Ten years ago, my friend Mary Latham and I were talking about places we’d travelled overseas, and she mentioned Ireland. I asked her where in Ireland she’d visited. She listed several places, then added, ‘Oh, and I went to this tiny little place no one’s ever heard of called Cappoquin because my family used to run the local pub there.’
I did a double-take. ‘No, my family used to run the local pub in Cappoquin,’ I said.
Turns out we were both right, both of us descended from Maurice Walsh, owner of The Cats Bar in Cappoquin, and Mary Morrisey (or Morrison), of County Waterford. In 1887, two of Maurice’s daughters, Mary Ann and Margaret, migrated to Sydney, Australia, with their respective husbands, Thomas Francis O’Brien and John Joseph Whelan. Mary is descended from Mary Ann, and I am descended from Margaret.
Mary and I were friends for four years before we discovered our shared ancestry, a discovery which only deepened our friendship. Over the years, our unique story has made for wonderful dinner party conversation.
Only it turns out that our story is not so unique.
A couple of nights ago, I was having dinner with Dimity, a friend of twenty years. She has done considerable work on her family history and was talking about her ancestral links to Mudgee in New South Wales. I said, ‘We must try to figure out at some point whether our ancestors knew each other. My great-great-great-grandfather brought Chardonnay to Australia via Mudgee.’
Dimity looked at me and said, ‘No, my great-great-great-grandfather brought Chardonnay to Australia via Mudgee.’
Talk about déjà-vu.
Turns out Dimity and I share great-great-great-great-grandparents in Johann Friederick Kurz (b 1760) and his third wife, Margaretha Benz, of Mannshaupten (now part of Schorndorf) near Stuttgart in Germany. I am descended from their fifth child, Andreas Kurz (b 1816), and Anna Rosina Keorzinger (b 1827), who emigrated to Australia on the Commodore Perry out of Liverpool, arriving in NSW in 1855. Dimity is descended from their sixth child, Joseph David Kurz (b 1817), and Christina Barbara Ahles, who emigrated to Australia in 1856. Both brothers settled at Pipeclay Creek northeast of Mudgee, where Andreas established his vineyard. According to Dimity, Joseph was a master shoe-maker in Germany, though it is believed that he and Andreas worked on the vineyards together; at least one of Joseph’s sons had his own vineyard in Mudgee later on.
As well as the bragging rights that come from being part of a family that brought Chardonnay to Australia (see this article that identifies Mudgee as the cradle of Australia’s Chardonnay), I believe Andreas — though it might have been his brother, Joseph — makes an appearance as ‘farmer Kutz’ (sic) in The Days When We Went Swimming, a poem by Mudgee’s most famous literary son, Henry Lawson:
And you’ll remember farmer Kutz –
Though scarcely for his bounty –
He leased a forty-acre block,
And thought he owned the county;
A farmer of the old world school,
That grew men hard and grim in,
He drew his water from the pool
That we preferred to swim in…
(In his defense, Andreas and Anna made the trip from Germany with the two surviving of their first four children, only one of whom was still alive by the time they reached Australia. ‘Hard and grim’ indeed. Australia must have seemed like Paradise by contrast, all four of their children born here surviving into adulthood).
So, twice now, my friends have turned out to be (distant) cousins. What are the odds?
No, I mean really: what are the odds? Maths isn’t my strong suit, but I would love to know the probability of chancing upon common ancestors in one’s social circle. Then the likelihood of it happening twice.
Does the fact that I have two distant relatives (so far) among my close friends merely reflect how young Australia’s immigrant population is?
Are me and my relatives more likely to recognise each other when we meet by virtue of being interested in — and putting time into — researching family history?
Are we drawn together by subliminal genetic and/or psychic forces that make us more likely to share interests, divulge information and ask the kinds of questions that enable us to uncover the ancestral links?
Or is this all proof, as British novelist Barbara Trapido once observed, that ‘random life is full of coincidences too unlikely to use in a novel’?
