Why we pursue our family history is a common question among geneabloggers and other genealogists. I’ve reflected on this over the years and have never had an entirely satisfactory response to that question. Why I continue with it is so much easier: the search continues and the questions remain. I can’t simply say “my family history is done”.
In my midnight mental rambles the other night, at least one of the reasons came to me. Behind both of my grandfathers lay an abyss of silence. I knew so little about each of them and their families. My grandparents were between 61 and 69 when I was born yet they seemed so old to me. When our first grandchild was born, we were not dissimilar ages, only 57 yet this seems quite a sobering comparison.
About my paternal grandfather I knew his unusual surname, definitely another of the reasons for starting on this quest: I wanted to know where it came from in Germany and who the first Kunkel was to come to Australia. The sole bits of “knowledge” I had acquired over the years were:
- my grandfather was brought up Catholic
- He had walked out of a church in Roma (western Queensland) after being told to stand up for the local squatter (true or fiction I don’t know)
- there had been a falling-out with all but two of my grandfather’s siblings (he had 10)
- my ancestor (who???) had “jumped ship”
- one Kunkel came to Australia but two brothers went to “America”
- All Kunkels in Australia were related.
- He had gone to war (I think I knew this from his medals) and perhaps because of the paintings of Egypt on their dining room walls.
- He had sent back souvenirs from France and Egypt but they had been “pinched” somewhere along the way.
Put like this, I seemed to know a bit but these bare facts camouflage just how much I didn’t know. What is even more surprising is that for 16 years I lived next to my grandfather and was very close to him: as the eldest grandchild of the original immigrants to Australia there would have been so much he could have told me and which I may have know except for the religious disputes in the background. The family stories I uncovered as I researched were a revelation to me, but not necessarily to my father, who had always known his great-grandparents lived at Murphys Creek but hadn’t told me until I discovered it for myself. Have I mentioned my family’s oyster-like tendencies?
Of my maternal grandfather’s family I knew even less:
- He was born in Ireland, possibly Cork
- I had met one of his sisters in Townsville once (he had 14 siblings, some deceased as children)
- He was a devout Catholic with strong ties to the Hibernian society and a ready volunteer for St Vincent de Paul society and local Catholic church members.
Little did I know that my great-grandfather had only died seven weeks after my own birth.
My grandmothers were slightly more informative and I knew more of their families even though my maternal grandmother had died when I was only three years old.
My neighbouring Scottish-born grandmother had inculcated her love of Scotland, bagpipes and music in me. I have no memory of her trying to sway me from my Catholic religion despite her less-than-charitable comments to my mother. All that I experienced from her was the dedication to work hard, succeed in life, and her on-going love and devotion to me. It’s a surprise to me to discover that she was much the same age as I am in relation to my own grandchildren –like all kids she seemed incredibly old to me. I didn’t learn a great deal from her about family other than how close she was to her sisters but I did know:
- Her brothers were champion pipers
- She came from Edinburgh (actually she came from Glasgow though her mother came from Stirling. No doubt the capital did sound more refined)
- Her mother’s maiden name (though I don’t believe I knew she emigrated with her mother and siblings)
- She had three sisters with whom she was close and I knew of a couple of brothers
- It was only later that among her newspaper clippings my mother found (and saved) her brother’s death notice in a vehicle accident in Sydney.
- I knew nothing of her mother’s early illegitimate daughter or her emigration with them.
On my maternal grandmother’s side I “knew” only that:
- Her father had owned a “chocolate factory”
- That the family had lived in Charters Towers
- She had not been a Catholic when she married
- She had two sisters (one of whom you’ll meet in a few days, and another who was deceased) but of her eight brothers I knew nothing
Like my mother I did not know for many years that she had been divorced in 1913, nor did I know of her first child, Jack Tredrea.
I suppose a reasonable question would be “what have you learned from your family history?” The response is wide-spread and subtle. I now know so much about how my immigrant families came to Australia, where they originated, their joys and crosses, the ups and downs of life for people who were the grassroots of our founding society in Australia. I’ve learnt that I’m a Queenslander not just by birth but by virtue of being born in the place before it even became a separate state. I’ve learned that my genetic and cultural heritage comes from many countries and religions, though my surname is embedded in the former German kingdom of Bavaria, or Bayern.
My life is so much richer for these discoveries though occasionally I have to admit my brain is muddled from having to absorb all these facts. Would I do it again? Absolutely, without any hesitation!! After 27 years are there any discoveries still to be made and mysteries resolved? Absolutely!!! Is there any advice for other researchers? Yes, expand your search beyond your direct ancestors to their kith and kin who may well answer your questions, or open new avenues of research.
Were you close to your grandparents and did you learn about your family history from them? Did they play a role in your family history quest?
What genealogical bequest will you leave for your family? Or will they have to start anew on this quest?