabeth, if you read this again, your message had an incorrect email address and bounced back. Please do get back in touch.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Ethical Dilemmas #1

There's no doubt it's tricky at times being into genealogy. There's the ethics of using other people's information (yes, we all know you shouldn't just copy stuff without appropriate attribution, except for YOU Gen Y and whoever those weirdos are from other age groups who think it's ok to use other people's stuff without so much as a 'sourced from cousin Fred' or, even worse, pass it off as their own), there's the ethics of whether or not to share particular discoveries (something I'll be revisiting in a later blog), the ethics of handling living people's information etc. etc. The list goes on!
Recently, I've discovered a whole new ethical issue which I haven't really seen people write about: handling heirlooms. Like most genealogists, I've become a person who people give stuff to, because it's old, because they don't want it but are pretty sure it shouldn't just be thrown out, because they think I'll look after it. I currently have a half a cupboard full of miscellaneous family treasures from my family and my husband's family. This has raised a couple of issues:
1) Who actually should have the item in the first place?
I've previously mentioned the case of the Family Bible in my blog, because of its significance to my own personal genealogical journey. It was given to my great-grandparents, William Evans and Florence Gough for their wedding in 1888. Since then it has belonged to my great-aunt Mabel, my grandmother Gwen, my mum, and now me. Mabel was the oldest in the family, but she used to let her kids play with it (hence its broken spine and loose pages). Apart from us all being female there is no 'pattern' to who has received it since. My grandmother decided to get it from Mabel for my mum, and mum decided I should have it as she knows how much it means to me and felt it would be most valued in my home. However, I have numerous cousins who have just as much 'right' to it as I do.
And they can prise it from my cold, dead hands, 'cause I am not parting with this baby!
As a subset of that, when two people have equal 'right', who decides what should happen and how? My great-grandfather had medals from WW1. Grandma thought she had them and had given them to my father, but mum swears black and blue that never happened. Anyhoo, another relative has been looking for them. I made the point that perhaps one of Grandma's sister's children has them. Well, said relative launched into a rant about how, if that has happened, we should just demand them back. Um... why? What makes them more 'ours' than 'theirs'? I'd love to find out if they do have the medals for general interest, and so I can get a photo of them, but if they have the medals I don't see there is a damn thing we can (or ought) do about it claiming them.
This is all well and good, but what do you then do with the item when you have received it and feel someone else has more right to it than you do? We have in our house a trophy a certain family member received for his involvement in a particular sporting endeavour. Hubby has a cousin who is also heavily involved in that particular sport, even carrying out the same role in the team. Hubby has strongly resisted any suggestions that the item should be handed over to his cousin. Decisions, decisions!
2) When you own the item, what criteria do you use to work out who to pass it on to next?
In our family we are lucky to have two sets of war medals. One belonged to my husband's grandfather, Mervyn Sykes. He served in WW2. They are beaten up looking as Merv was very into the RSL so routinely had them out for occasions. He was also a total pisshead so he was none too careful on said occasions. Hubby always said they were to go to our son 'because he was a boy'. Not because he was the eldest, not because he was interested (he's only 4!) but because he's a boy. Setting aside my feminist inclination to scream "Dude! What the actual even?", it is on reflection the way hubby received them. His father got them because he was the boy in a family full of girls. At least, as Francis Fulford identified when discussing primogeniture in The F***ing Fulfords, it's consistent. And thankfully we have two sets of medals, because we also have two boys, as much as I'd have loved to watch hubby's head implode trying to work out which should get the one set.
Medals awarded to Ron McPherson in WW2 - in pristine condition, because he never came home from El Alamein.
I haven't made up my mind yet about how I'll pass on the items I have. Thankfully being a (relatively) youthful type, it's not something I am statistically likely to consider for a bit just yet. I think I'll wait and see whether the kids are interested, their partners are interested, their kids are interested, what the nieces would value, other cousins etc. Mainly I'll be looking to pass them on to the people I think will treasure them the most and ensure they are shared and passed on, regardless of their degree or type of relationship.
3) In what ways do you share the item with others?
I personally photograph each and every one of the items which come into my possession and make those pictures available to anyone who asks. I show them to family members who visit, and if anyone ever needed to borrow one for a particular purpose then I'm sure we'd be able to work something out. I have a cousin who loaned me a prayer book for my wedding which my great-great grandparents had bought for her grandmother and which every bride in her branch has carried on their wedding day (which she's never asked for since, so I'm not sure if she intends to keep it or whether I'm supposed to keep it until the next family wedding! Eeep!) However, I do have one cousin who won't even send a photo of some items she's got, and another person I visit won't ever get anything out to let me photograph it. Weird...
Of course then there's the whole dilemma of what one ought to do if there was a divorce in the family, what you should do if you find a prized possession that doesn't belong to your family (we all know you use resources like Rootsweb mailing lists to track a rightful owner if you can, right?) and who knows what other scenarios.
At least we can all agree on one thing!