Whatever the case, I’m following the advice of award winning author and historian Clare Wright to post family history information online to facilitate more of these connections, wondering which of my friends will turn out to be a long-lost cousin next…
I expect that for people whose heritage is in british migrants who arrived here during the 19th century, the odds are higher than they ordinarily would be. Still, pretty remarkable. You’ve got cousins coming out your ears
Notwithstanding that I’m talking about Irish migrants on the one hand, and Germans on the other, I think you are right in suggesting European migrants to Australian in the nineteenth century formed a relatively pool.
And yes, I do have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cousins…
Yeah I guess I meant “migrants” in general to Australia in the 19th century.
My very favorite internet moment of all time. The epiphany moment for me, when I knew it would be huge: my cousin visiting me in the USA from Inverness, Scotland. The year 1994, early internet. We decide to do a Netscape search – no Google yet. We input my Mother’s maiden name, Cunningham and Scalpay, where she was born and a lot of our relatives still lived in the Hebrides Islands. Up pops John Cunningham Sings 11 Gaelic Folk Songs. Recorded in 1930 in Berkeley, CA. Prior to the internet it was part of Immigrant Folk Songs sitting in a museum in Washington D.C. We click the link and my grandfather’s voice, which I hadn’t heard in 25 years is singing away, as he used to do on our front porch all the time. I never understood a word of Gaelic. As it turns out my cousin, Roddy taught Gaelic (a dying language) at Inverness High School. He was able to translate. One of the songs was about my Grandfather out on a fishing boat with his father – the mutual Great Grandfather of my cousin Roddy and me. It was really quite remarkable then and now. We notified as many of the relatives as we could around the globe via email about the 11 songs. They were all equally amazed especially the few still living that remembered my Grandpa Jack. Thanks for letting me share. And thanks for your great story as well.
Kevin, that is a beautiful story. Thanks so much for sharing. I agree that the internet has enabled some fantastic connections/links to be made (I posted about one such connection here, which enabled me to deliver a letter to my father from his father some 75 years after it was written — and nearly 30 years after my grandfather had died). What a precious gift to hear your grandfather’s voice and to learn about your great-grandfather through him.
What’s remarkable about my two friends-who-turn-out-to-be-cousins stories is that neither involved the internet at all — although I am posting them online on the chance that others find connections, too.
As a Chardonnay lover I thank your ancestor. And as a Chardonnay lover I reckon that’s pretty amazing odds.
That’s wonderful, Jenny! I must admit, I’m more of a sauvignon blanc woman myself, at least in summer. In the winter, I’m a shiraz fan. Apparently one of Andreas’ great-grandsons, Alfred Kurtz (the spelling of the surname changed somewhere along the line), took over the family vineyard in the 1960s and put Mudgee Wines on the map. The ‘Old Bush Vine Shiraz’ is allegedly made from the vines planted by great-great-great-grandfather Andreas more than 150 years ago.
I used to drink Sav Blanc and went off it. Used to drink Shiraz, adored it, but off that now as well, too heavy alas. Love me a Chardy, & a new Pinot Noir/Cotes du Rhone drinker.
I love the idea that wine is still produced from vines that old. It’s fabulous.
I believe we have some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world in Australia these days, Jenny, after a nasty blight killed the ones in France.
Thanks, Angela. And I agree about your story too. The internet is great for sharing such stories. Thanks for doing so as it allowed me to share mine online for the first time as well, although I have told it to anyone who would listen dozens of times. As an aside, when I did a Facebook essay on my blog asking people for their POSITIVE experiences about Facebook a reader told me their adopted son was able to find his twin brother, also adopted, whom they had tried to find by traditional methods for many years with no results. Finally, Facebook puts them in touch twenty years after being separated. There are many pluses to the internet …
Another great story, Kevin. I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Just when I want to give it all away because it undermines my productivity as a writer, I reconnect with someone, or hear a story like yours, and decide to hang in there after all…
The answer to this Angela is to strip out all your real-life friends and just make it a writing space. That’s what I did… De-friended everyone including husband. I make sure I tell everyone this so they don’t just think I’m a 68-friend loser.
Hah! I like your style Jenny. I think it might work better for me if I only used it to socialise, rather than for author events and promoting work. But for the time being, I just have to be disciplined enough not to open the bloody thing when I am supposed to be writing!
