Genealife in lockdown – Only in Tassie

DNA disproved great great grandfather William Smith half Samoan

As part of NFHM2021, I was asked by the local library where I volunteer every Friday, if I would run a few sessions related to family history. I have one I have presented a few times about “Discovering your family history” that has the participants thinking about what they might already have at home that could start them with their journey and how are they going to share their knowledge.

  • Birth, death, marriage certificates
  • Passports or naturalization certificates
  • War records
  • Photographs – hopefully named and dated
  • Heirloom objects handed down
  • Maybe some audio interviews on tapes or CDs
  • A family tree researched by another person – hopefully sourced well

I then introduce them to pedigree charts and family group sheets and different ways of organizing your family history instead of having lots of notes on slips of paper. Colour coding their files is also mentioned. Finally, where can they go to next.

  • Ask for help from librarians – a book might be published about your family
  • Talk to Sue on Friday afternoons at Rosny library – book a one hour session via Eventbrite
  • Join your local family history society
  • Take an online family history course
  • Create a private Facebook group for family to exchange stories
  • Buy a software program
  • Get DNA tested

So last Friday, I had six participants taking part and I used as an example my half Samoan great great grandfather (who from DNA is now no longer my relative). As I was mentioning where to find other records, one of the ladies and the librarian who was in there helping, said they were related to Captain William Smith. Only in Tasmania could that happen – 8 of us in the room, two related and one thought they had been related.

The two ladies enjoyed looking at all the research I had done on Captain Smith who ran many whaling ships in the 1860’s-1880’s from Recherche Bay, southwest of Hobart, out to the whaling areas of the Pacific Ocean as well as the Great Australian Bight.

Readers: Have you had a chance encounter with someone who turns out to be related to you?

Story 1 – whale chase

“Thar she blows.”

Captain William Smith was at the wheel of the whaling barque, Marie Laure. Below him, on the deck, he could see his brother-in-law, Domingo Jose Evorall, readying the small rowboat. William knew the danger involved in chasing and harpooning a sperm whale.

“Lines in the boats.”

William remembered a time many years previously when he and his fellow shipmates were putting the lines carefully in place, fixing the pins and adding the harpoons. Boats were lowered, swinging dangerously close to the side of the rolling barque. Near the waves, the boats were quickly unhooked, sailors got oars ready to push against the sides if they got too close to the barque. It was then that the dangerous work began.

William, as mate, had been in charge of the chase and kept watch for the whale. The oarsmen pulled steadily. No time to look over their shoulders. The green hands, on their first chase, were they frightened or excited? Spouts were seen close by.

“Heave to.”

The iron was thrown; the flukes suddenly hit the water and sprayed the sailors.

“Stern for your lives.”

Boatsteerer making sure the boat doesn’t overturn; harpooner ready with a knife to cut the slack line if needed; the whale sounding or diving deep.  A drogue was now attached to the line to slow the speed of the diving whale. The line going slack but where is the big cetacean? Suddenly, great jaw open, he breaks the surface just in front of us.


Much of the language for this was taken from a PDF document of an actual whale chase that William took part in in 1862. I had four students leave comments mainly about not knowing where and when the present time and the thoughts of William changed from one to the other. They said they got very involved with the story and could feel the excitement of the chase.

Readers: Where else could I improve this writing? As it is only going to be published on this blog, feel free to re-write whole paragraphs if you want.

Presenting William Smith

After completing the Uni course on Introduction to Family History, Ann Ricketts, one of the other students, invited me to give a presentation at the Sandy Bay Historical Society on my research person, William Smith. I created the presentation in Google Slides and then saved as a powerpoint to upload into slideshare. The notes for each slide are in the main body of the post.

Slide 1 Over the summer period, I enrolled in a University of Tasmania free online course entitled An Introduction to Family History. One of the aims of the course was to research someone in your family tree.  Ann, who was also on the course, invited me to talk about my main research person who was William Smith. What a troublesome name, so how do I start?

