Monday, March 10, 2014

The “John Lee was a convict” theory disproved

This is a cautionary tale about believing what other researchers, no matter how experienced, may tell you about the family without seeking your own confirmation of the facts. It’s not one of those cautionary tales where someone suffers a gruesome and unusual fate, though. It finishes with me doing the genea-happy dance. If that is considered gruesome, I will have to re-think my dance moves.

When I first started researching my family tree another researcher told me that our common ancestor, John Lee, had come to Australia as a convict.

It was an interesting story. I had not been aware that any convicts were sent to what is now know as Victoria, Australia. However, some were sent as ‘Exiles’ – a group of convicts given useful training while in prison and then pardoned on arrival, on condition that they never return home again. John Lee, he said, was among these.

As well as being interesting, the story was amusingly at odds with the family tale that he had been a ship’s officer. This piece of information was listed on his death certificate – more than 50 years after the time when he was supposed to be on a ship. It was also told to me by my grandfather, who was born six years after his grandfather John Lee died. What a story John Lee must have spun to hide his convict past, I thought!

I wasn’t so naive as to accept the “he was a convict” version of events without any verification at all. I asked the other researcher for more and he directed me to the appropriate passenger list. Sure enough, there was John Lee. The name was right. The year of arrival in Australia was right enough. The age was… rightish. Sort of. However there was little else about the convict’s history or fate to go on.

How did he know this John Lee was OUR John Lee? It bothered me, but I accepted the information and made a note of it in my tree.

I tried from time to time to confirm that this was the same person. Could I find more information about the convict? Not much. Were there other John Lee’s arriving at the same time? Plenty! But none who looked as much like our John Lee as the exile.

Over time, as I filled out more family details, the ships’ officer theory began to look more and more appealing. His father Joseph Lee, it turned out, was a mariner. His brother also named Joseph Lee was a mariner. When I discovered his sister Elizabeth Lee I found that her husband was … you guessed it, a mariner. The family was not short of mariners.

In early 2011 (while writing up an Australia Day post) I made a discovery – John Lee was listed in 1841 census as an apprentice shipwright! It wasn’t proof that he was a mariner in 1847, but it was a step in the right direction.

The mariner theory was looking better and better. Still, I had nothing that proved the mariner theory or that disproved the convict theory. I couldn’t find anything that confirmed he had actually become a mariner. I found his brother in the Masters and Mates collection on Ancestry.com, but no John. That collection didn’t cover the when John would have been sailing. I also could not find anything that showed he was actually somewhere else when he was supposed to be in prison.

I had also looked at the Merchant Seamen records on FindMyPast.com.au before, with no luck. I guess I just didn’t look hard enough because a few weeks ago I decided to look on FindMyPast again, and there he was. Right name, right birthdate (to the day, not just the year), right birthplace and best of all the records finish in the right year – 1846 – with a notation about Geelong which just happens to be my John Lee’s first known residence in Victoria.

Cue genea-happy dance.

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