A family history blog

Mathesons of Omaha

Written by Alvin Smith

A history of the Matheson family, Scottish immigrants who settled in Matheson’s Bay, Omaha. Written by Alvin Smith around 2000.

On the 25th Of June 1857 the Brigantine Spray of 107 tons arrived in Auckland harbour from Cape Breton,  Nova Scotia,  Canada. The owners of this vessel, Angus and Duncan Matheson, were born in Kyle of Loch Alsh,  Scotland to Ewan and Isabel Matheson, Duncan in 1822 and Angus in 1825. There were two sisters, Christina born in 1827 and Jessie born in 1829. As Christina was born in 1827, the year that the family moved to Nova Scotia, I do not know where she was born.

Norman McLeod, the leader of the Waipu migration, arrived in Pictou,  Nova Scotia in 1817.  On finding this town not in keeping with his strong Christian principles,  he set sail for Ohio. A violent storm forced them to take shelter in St. Ann’s Harbour, Cape Breton.  Finding the harbour virtually uninhabited, with abundant timber and plenty of fish in the bay,  he decided to look no further for land for settlement. On returning to Pictou, Norman and his followers packed and shifted to St Ann’s, arriving in 1820.

Ewan, Isabell and their young family arrived in Nova Scotia in 1827 and set up house in Baddeck in the upper reaches of the St. Anns harbour.  Apart from Angus’s log of the Spray,  there is no written documentation on their stay in Baddeck.  The following conjectures of their early days is based on Flora MaPherson’s book Watchman against the World.

In the course of clearing the forest,  he would choose the straightest logs for the walls of the one-roomed cabin. He would cover the rafters and purlins with the bark of the spruce,  and the bark would be held in place by poles fastened to each other and to the lower walls by rope made from birch strippings. A fireplace would consist of a crane to hold the cooking pot above the fire; the meal would be fish and potatoes. The beds were not far from the fire so that it could be tended during the night,  especially during the long winters when at times frost would appear on the inside walls. As the forest was cleared wheat began to be grown.  Later,  a cow would be purchased from Pictou, though care had to be taken that the stock did not wander into the forest and be killed by bears. The grain was dried on poles in the cabin and ground with hand grinders.  The first mill was not built until the 1830s.

Into this environment Ewan and Isabel would have arrived with three children under five to set up house. I do not know if they arrived in time to take up the 200 acre land grant that was phased out in 1827.  It is known that they lived at Baddeck prior to leaving for New Zealand,  and that fishing, shipbuilding and seamanship were their main occupations. There was a school formed by the Scots at Baddeck in 1824, and the tuition allowance was usually ten shillings.  Since both sons,  Duncan and Angus,  became sea captains, Ewan possibly made good use of the schools for his family. The two boys would grow up in an environment of the sea and shipbuilding,  and experience with the North Atlantic would serve them well in their next migration

 Norman Mcleod and his followers built the Barque Margaret and set sail for Adelaide Australia in 1851.  Some of the migrants left the ship at Adelaide and the remainder continued on in the Margaret to Melbourne,  where it was eventually sold. The Brig Highland Lass arrived at Adelaide from Nova Scotia in Oct.1852, and the migrants left the ship to take up residence in the new colony. The Highland Lass was used on the inter-colonial trade and eventually sold, the owners procuring the Schooner Gazelle.

After selling the Margaret in Melbourne and while spending time in the goldfields and working in the Melbourne area,  the migrants were negotiating with the New Zealand Government for land there to be set aside for Nova Scotian migrants. The first migrants arrived in New Zealand on the Gazelle from Melbourne and Adelaide in November 1853. From earlier negotiations with Governor Grey prior to his departure to England,  land had been secured at Waipu for the settlers in 1854 and designated for the migrants at a cost of ten shilling an acre. The Gazelle made frequent trips to Melbourne and Adelaide bringing the majority of the passengers from the Margaret and Highland Lass to New Zealand.

The Mathesons were related to Norman Mcleod by marriages and were part of the migration from Scotland who followed him.  When information arrived from New Zealand of the climate (ice free harbours), abundance of fish and availability of ship building timber,  it was inevitable that they would follow. Angus and Duncan built the Spray,  a small vessel, a brigantine of 107 tons,  and traded on the Atlantic coast of North America.  When in 1856 the drive shaft of one of Shaw Savill’s earliest steam vessels fractured,  the brothers immediately secured a six-month contract from Shaw Savill for the mail run from Halifax to Bermuda.

As this contract drew to a conclusion,  the migration to New Zealand was planned.  The cargo space of the small vessel were converted to sleep a hundred migrants,  who included many of the extended family,  Duncan and Angus’s mother and her two sisters chief amongst them, and many other neighbours and relatives from the Cape Bretton area made up the passenger list.  They were in the main young married couples with families and of a similar age to Duncan and Angus,  who were aged 35 and 32 respectively on arrival in New Zealand

The Spray left Cape Breton on the 10th January 1857, the fourth ship of the migration to leave. Seventy-three days out from Cape Bretton a stop was made at Capetown,  where the migrants witnessed a naval display in honour of Sir George Grey,  who was then Governor of Cape Colony and High Commissioner of South Africa. Alexander,  Angus’s second child was born during a storm off Capetown. The rest of the journey was uneventful apart from a great storm off Australia that blew them off course and caused the bowsprit to break and hang crashing against the hull. A member of the crew,  Kenneth McKenzie,  volunteered to go over the side and cut away the bowsprit. The ship put into Twofold Bay,  N.S.W.,  to the news that 12 convicts had been hanged that morning. They re-provisioned the vessel,  and in 11 days they reached the Bay of Islands in New Zealand,  finally arriving in Auckland on the 25 June 1857.

The Matheson brothers sold the Spray and took up land in the bay now known as Mathesons Bay,  south of Leigh.  They commenced shipbuilding,  and combined this with sojourns at sea as masters of various vessels sailing around the New Zealand coast and to the Pacific Islands.

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