A family history blog

Isabella – a migrant

Written by Alvin Smith

Alvin Smith, my brother, was a member of the Warkworth branch of NZ Society of Genealogists and in 2001 he wrote a short essay on our great great grandmother Isabella Cameron. Little was known about Isabella and Alvin decided to research her life starting with the bare genealogical facts and information he had gleaned from the extended family over many years. This copy of the essay is sourced from Alvin’s computer.

Vern Smith

Isabella Cameron was an ancestor. I have no certificated vital data for her, and almost no other written accounts. Is it possible, starting from such flimsy data, to infer something of her life, and of the choices she made?

She was one amongst eight hundred Highland Scots who in the early nineteenth century migrated first to Nova Scotia, and then to New Zealand. These migrations were under the loose leadership of Norman McLeod. McLeod himself is a complex figure, and in tracing the life of any migrant it is impossible to ignore him. He was born about 1780 in North West Scotland, his father being a fisherman. He gained a degree at the University of Aberdeen, and went on to the University of Edinburgh to be ordained, but left in angry disgust at the style of his instructors – he rejected their politics and their easy collaboration with the new English-style landowners, – those people whose lives now centred around the wealthy gentry and aristocrats of London and who were so impoverishing coastal communities like McLeod’s own. McLeod’s political and social championing of his own people was combined with a strict adherence to Calvinism. It is easy now to target McLeod’s strict and almost brutal religious fundamentalism, but it was his social and humanitarian insight that fostered such a coherent community, and successfully led them away from the political oppression of the clearances. Of McLeod, one of his followers was later to remark: ‘His nature and temperament were very mysterious, often almost clashing with each other. One side was mild and lovely as could possibly be while the other was autocratic as could be.’

Isabella Cameron was born about 1801, and her parents and the rest of their people became followers of McLeod. Her community was Gaelic speaking, and English was seldom spoken. There was immense antagonism towards civil rule from Edinburgh and towards Edinburgh’s political support for the new political order. Between about 1817 and 1827, under the McLeod’s leadership, during periods of exceptional poverty, some eight hundred people from these communities migrated to the north of Nova Scotia. Within the new community, he fostered the ideal of mutual support, and of exclusiveness against the outside world. The community proved to be extremely resilient in face of all kinds of adversity, and its members even to a degree prospered.

Between 1850 and 1860, there was a second migration, and they settled at Waipu in New Zealand. Isabella came with her two thirty-year-old sons, Duncan and Angus, who, with their growing families, settled at Leigh, North Auckland. But Isabella herself settled in Waipu. Why, I often wondered, as I heard the family genealogies explained to us as children (and no doubt the family legends as well) – why had the grandmother chosen to live away from her grandchildren? It would have been several days’ travel, at best, for her to reach her sons, perhaps by horse or small boat from Waipu to Mangawai, and then by the Auckland steamer that called at Leigh (or at Omaha, as it was then known).

As children, our information came from the family stories. There would be large picnics with aunts and grandparents and cousins – in summer such picnics might be almost weekly – and I recall some thirty or more people lolling on the beach at Goat Island (then called Point Rodney beach), a beach which was then always empty except for two rowing boats and our own families. Someone, as we talked and listened, might have taken up a brittle dry pohutukaua leaf, curled somewhat like a canoe, and boated it across the dimples on the hot dry sand. The sand had similar contours to the waves out in the bay. We cupped the warm sand and poured it from hand to hand, and then with a sweep of the arm smoothed it out flat, and then lifted a handful of it again. The talk flowed too, in a very similar way, and with the family stories being similarly shaped and re-shaped. ‘The Sunday School was a bit of a shed by Wyatt’s place. Remember? We walked up to it one day, we were sent there each Sunday, and we stood on the road and had fun throwing stones on the roof. We never went in to the shed. Back home, as the days passed, nothing happened. We became scared. But, you know, we were never sent to Sunday School again. Nothing said.’

Within this community, generation by generation, the universal strict Calvinism of the early 1800s had become eroded. We were told that Isabella’s husband, like many others, had owned a trading vessel. These vessels carried freight along the Nova Scotian coasts, and south to the New England coasts, and even on one occasion to the Bermudas. There, owners and skippers and crew would have met communities with far different values from those that prevailed at home, and these men would then return home to the strict codes of Cape Breton Island. Thus it was inevitable that, on the fringes of the community, the iron-strict Calvinism that had knitted the community together in Scotland began to erode. The story tellers told us – they dropped their voices to acknowledge the respect that was due to the privacy of the husband and the wife – that one day, after some marital quarrel, Isabella’s husband Ewen and his vessel left and did not return, and he abandoned his wife, and, unspoken, for all of us listeners, hovering around the story, was the licentious permissiveness of New York and Boston. But, in the manner of the community, Isabella would have been supported by the rest of the households, and also, as they grew up, by her two sons.

