Venetian glass beads in Alaska

This morning I tweeted a link to a Gizmodo article reporting the discovery of fifteenth Venetian glass beads in Alaska.

Obviously the article is written from a US viewpoint, and makes the point that the beads were probably deposited before 1492 when Columbus arrived in the Carribean,

This is not particularly relevant given that Alaska is a very long way from Hispaniola (where Columbus landed) and the other side of the continent.

What we can say is that these beads were deposited well before any European voyages to the Pacific northwest.

It’s also before the beginning of the Russian expansion into Siberia so we can confidently rule out Russian fur traders as a source.

Interestingly it’s also before the Spanish and Portuguese established a presence in what is now the Phillipines, Timor, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Inuit deposits across the Arctic occasionally turn up belt buckles and other metal artefacts of Russian origin, which shows that there was a pre-contact trading network with Russian settlements further west in the Arctic.

Beads however are kind of special. While essentially worthless they are both pretty and easy to transport and effectively act as a currency, as we see in Australia where the Yolngu traded trepang for beads (the same sort of beads that have been found in Alaska) with Macassan traders and then traded them with communities further south.

These glass beads in Alaska were probably similarly traded, perhaps as part of a network trading furs with Chinese and Korean traders further south, and were traded further north through Kamchatka and on into Alaska.

In Tent Life in Siberia, which describes his role in the failed attempt to build a telegraph line from the USA to St Petersburg via the Bering Strait, George Kennan describes the life of the indigenous people of the Kamchatka peninsula in the 1870’s.

What is striking about his description, is that apart from a few isolated military outposts and Orthodox missions, the indigenous people had contact with few outsiders other than fur traders, and other than tea, Russian enamelware teapots and hurricane lamps, were even then still living what was essentially a traditional lifestyle.

As these beads would predate any substantial Russian expansion to the east, the most probable hypothesis is that they came via China. Chinese merchants had a long tradition of trade with the Siberian peoples closer to the Chinese border, and one could surmise that these merchants sourced the glass beads via the overland Silk Road route, rather than via the porcelain trade with South East Asia, given that there was no European presence at the time they were deposited…


There is a second article this morning that takes issue with issue with the date and suggests a late sixteenth/early seventeenth century date is more likely for the beads.

This date is still before any substantial Russian or indeed other European presence in the area, and does not invalidate the hypothesis of the beads being traded from Chinese merchants, the only real change is that a substantially later date makes sourcing via the porcelain trade in South East Asia a possibility

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The documentation cliff …

As I’ve said before, I’ve been messing about with family history to keep my skills sharp during this thing which is the pandemic, even to the extent that I bought myself a one year all-knobs-and-whistles subscription to MyHeritage as a belated Christmas present.

One of the knobs and whistles you get with the full subscription is Smart Match, which basically takes the initial family tree you built and looks for matches in other family trees and offers you the chance to help expand your family tree, the result being that I apparently have whole squads of third cousins of which I know nothing.

I also have a whole range of Florindas and Gertrudes from the Anglican great and good of eighteenth century Ireland through my admittedly tenuous connection with the Sobieski-Stuarts, due to one of my distant ancestors being a sibling of Thomas Allen’s mistress.

(I actually don’t like the word mistress, it doesn’t describe the relationship adequately. In a world where divorce was not an option, he was unable to marry Ann Salmond, my distant relation, yet they lived together for the rest of his life and had children together, which suggests that there was more to the relationship than sexual passion.)

What it hasn’t given me is much in the way of relatives in my line of descent – obviously no one else has researched them further, so I’m thrown back on the public databases of births, marriages and deaths, which gets me back to 1805 or thereabouts with a degree of confidence and the rest is manual searching and guesswork.

J’s family is even worse.

Her father’s side has been well researched by her cousin, but her mother’s side is a mess.

Her maternal grandfather’s line traces back to a man known as Henry Thomas Hill, who has a wife/partner called Anne Humphries who both appear in Castlemaine in the late 1840’s, shortly before the gold rush, where they have a child.

Neither of them appear to have been convicts, or more accurately they don’t appear on any of the convict registers. Neither of them appear on any of the surviving passenger lists of migrants, and there appears to be no record of their births, or their marriage.

They just appear.

It’s possible that they changed their names and reinvented themselves.

