in 52Ancestors2022, Family history

Where Does Anything Begin?

#52Ancestors Week One-Foundations

(Valdivia ancestor sculpture with two faces)

This year I’m participating again in Amy Johnson Crow’s ’52 Ancestors’, which means I write a blog post every week about ancestry based on a supplied topic prompt.

The prompt for week one is ‘Foundations’.

Foundations have always challenged me because there is always a ‘before’. How do you draw the line? Where do you declare something a new entity, a new beginning?

It seems easy from a distance. It’s never straightforward when you get close.

When I started my family history, I drew boundary lines because I knew what a big project it was. First up, I wanted to identify the ancestor in each line who arrived in Australia. That first pioneer on every side. How simple can you get?

My great grandmother Alice Head

My great grandmother Alice Head is an excellent example. She emigrated from England in 1896, married Herbert Dunstall in Kalgoorlie, and they lived happily ever after in Western Australia. Simple!

Until I explored her ancestry and found her great grandfather George Devon Doo. He was born in Surrey, England, in 1794, joined the navy and served for several years in India, after which he was pensioned out as an invalid. He was also addicted to strong spirits and opium.

George Devon Doo made his way to Australia in 1838. He struggled for nearly thirty years and eventually died in Yass, New South Wales, in 1865: almost thirty years before Alice made her journey out.

So in my family tree, who is the pioneering ancestor in that line? Is it Alice Head or is it George Devon Doo? There’s an excellent chance that Alice lived her entire life not knowing anything of that great grandfather or his naval career.

Another example:

William Morey 1851-1914

My great great grandfather William Morey died in Mannus near Tumbarumba, New South Wales. He’s a known pioneer of the district. For years we thought he was a pioneer to Australia.

William and his wife Fanny moved to Mannus with their nine surviving children in 1908 and built a home on one of eight share farming allotments in the new settlement. The place is full of history; every trip we made as children were full of memorials and tales of those first families. We went to see the houses they once lived in, the carefully preserved sulkies they drove, the dusty portraits on the walls of various great aunts and uncles’ homes. A glimpse into a shadowy past so distant it takes special care to preserve the memories.

1908! That’s barely the past at all!

I’ve recently written about William’s parents. They were shadowy figures who left no relics behind. They had their troubles – alcoholism, clashes with neighbours, court appearances for theft. In the end his mother even changed her name and became someone else entirely.

It’s taken a concerted effort by many descendants to locate them and put together their story, but they were in Australia too. Great great grandfather William Morey was a pioneer of Mannus (1908) with an untarnished reputation. But he was actually Australian born. His birth family was less than fifty miles away.

It was his never-referenced parents who were the pioneers – the ones who made poor choices, the ones who never found their place. The ones you couldn’t bring home to meet your new family or your neighbours.

Who founded the mighty dynasty of Morey in the Snowy Mountains district in New South Wales? Their descendants are numerous and respectable. Was it William Morey 1851-1814? Or his parents who came to Australia in 1848 but self-destructed and vanished from sight?

Of course, there’s no answer to my question.

Every generation is a rich combination of old influences and new. Nobody lives in a vaccuum. We are the sum of our experiences, our legacies, our opportunities and obstacles. All of that comes from what went before. George Devon Doo ended the way he did because of his past: his father died when he was little, his mother remarried and her new husband got him a place on a naval ship when he was just eleven years old. He was a child pushed into a savage adult world. The injured, opium-addled man we find sixty years later is the end result of that tragic beginning.

William Morey became the man he was because he married a respectable woman raised in an orphanage. She had a heart of gold but the concept of family dragging one down was alien to her. I’m quite sure she encouraged her new husband to step away from his dysfunctional origins, to look forward and do what was needed for his own children.

It was the only way. But what you’ve come from still has an impact. His past shaped his ideas, his fears. He did not travel, he encouraged all his adult children to stay nearby and live equally quiet lives, without telling them why. His views make a lot more sense when you know what went before.

Mountshannon House interior

I’ve been grappling with this issue recently because I was stuck for a Christmas present for my father. I decided the best thing I could do was write him a history of the paternal line. Nothing too complex – short chapters, each one about one ancestor. I decided to do it from earliest to latest to properly build the story.

My paternal lineage is Irish Catholic, so there are limits to how far back I can go. The earliest named ancestor is Edmond Dillane born circa 1760 in Kerry.

But there’s a bit of explanation to be done in talking about his world. DNA matches suggest that Edmond had two brothers, John and Matthew, and a sister Catherine, and they lived in the Listowel region of Kerry.

Looking at naming patterns for their children suggests that their parents were likely named John Dillane and Catherine. Y-DNA matches show several originating ancestors from Cork in the late 1600s, so it seems likely to me that our Dillanes were formerly in Cork and settled in Kerry sometime before 1750.

I’ve spent some time examining occurrences of the surname across Munster and further afield, and some time looking into the various wars of Ireland in that turbulent 17th century.

I became lost for a while in piecing together the geographical journey of our Y-DNA matches. I don’t think we’ve had the surname Dillane for very long. Sometime in the 1700s Dillane took over from Delane. That’s the spelling you find in earlier records.

I still haven’t written that history for my father. I’m now targeting his birthday. I need to draw the line somewhere and call something a beginning.

Foundations are every point really. We just have to pick the foundation for whatever story we are going to tell. Every event, every moment in time; they’re all the start of something.

I’ve used this prompt to get my head around that concept. It’s time to write.

Edward (Ned) Dillon 1878-1958 (The earliest of the Dillane paternal line for whom I have a picture).

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