They too became mariners. Tendering for wrecked vessels, which they purchased for only a few dollars, salvaging and repairing them, building new vessels, buying and selling to advantage, and trading lucrative cargoes, these men could no longer be classed as the landless poor. ‘They built the Spray themselves,’ we youngsters were told. Perhaps we were told by one of the aunties, it might have been in the front room during a rainy afternoon, with the yellow water rolling in between the island and the cliffs. ‘And then with ninety passengers they sailed it to New Zealand.’ We were shown the very logbook of the voyage. Isabella’s son Angus had been the skipper, her son Duncan the mate. But I was later to discover that the Spray had in fact been one of the vessels that the two Matheson sons had salvaged . The Mathesons and their helpers had of course modified the vessel, installed bunks in the holds and temporarily converted it to carry and service eighty or so passengers.

As children, we had heard many stories illustrating the severity of belief amongst the early people in Leigh: my father had been rebuked for whistling on a Sunday. Cooking, laundry, and household chores were just not done on a Sunday, there were no picnics on a Sunday. But the stories from Waipu were of far more severe prohibitions. Perhaps, I later thought, Isabella may have become uneasy with some growing liberalism of belief amongst her sons, and perhaps she also included her daughters-in-law, all due to the inevitable and continuing erosion of faith following their contacts outside the community. One of the few papers that survive is a letter, written in the hand of the wife of Duncan. She speaks of the ‘peculiar ideas of religion’ that are held at Waipu. It could be that a clear difference in tone had developed between Waipu and Leigh, and that Isabella felt herself far more comfortable at Waipu.

However, I came to see that it was important to try and discover what other kin Isabella had on the Spray. On arrival in Auckland, Angus Matheson obviously found himself required to give a list of his passengers, and their ages. His first draft of this list survives. The names appear to be arranged in family groups, and it’s clear that Angus began by scanning his memory for the family groups, and then filled it all in by listing the people belonging to each group. As for ages, some in his list are given accurately, but some of them are out by ten or more years. About half of the ages end in a ‘0’ or a ‘5’, and it’s clear that here Angus was simply estimating the ages and rounding them to a multiple of five. We can imagine that, the voyage completed (it was a ‘tedious’ voyage, he is reported by the press as saying ), and the vessel sold, he was anxious to turn to the necessary task of taking up land, and beginning the business of shipbuilding, and so an official request for a list of passengers would’ve have been irritating. Here is a part of his list:

Matheson, Angus, 32.
Matheson, Mrs Jess, 23.
Matheson, Isabella, 4.
Matheson, Alex, 1½.
Matheson, Duncan, 35.
Matheson, Isabella, 45.
Matheson, Christina, 25.
McNab, Robert J, 27.
McNab, Mrs, 22.
Matheson, Margaret, widow, 55.
Matheson, Margaret, 40.
Matheson, Ann, 30.
Matheson, Catherine, 26.
Matheson, Johanna, 28
Alex J, Finlayson 26
Christina Finlayson 50
William Finlayson 28
Archibald Finlayson 24
Margaret Finlayson 18

We already have a fairly extensive sketch of the genealogy of the migration, most of it compiled or brought together by Betty Powell, the custodian of the museum at Waipu. I began by attempting to match Angus’s list against the names in the genealogies. I found this no easy task, for many scores of people held the same surname, and in addition scores of people held the same Christian name. The result of matching of one list against another was to reveal that Isabella was accompanying at least a dozen of her extended family to New Zealand:

Matheson, Angus, 32. Isabella’s son.
Matheson, Mrs Jess, 23. Isabella’s daughter in law.
Matheson, Isabella, 4. Granddaughter.
Matheson, Alex, 1½. Grandson.
Matheson, Duncan, 35. Son.
Matheson, Isabella, 45. Isabella herself.
Matheson, Christina, 25. Daughter.
McNab, Robert J, 27. Son in law.
McNab, Mrs, 22. Daughter.
Matheson, Margaret, widow, 55. A sister in law, and probably also a
Matheson, Margaret, 40. Niece
Matheson, Ann, 30. Niece.
Matheson, Catherine, 26. Niece.
Matheson, Johanna, 28 Niece.
Alex J, Finlayson 26 Nephew.
Christina Finlayson 50 Her sister, a widow.
William Finlayson 28 Nephew.
Archibald Finlayson 24 Nephew.
Margaret Finlayson 18 Nephew.

Isabella was in effect the matriarch of this whole group of people. Only her two sons and their families settled in Mathesons Bay, and the remainder settled at Waipu.