Slide 2  I had been following family history principles of researching by starting with myself and verifying data at each new generation. Of course, I didn’t need to verify my father, Bob or his mother Irene as they were still alive when I began this task over 30 years ago. Nan could tell me a bit about her father Robert and his father William.

So I began filling in a pedigree or ancestor chart, then family group sheets including siblings of my grandmother then another family group sheet with siblings of Robert Edward, her father. All the dates and places were found at the archives where I searched through microfilms and microfiche to fill in the data on the sheets. I have samples of pedigree and family group sheets in my folders.

But I wanted to know more than just birth, marriage and death dates and places. I noticed William Smith was a mariner on many of his children’s birth certificates. Did this mean he was a sailor, or maybe an important captain of a boat. I wanted to flesh out the story of William Smith.

Slide 3 After getting some basic information from my grandmother, and verifying the information I had found about her siblings and other relatives, I decided to head to the archives in Hobart.

At that stage, they were only just starting to create CDROMs with databases on them, but they did have a card catalogue of images they had in store. I found this one under Captain William Smith. There were quite a few William Smiths in Hobart during the 1850-1900 period so could this possibly be him? Could this smartly dressed individual be my relative?

Slide 4  Back to my grandmother, showed her the picture, she verified it was her grandfather. I had done some research looking through books about whaling and found a Black Billy the Samoan mentioned. Could this be William Smith from Recherche Bay?

I said to my grandmother that he was a very dark man but she said he was sunburnt because he had been on the whaling boats too long. She then showed me another picture of him on a boat. What a difference from well dressed in a shirt and tie, to clothing suited for sailing on a boat as a member of the crew.

Slide 5 I was now intrigued. I wanted to find more. Back again to the archives, talk with the archivists. Did they have any information about a Captain William Smith who was whaling during the 1850-1900 period around Tasmanian waters? They gave me lots of different sources to find more information including books written by locals, photos from the Crowther Collection, visit to the Maritime Museum and a folder they had out the back on the Smith family.

Slide 6 Inside the folder was one single typed page. Not much to go on I thought.

Slide 7 More questioning of the archivists. Where did this person find the information? What are those letters and numbers next to the information? Can I see the original of this information? Do you have a photo of the Marie Laure? Do you need to qualify to be a captain? As you can tell I was very inquisitive and wanted to know everything.

Slide 8 This application for a certificate of service enabling William to serve as master of a foreign going ship gave me so much more information to follow up. I now knew where he was born – Navigators Island – where was that? I knew his birthdate and age to follow up on once I knew where Navigators Island was.

He had been in the whaling trade continuously since 1852 – I knew the names of all the ships he had sailed on, even if I couldn’t read them all, I knew the positions he held on board. Maybe I could find out more about each of these voyages. More research needed.

Slide 9 At this stage I began the uni course. Most people were starting from the beginning of their research and using for a lot of information or online databases. I had 4 main questions.

  1. What is Captain William Smith’s Samoan name?
  2. What ships did he serve on before 1876 and what was his role onboard?
  3. What dates were these whaling voyages?
  4. What was life like on these whaling trips?

Why couldn’t my research have been online? So I headed back to the archives, showed them the certificate and asked where to next. Answer was crew agreements.

Working backwards from the Marie Laure in 1877 I could follow in reverse order his journey as a whaler from the time he first joined in 1852 as a cabin boy through to the time he received his captaincy on the Marie Laure.  Whenever he signed on to a new whaling ship he had to fill in the date he was discharged from his previous ship and give the name of that ship. This allowed me to work backwards one ship at a time as long as there was a crew agreement available for that voyage.

Slide 10 He crewed on these ships between 1852 and 1860, but as I have not found crew agreements yet none of these can be verified. Those listed in blue is a ship name that I can’t easily decipher on his certificate so will need to check out all three of them.

I will also use Trove, the online newspapers of Australia, website to find out the names of whaling boats coming in and out of Hobart in the early 1850’s to try to work out this ship’s name.