Angela – How cool to discover pieces of your own history like that! All the more so because it all started with casual conversation. I’m always surprised at how few degrees of separation there really are among us…
The world just keeps getting smaller and smaller in my experience, Margot.
Fantastic story, Angela. I had a dear friend from the age of 8 until my mid-20s who I lost contact with for 15 years, but found again via an Old School Friends website (we were both looking for each other). This was just before the days of Facebook.
We have been the best of friends again ever since: she was a reader at my wedding, and we try to catch up at least once a year (she lives in NZ). But because of the internet, we feel as if we live next door and we’re in touch nearly every day. At first, it was mainly by email, long emails about all the things we had missed in each other’s lives. Now it is by Facebook, often having live conversations by message.
Some of her ancestors are from Fiji and I recently discovered that some of mine are too. What’s more, they were both involved in shipping companies in Fiji in the 19th century. We plan to do some genealogical work one day when we have time: we’re hoping we might turn out to be cousins, too!
Through a genealogy site, I also met some lovely distant cousins (now FB friends) who live in Australia and NZ: my great-great-grandfather is their great-grandfather. Last time I was in Auckland, I met one of these cousins: gosh, he reminded me so much of my dad and his grandfather, there was such a family likeness. This particular cousin is a journalist, as I was, and although a bit older than me, we know many of the same people—it’s simply amazing that I hadn’t met him before. Even odder: he is an old friend of the school friend I met again (above).
Great story, Caron. I imagine the six degrees of separation might be even easier to trace in New Zealand…
Oh yes, it’s true. Two years ago, I was in Wellington to see my friend (the old school friend) in a play (she’s an actor). My mother had said I should look up my father’s cousin, Errol, who was still driving a private taxi. Well, I didn’t have time, and it got to the last day of my trip. In the hotel lobby, I saw a man with a uniform on and the name “Errol” on a name tag. I walked past him, then decided to take a chance: “Excuse me, are you Errol [XXX]?” I asked. “Yes I am,” he said. I explained who I was and it was like old home week! He ended up giving me a lift to the airport in his lovely private taxi: and refusing to take the fare because I was “family”.
I rest my case, Caron 😉
You’re not descended from Garryowen by any chance are you?
I wish, Samantha! Or perhaps I should say, not that I know of.
Is he one of your ancestors?
Yes, via my maternal grandfather. I just thought I’d ask, while we were throwing out the Irish in Melbourne net. Garryowen had about 8 children, so there are probably quite a few of his descendants in our generation.
Nice one. And yes, throw out those Irish in Melbourne nets. You never know what you’ll turn up 😉
Like attracting like perhaps? Thanks for sharing a fascinating story! x
I do wonder, Fe, if it’s a case of like speaking to like? Or is it significant, as one of my friends pointed out, that all these connections involve alcohol?!
Ha, Ha! Well, I’m sure the alcohol helps 😉
Gosh, that is so fantastic. Finding two cousins among friends!
I can’t imagine that here in the States. I know my first and second cousins on both sides of the family.
But going back further. I don’t know. One set of relatives were Jews who fled czarist pogroms and emigrated from about 1906-1913. I doubt if any relatives were left. The other siblings had died of typhus, a depressing fate.
And other relatives are from Ireland, one from England. My great grandmother, whom I never met was from Sligo, so I imagine she had relatives still there when she emigrated.
And I don’t know anything about the Durkins, but they came from Ireland, too, great-grandparents.
I’d love to know more, but I think it’s terrific that you found cousins and common history.
A reason to celebrate!
I suspect I have Jewish-American ancestors, too, Kathy, on my father’s side. My great-great-great-grandmother, Matilda Adsett, married an American, John Simon Kehl — aka “Yankie Williams” — after he most likely jumped ship in a port adjacent to the Queensland goldfields. He was born in 1831 (or 1833) in Pennsylvania. One day I hope to do more research into the family. There are so many brilliant family history resources online these days — you might well be able to find records of the Durkins.