Monday, 15 July 2013

Too Busy for this Shit

Now thankfully I've never been subjected to this in the genealogy community (yet), but I work with young people so I'm often in conversations where people much older than me launch into a tirade on "Young People Today" that pretty much quotes verbatim from Aristotle. Consequently it shits me to tears when people from previous generations don't recognise the very poor examples they often provide in the netiquette department.

Case in point: just two days ago I received the following message from someone in her 60s via Ancestry:
I saw that you are looking into the Faulkner family so am i. I was wondering weather your person is related to mine, my grandfather was Edward Faulkner he lived in Liverpool in England.
Um... I have one Faulkner in my tree. One. An Australian. From Australia. Who married a relative of mine. In Australia. Is she related to your Liverpudlian grandfather? I have no fucking idea.
To follow it up, today I got this little gem:
Have you any details of when he arrived in Adeaide in 1849 please.
Also what did his Orbituary say.
Also have you any details of where his wife Sarah Donougho was born in Ireland and when her father brought the family out to Australia.
Many thanks,
Umm, da fuq?  Why don't you ask me to cite your sources, file your certificates and wash your bloody dishes while I'm at it? Whatever happened to "Hello, I see we have a mutual interest in Sconce Firge. I'm his great-great niece. I was wondering if you had any information on his achievements in the annual Puckoon Porridge Eating Competitions between 1903 and 1942. I would be happy to share any information I have about him which may be of use to you, particularly stories of his childhood growing up next door to the Knotted String Factory."
For many years I've been sending polite and helpful replies to this kind of crap, but quite frankly I don't have enough free time in my life for this! I'm seriously deliberating between whether I should ignore them completely to just give in to the dark side and tell them to kiss my arse.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Lure of the Famous

Everyone who carries out any level of genealogical project has probably encountered someone who is deep in the grip of the lure of fame. We all know the person who embarks on their family history, often starting with a completely unrelated person rather than their parents, in a vain attempt to prove they are descended from Ned Kelly/JFK/the King of England/Adam & Eve/a Pope.
Like all of you, I've remained blissfully free of this kind of thing. My genealogy started with the relatives I knew I had and has worked out from there. Along the way I've discovered a few people who would have been widely recognised in their own communities (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not) but nobody more notable than that, and that's about what I'd have expected. In fact, the vast majority of my ancestry comprises people who only ever made it into the paper if they got married or died, if that. I've never wasted time mooning over famous people and their possible connection to me, if only because there are so many famous McDermotts it would be hard to pick just one! ;)
This week I've been away on holidays. Nothing particularly genealogical, as the town and area we are in is not one which was heavily inhabited by family at any point. Consequently, the focus of my genealogical work has been catching up on the data backlog. I have three plastic pockets chock-full of information distant cousins have sent me about their branches of the family, and some of it has literally been sitting there for years waiting for me to compare those notes with my records, verify the details which are new to me, input the data and so on. Yeah, of course I've had research time in those few years, but my genealogical ADHD has lead me down other paths in that time.
One of these piles has come in from a distant Darby relation in WA. Like most of you, I have never chased the siblings of my immigrant ancestors as they could appear in nearly any country in the world. Well, not quite, but you know what I mean! However, I do collect information about them should it cross my path. Actively chasing them is a project for another decade! In this instance, the cousin supplied information about the younger sister of my George Darby, Susannah, who like George emigrated from Pitney in Somerset for South Australia in the mid 19th century. She married a man whose surname was Cave, and-
Wait, hold the press - did you say CAVE? In Australia? Fark!!!!
So, it turns out that there is a whole branch of Caves in Australia who are related to me (as in the surname, not the geological formation). However, I'm not going to go on a wild-goose chase looking for connections to music legends who may or may not have that surname. For a start, they're Victorians, and in any case the likelihood of there being any such connection is somewhere between fuck all and none. Now, if it had been Coburns from Cork perhaps... Nah, not even then.
In the highly unlikely event that Nick Cave ever appears on an episode of "Who do you think you are?" I will be sure to watch, but in the meantime it's going to be the very last item on my genealogical to-do list. You know, right after I finish my family history. And we all know that