However, Maureen Molloy cautions us against seeing this community simply in terms of its genealogies. It was the awareness of its own coherence and mutual support that was the essence of the community. This can be illustrated by the their easy re-allocation of children. A couple with many children might pass children on to a neighbouring couple with few children, or to a single aunt. And where there was friction between an adolescent child and his or her parents, people close to the family might move the child on to another family. But the community did of course map itself closely upon genealogical relationships. This was inescapable, where there is so much intermarriage – cousinship marriages, and marriages between a man or woman and a descendant of a cousin. So-called sibling marriages were also frequent, where siblings from one family married with the siblings of another family. Where relationships can be so dense, and so intricately knotted, awarenesses of the precise relationships become less important.

The above table, therefore, indicates also the close community relationship between the fifty-seven-year-old Isabella and those younger people on the Spray. Isabella’s two sons, with their young wives, living at Leigh, gained their freedom from the strictest aspects of Calvinism, and they gained their shipyards, but of course they lost the widespread supportive community of Waipu. Isabella, on the other hand, had lived in that community all her life, and she and these people went to Waipu because, simply, they were part of that community, and they valued its support, and they accepted its severities without a further thought. I believe she would have found it impossible to live in the social isolation of Mathesons Bay of the 1860s.

Her two sons had between them fifteen children, who married into the wider settlement at Leigh. But I surmise that quite close links of a kind still remained between them and the Waipu people – Angus even named one of his children ‘Norman McLeod’. I can recall my father talking of ‘the Finlaysons’, and I now find that not only had Isabella’s older sister Christina married a Finlayson, but her youngest daughter, also named Christina, came to marry a Finlayson. Isabella would have been a part of that wider group. I surmise therefore that perhaps each year there would have been visits between those Finlaysons of Matheson descent at Waipu and their close kin at Leigh . As for the participants themselves, we can easily map the separation by distance and even style of life, but on their visits and separations we can now only guess at the intimacies of the heart and the anguish and irritation and even suspicion that must have accompanied them.

So far, I’ve located only one photograph of Isabella. There’s a group of fifteen people, four with spinning wheels, and three more carding the wool, at a ‘spinning frolic’. Isabella is in the back row, an indistinct figure, aged about eighty, the oldest in the group, intent on her wheel. She could have claimed almost all the people in the group as her kin. I can’t resist stealing an image from Allen Curnow: the descendant standing on the shore, looking at footsteps in ‘soft and softening sand’.

McKenzie, Flora. Watchman against the World. New Zealand: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1962.
A severe portrait of McLeod as a fundamentalist.
McKenzie, N. R. The Gael Fares Forth. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1935.
Prepared following interviews with descendants, the story of the migrations, and an outline of the genealogies of the migrants.
McKenzie, N. R. The Gael Fares Forth. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1942. Reprinted by Southern Reprints, 1996.
A slightly fuller account than the first edition.
Molloy, Maureen. ‘McLeod, Norman’. In The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 1, p. 258. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1990.
A very brief account of a man she had studied extensively.
Molloy, Maureen. Those Who Speak to the Heart. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1991.
Based on an academic doctoral thesis, a thorough and fascinating social study of the migrant community of Waipu.
Parker, John P. Cape Breton: Ships and Men. Toronto: McLeod, 1967.
An encyclopaedic account of all known vessels constructed in Nova Scotia, and into their techniques of shipbuilding.
Robinson, Neil. Lion of Scotland. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1952, 1974.
McLeod seen as an eccentric hero.
Robinson, Neil. To the Ends of the Earth. Auckland: HarperCollins, 1997.
A fulsome account of the migrations.

2 thoughts on "Isabella – a migrant"

  • Dale Turner says:

    That was interesting for me to read. I am just beginning to search my whakapapa. My oldest brother Lee is doing genealogy research online. My descendants also were passengers on the Spray I believe. My grandfather was Athol Dunning his wife was Charlotte (Charlie). Colonel Edward Wyatt was an uncle in their somewhere. I do remember visiting him and Rene? Was it his wife. He showed me his cavalry sword and hat and medals. I holidayed at Leigh as a child with my Mum Merline Turner (nee Dunning) at her parents house overlooking Leigh wharf. Ocean view road is it from memory? A great childhood fishing for thousands of big fat dprats off the old wharf. Mum is buried in Leigh cemetery along with all those other familiar kin names from the Spray

    • Raewyn says:

      Hi Dale, thanks for the comment. Athol Dunning is on our tree, so I can see you are an descendent of Angus and Jessie Matheson (like us). Athol’s grandmother Catherine (Kitty) was the sister of Jessie Matheson, my great grandmother. There are many connections between the Dunnings, Wyatts, Mathesons and other families from the area. Have fun on your genealogy journey!

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