Australia Day 2011 meme: the importance of church records and archives to my early documents.

Shelley from http://twigsofyore.blogspot.com/ has invited us to submit an Australia Day post on our blogs. She suggests that we “Find the earliest piece of documentation you have about an ancestor in Australia. If you don’t have an Australian ancestor, then choose the earliest piece of documentation you have for a relative in Australia”

On Wednesday 26 January 2011 post your answers to these questions:

  1. What is the document?
  2. Do you remember the research process that lead you to it? How and where did you find it?
  3. Tell us the story(ies) of the document. You may like to consider the nature of the document, the people mentioned, the place and the time. Be as long or short, broad or narrow in your story telling as you like!

The earliest Australian documents I have for many of my ancestors is their shipping documents: the extended Kent family on the General Hewitt into Moreton Bay in 1854 or two lines of my families arriving on the Fortune into Moreton Bay in 1855: the Gavin family along with another ancestor, William Partridge on the same ship, even though they had differing views of the success of the voyage.

But these documents posed no real challenge so I opted for ones that were a little later but were absolutely pivotal to my family history research. [It didn’t help that these ancestors don’t appear anywhere in the shipping records and have defied all my attempts over 20+ years.]

Like pretty much everyone else I started out buying the marriage certificates of my first Australian couples. In particular the one I was most curious about was George Kunkel’s marriage to Mary O’Brien. The certificate duly arrived, probably helpfully collected from the Registry by my daughters on their way home from school. You might well imagine I had visions of every section of our wonderful certificates comprehensively completed and sending me back to my ancestors’  “Old Country” to locate further branches of their families.

My early-research illusions were quickly shattered when the certificate revealed the following:

THE OFFICIAL MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE

When & where married: 26 September 1857 at Ipswich
Name & Surname: George Hatheas Kunkel Mary O’Brien
Condition: Bachelor Spinster
Birthplace: - -
Profession: Servant Housemaid
Age: - -
Usual place of residence Ipswich Ipswich
Parents-Father’s name and surname, mother’s name and maiden surname
Father’s rank or profession

George had signed and Mary made her mark. The witnesses were stated to be Carl Blomai and Sarah O’Brien. Officiating Minister was Wm McGinly. (Qld Birth certificate 140/81 of 1857 registered in the Colony of NSW)

I could have wept….so many blanks just where I needed them and an additional puzzle because I knew nothing about Sarah O’Brien. Somehow I concluded George & Mary were married in the Catholic Church Ipswich (because I knew they were Catholic, and I suppose I’d read that Wm McGinly was actually Father William McGinty, parish priest of Ipswich. In those days in the late 1980s I was allowed to look at the parish registers (no longer possible) but still there were blanks.

Sometime later I was talking to an experienced researcher at the Genealogical Society of Queensland who told me there were actually two registers at St Mary’s Ipswich, as they’d discovered when GSQ was indexing the records. I needed to go back there and ask for the second one. This wasn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, because I needed to get time off work, drive to Ipswich, and then get the staff to find the correct book.

However, when the register was finally delivered to my table, all the trouble was worth it. There, in faded writing, was so much I hadn’t known and which had been omitted from the certificate!

THE PARISH REGISTER from St Mary’s Catholic Church, Ipswich (not quite in this format but easier to see how the gaps are filled)

When & where married: 26 September 1857 at the Catholic Church Ipswich
Name & Surname: George Mathias (not Hatheas) Kunkel Mary O’Brien
Condition: Bachelor Spinster
Birthplace: Dorfprozelten, Germany -
Profession: Servant Housemaid
Age: 23 -
Usual place of residence Ipswich Ipswich
Parents-Father’s name and surname, mother’s name and maiden surname Adam KunkelCatherine Happ
Father’s rank or profession Innkeeper

You can imagine my excitement! I figured that if an Irish priest had bothered to write down a difficult name like Dorfprozelten it had to be correct. I’d earlier tried buying almost every one of George & Mary’s children’s birth certificates and he’d persistently said he came from “Bavaria” and nothing else, except for one time when he put Aschaffenburg, again, who knows why. Research into that had turned up blank prior to finding this marriage register.

Armed with the correct information I was eventually able to confirm (after multiple visits and letters) that George had been baptised Georg Mathias Kunkel in Dorfprozelten Bavaria, to parents Adam Kunkel and Catherine Happ. Technically it was Catherine who was the innkeeper as the inn had been in her family for generations. Adam came from another part of Bavaria, but that’s a story for another day.

There’s another interesting fact about this marriage: that of a German immigrant to an Irish woman. I’d been confidently told by the German expert at GSQ that there were no Bavarians and no German Catholics in Queensland. Wrong on both counts as my research, and other’s, has clearly demonstrated. So a tip for those with German ancestry: if you find a marriage in the Catholic church, there’s a good (but not inevitable) chance that they were actually Catholic, not Lutheran, which is why they sometimes married Irish men or women who shared their faith.

Still there were all those blank spaces against poor Mary’s name: did George not know this detail? was the register filled out when she wasn’t there? Actually to give him credit George did well, my best estimate is that he’d arrived in Australia c1855 and could plainly speak enough English to get by. Mary’s death certificate gave me the name of her parents but not her birth place, other than County Clare. Mary O’Brien from County Clare is like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.

It was oral history that solved the final puzzle of this couple’s ancestry. One of their youngest surviving grandchildren, Anne Kunkel, told me in the late 1980s that Mary had arrived with her sisters Bridget & Kate (actually Kate came later). She knew that Bridget had married a man named Widdup and lived in NSW. Luckily it was such an unusual name as I was also able to get her death certificate. This confirmed that her place of birth was Broadford, Co Clare, although that document had mistakenly put down her parents as Michael & Bridget not Michael & Catherine. Although the parish registers for Kilseily (Broadford) post-date the birth of Mary and Bridget, the fantastic oral history known by Anne Kunkel and other O’Brien descendants in Sydney gave such a good triangulation of data that Mary’s background could be confirmed.

But wait, we still have the mystery of the witnesses for whom I searched for many years. Carl Blomai looked more like Carl Mosrins per his signature on the church document but eventually turned out to be Carl Wörner as deciphered by the Dorprozelten local historian (thanks Georg!). Sarah O’Brien was the daughter of Daniel and Winifred O’Brien who came from Tipperary to Ipswich, Queensland. I still can’t find any family connection between these O’Briens and mine but as Broadford is in East Clare it’s quite possible, and the families do continue to witness each other’s church events for a long time.  I still haven’t managed to get to the bottom of the puzzle of these inter-connecting families.

Which just goes to show, quite often one document is just not enough to tie up the ends, but persistence, oral history, and multiple records can solve the problem if you’re lucky.