Slide 11 This was the first cruise of the Waterwitch as a whale boat.  It left Hobart Town March 1860 and returned in February 1861 with 30 tuns of oil worth 95 pound per tun in England. William’s lay was Black Oil  50 @12, Sperm Oil  70@40, Whale Bone  50@40  Wages advanced 4 pounds

Black oil was found in southern right whales blubber, sperm oil from the blubber of sperm whales and whalebone was the baleen from right whales The oil was used for lighting street lamps and the whalebone in corsets, umbrellas, back scratchers and collar stiffeners. Read poem.

Slide 12 William served continuously on the Maid of Erin from 1864 until 1873, gradually moving up in the hierarchy until he became the master. He is mentioned often in reports in Trove about being a kind captain who looked after his crew including giving half rest time so they were refreshed when cutting up the whale the next day.

One voyage in 1871 shows the rations in a logbook kept by William Thomas Morley. Rations consumed: 21 casks beef, 8 casks pork, 5 casks and 1 barrel of biscuits, 2 chests of tea, 3 barrels and 2 hogsheads of sugar, 6 casks of flour.

Slide 13 While doing the uni course, many students helped each other finding sources for their information. One student who worked at a Queensland University had found mention of Black Bill in a catalogue from the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau. I contacted them and they kindly sent a copy of the manuscript written by Alfred William Martin in 1862 while a seaman on the Southern Cross. In his diary he mentions my great great grandfather as a half caste Samoan, so this so far is the earliest mention I have verified of his birth in Samoa.

More reading of a book by Bruce Poulsen from the Huon Valley, mentions William Smith being given that name when he comes up the Derwent River in a small whale boat in the 1850’s. I would love to find his Samoan name. Now who could his father and mother be?  Maybe a white whaling captain and a Samoan princess as the family story has been passed down ….

Slide 14 Trove report 10 May 1875:The Othello left here on 2nd November 1874, and proceeded to the Middle Ground, cruising there for about five months. Five whales were captured, and they yielded 16 tuns. According to Trove report on November 1, 1875 the Othello had lost three whales. One of her hands was unfortunately lost. The Middle Ground is the area of the Tasman Sea where sperm whales were hunted often during summer months.

Slide 15 But further research finds him mentioned in the book ‘Harpoons ahoy!’ by Will Lawson, published 1938 on page 18.  “Dat’s notting,” Larsen broke in.  “I remember de Marie Laure, when Black Billy de Samoan had her. Something lak a sheep she vos.  Black Billy done no good in her.  She vos a hoodoo with him, lak de Maid of Erin vos too, when he had her.  De whales dey keep avay from her.”

Another part of family history research is interviewing relatives who might have more knowledge of the person. I had created a website which included the information I had about William and his family, when I noticed some comments left by my unknown cousin Kim McDermott from Rosebery, Tasmania.

Maryanne Smith, William’s first daughter, learned to walk aboard the rolling decks of  the Marie Laurie  and was eighteen months old when she first set foot on dry land!

The whales teeth are two of a set of four that were scrimshawed by a seaman aboard the Marie Laurie with the high fashion of the day depicting women in fur coats. They were also polished with resin, hence the dark amber colour of the teeth.

It is not known what became of the larger two teeth, but it is believed they were stolen during the time Maryanne was living at Recherche Bay, southern Tasmania. The whales teeth were given to Maryanne’s granddaughter, Phyllis McDermott, who lived with Maryanne, at Strahan until she was married in 1950. In August 2002, the whales teeth were handed over to Phyllis’  son, Kim McDermott, for safe keeping.

Slide 16 So we come to the end of my research as at May 14 2015. I know about William’s life after marriage to Sarah Ann Tedman in 1874. Also married on the same date and place was Domingo Jose Everall and Sarah Ann’s sister Rosetta Caroline. Domingo had been on many ships with William and was also a dark fellow but from the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off Africa.

But I still don’t know William’s Samoan name nor his parents. If I follow the naming pattern used by most families back in the 19th century, then why was William’s oldest son named James Henry? In my reading I have found a Captain James Smith born 1819 Clarence plains taken by bushrangers when a youth, then by South sea savages later in life. Could these have been Samoans? Could this be where William Smith was conceived? Further research is necessary.