I grew up thinking we were the first people in our family to come to Australia, but I was wrong. At least two of my ancestors had made it here before us. While there are no other records of him having spent time in Australia, one of the few remaining photos of one of my great great great grandfathers was taken in Ballarat in the late 1870s, and his name appears in the Ballarat directory of the time as a carter.
The more intriguing story, though, is of the family member who didn’t come back. Who, according to the family story, came here in 1910 and disappeared. That was Robert Earls, a younger brother of my great grandfather. My father’s cousin, Chris, the Earls family genealogist, set out to track him down. He took this mission on just in time to talk to Robert’s much younger sister Anne about her brother. She told him she believed Robert had worked as teacher in Australia, and taught in a tent. (The Earlses were all trained teachers then – Robert, Anne, at least one more of their brothers and one more of their sisters, and both their parents, who met when teaching at the same school in the 1860s.)
Chris checked records of teachers in Australia and found nothing. He checked all kinds of records and found nothing. For decades, he drew blank after blank. Then, in 2001, New South Wales put its pre-1930 death records online. Chris searched, and found a Robert Earls in 1926. Despite NSW having plenty of Earlses to which we aren’t related (I’ve met a few of them at book signings – descendants of the Earlses of Clare or Galway), Chris requested a copy of the death certificate, just in case.
From information on it about the parents of the deceased, it was clear this was our Robert, found after decades. Dead at the age of 50 in Kenmore Mental Hospital, Mulwaree Shire.
My father got involved, and worked out Mulwaree meant Goulburn. Contact was made with NSW Health in Goulburn. After all this time, it seemed too much to hope that any records might still exist. NSW Health replied, telling Chris there were records, but they could only be made available to the next of kin and had to be picked up in person. Not easy for Chris, who lives in the US and wasn’t next of kin. But Chris knew his family tree and figured that Robert’s next of kin would be his first-born sibling, his big brother, John. And the first child of the first child of John was … my Dad, whose work was soon to take him to Canberra, an hour away from Goulburn.
So we got it all. Every detail of the mostly sad story, of a man with an illness before we knew how to treat it properly, but who met with compassion at least some of the time. And there was more than that. The family knew. My great grandfather had sent a letter, and money. Robert hadn’t disappeared. It was just that his story in the family had ended in 1910. Different times.
It got me thinking about families and the way they work. About the stories and the missing bits. And it got me thinking about the people in the 1890 Earls family photo that I’ve had hanging in the hall for years. It’s got all the grimness you’d expect of a photo from that time. People so far from cracking a smile it looks as if they’d break their faces if they tried.
I wondered if there was something there for me to write about – a lost family story from the past, that I could ‘nest’ in a story from the present. I had some details that set me up to invent a story of someone going off the rails a century or so ago, but could it give me even more if I put it into a story set in the present? If I put another story to work on it? About that same family now, and how they operate, at a disconnect of a couple of generations?
I decided the ancestor had crossed the world for a gold rush and gone unaccounted for. At the time I was planning to go to Alaska, and that seemed a great place for it. I started prepping Skagway, since I liked the name. I thought it’d be a great title. Then I discovered the cruise wasn’t going there and the story became Juneau instead. Either way, it was Alaska. It was remote, a frontier, dangerous when the ancestor in the story – the ancestor in the family photo from 1890 – went there in 1893. There were fortunes to be made, fortunes and lives to be lost.
So, he has gone there, sent one letter home, and disappeared. That’s where we’ll start. A missing ancestor, a trail picked up 120 years later.
Much of my time in Juneau was spent on a glacier, hiking and climbing. Best birthday present of my life. If you ever get the chance to do it, do it. The word ‘awesome’ is widely over-used to mean ‘acceptable’, but there were moments of awe up on that glacier, and lots of of them. The cruise became a travel article, but at the same time I was working on my lost-ancestor story.
Before and after my glacier time, I walked the streets of Juneau, taking it all in. I went to the cemetery, to the old Russian church. I wanted to feel the streets now, and sense what I could of the 1890s.
I would give my story a narrator my age, with a father close to 80. It’s the two of them in Juneau for the day. No glacier extravaganza. It’s the two of them, and the person the father has commissioned online to do ancestor research. I needed to know about the father and son, to know how to shape the story of the present around the story of the past. Their relationship’s not easy. Why is it not easy? Detail … detail … What is the ancestor story, and how does it unfold within the story of the present? More detail …
That’s the fun of it, finding those threads and making something of them, taking a story away from an old photo on a wall and a family story, and making something new that feels just as true.