Matilda was my Great Great Grandmother. John is one of the great family mysteries that I hope we can solve. Hello there distant cousin 🙂
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Hello distant cousin Chris – and my apologies for not saying hi sooner. I’d love to find out more about John’s fate. As Matilda eventually re-married, she must have known he was dead… But where did she hide the body?!? (Sorry, that’s the crime writer in me coming to the fore). You’ve seen the website, I’m guessing: http://www.adsetthistory.com.au/ads7.htm
Hi Distant Cousin Angela
I sure have read the I for on the site. my uncle was the researcher and author for a substantial part of it.
A number of the family have tried hard for many years to confirm further information about the mysterious John Kehl. I am actually going to be in Philadelphia early next year and have engaged the assistance of a professional researcher at the Historical Society. There are at least 2 John & Hannah Kehl’s with a son named John so I am looking for verification that the sibling names are correct. I had though he was a Quaker but it looks more likely he was Lutheran. I am hoping the Historical Society guy can find enough info for me to go have a look at few graves etc.
We may never know if he died or just went missing. Matilda may have been able to have had him declared dead after he was absent for a number of years. I guess she could also have lied about being a widow when she remarried. It is odd we have not been able to find records of his demise. Damn good story to keep us guessing though.
If you are interested I can let you know what, if anything, we can learn.
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I am also a descendant of John Simon Kehl, my mother researched for many years with not much luck. Her name was Rita Kehl. What she did find was that John was a seaman who jumped ship in Australia, so I guess this is ehere he may have died.
My eldest sister communicated with your mum a fair bit as they tried to solve the mystery. Our DNA tests support the info we have of roughly where he came from but there are still many untold stories with this ancestor.
I think we are definitely related, Angela.
I should hope so, Kirsten!
Darling, please tell me you have a grea great great great grandmother from Kerala as well…. surely we must be related in someway……xxx
Palani darling, I think we were siblings or lovers in a past life. That’s the only way I can explain the connection between us 😉
That’s interesting. Perhaps I could find Durkins somewhere. I only know that they came from the Republic of Ireland, and also that my father’s grandmother, Sabina Agnes Ryan came from Sligo and she married an English person who was Protestant and a groomsman. No royalty here! Everyone had a real job!
Now maybe if I invested in one of these geneology sites, I could find out more — hmmm.
I think you can do a free trials to try some of them out and see whether it’s worthwhile, Kathy.
Angela, this was a very interesting post. What a wonderful coincidence to discover common ancestry and history. I can’t see beyond four generations on either side. My family tree has “Unknown” written right at the top and that could be anyone!
Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees when it comes to family, Prashant 😉
We also share the same great great great grandparents. I descend through Andreas & Rosina Kurtz through their daughter Christiana Rosina Kurtz James. Christiana’s son is my grandpa. Christiana along with her husband Iram James and their 6 children emigrated to San Francisco Ca in Dec of 1900. They went on to have a total of 13 children. I just wanted to let you know that you have a lot of American cousins as well.
Carolyn James Rivera, Riverside CA
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Thanks so much for dropping by. I love knowing that I have American cousins! I’ve never been to the USA, though if I do get there, it would be great to meet up. And likewise, if you make it to Australia, we’ll have to get together.
Do you know what prompted Christiana & Iram to migrate to California? Were they also winemakers? I wonder how they felt about arriving in time for the bubonic plague epidemic of 1900-04 and then the 1906 earthquake…
Thanks again for making contact,
Thanks for replying Angela. Iram and Christiana had become Seventh Day Adventists in Australia and apparently had lost their farm due to not being able to work on the Sabbath. They became friendly with Ellen G White of the SDA’s and Iram helped in the building of the SDA school at Avondale. In Dec of 1900 EGW paid passage for Iram, Christiana and their 6 children to emigrate to the U.S. and employed Iram as her master gardener at her Elmshaven estate in Napa Ca, ironically California’s wine country. My grandpa was their 8th child. Through genealogy I have become acquainted with so many relatives and I am thrilled to share with them about our accomplished Australian cousin.
I’m a bit late to this party but so pleased that I discovered your post! I am also a descendant of Andreas via his son John William, and John William’s son Ernest Aubrey, and Ernest Aubrey’s son Clarence Ernest, and Clarence Ernest’s daughter Margaret Cobden (nee Kurtz), who is my grandma. Ernest Aubrey’s family moved from Mudgee to Griffith NSW in the early 1900s.