Castlemaine began as a squatter settlement in the late 1830’s, and my best guess is that they found their way there to work on the sheep runs (shades of Magwitch in Great Expectations), and that they came via Tasmania from England. (Victoria did not exist as a separate colony in the 1840’s and was governed as part of New South Wales, but quite a few of the early settlers came from Van Diemen’s land, or as we now call it, Tasmania.)

But there’s a point here.

Comprehensive record keeping in the British Empire didn’t really get going until the 1850’s. Before then it was incumbent on the local parishes to keep records, which they mostly did for members of the appropriate ‘official’ churches.

That means that for a birth in the eighteen fifties you can get the mother’s name, the father’s name, possibly their ages.

If they lived in England and Wales you might then be able to trace them back through the 1851 and 1841 censuses, which might well give you the names of the grandparents.

Prior to 1841, names were not collated centrally, so basically it’s a case to see whether the earlier records have been kept by the appropriate county record office and, given that one can’t just pop round to look at the records, digitised and put online. Knowing which microfilm roll to search doesn’t help.

In Scotland, the situation is slightly different, but the first usable census is the 1841 census. Census records before then were kept by the individual parishes, and may not have been digitised.

In New South Wales, censuses start in 1836 and after 1841 only record the head of the household, which obviously presents difficulties.

So all this means that you can, with a little work, usually trace people back to the 1820’s, and with a bit of luck a little bit earlier. Before then, who knows?

Parish registers are of course incomplete.

In Scotland, as I’ve found, birth records sometimes do not include the mother’s name, or where they were living, although sometimes a little detective work can help here.

In England, it’s a little different, but using much the same techniques I’ve been able to trace some of J’s maternal grandmother’s forebears to rural Norfolk in the 1820’s using the Diocese of Norwich’s records.

What happened if your forebears were members of some obscure dissenting sect is unclear to me – if they had no clear relationship with the established church, they may simply have been missed.

And of course, in a frontier society like colonial Australia, people may well simply lied about their past, and maybe there was no one to officially record a birth, marriage or death anyway.

The result is, that before 1800 we have a documentation cliff. Records tend to be terse and omit key facts, making it difficult to research people, unless of course they were of some importance. And of course people did not have the long tail of documentation we have today, allowing them to re-invent themselves in the colonies if they wished.

And in a sense, people in the early 1800’s recognised this, so publications like the 1802 New Jamaica Alamanc included the Army and Navy lists, so that you could be sure that someone who claimed to be an officer and a gentleman was at least an officer.

While records and directories help they are not a complete solution. Furthermore pre 1800 parish records may not be fully digitised – meaning that the work is impossible to do remotely.

So we have what I term the documentation cliff – people who were not property owners become invisible …

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The role of the Kirk Session in policing rural fornication in Scotland

When I was researching my great-great-great grandfather’s marriage the notice of his banns was simply an entry in the Airlie Kirk Session minute book for 1805.

When I downloaded the record, actually what I got was a copy of page 305 of the minute book. Just for fun, and I agree it’s a very peculiar idea of fun I read through the entire page, and it’s actually an interesting window into the life of the parish – microhistory even – because, buried in among the normal business of the parish – rent charged for the use of mort cloths in burials, charitable bequests, and normal business expenses, there are records of the business of the Kirk Session in its role as an ecclesiastical court overseeing the life of the parish.

Here are some extracts (I’ve expanded the contractions but left the spellings, including the use of the long s as is):

November 24th 1805

Agnes Clerk appeared in publick before the congregation for the first time for the sin of fornication with William Kermoch and was rebuked for the first time.

William Howie, Miller at Cardean paid his own and his partner’s penalty £2:15:4d

But that wasn’t the end to William Howie’s fall from grace:

December 1st 1805

William Howie, Miller at Cardean, appeared before the Seſsion for the sin of fornication with Janet Saunders and was rebuked and absolved.

So we see that the Kirk was not only acting as morality enforcers but deriving substantial revenue from it – using the UK’s Office of National Statistics inflation calculator, William Howie’s fine would be approximately £290 (A$ 420) today.

However that wasn’t the only story of rural fornication. I don’t have the complete story, but at the top of the page there is an entry that reads:

The Seſsion ordered their Clerk to write to Mr Cannan, Minister at Kirriemuir to summon the said William Watson to appear before the next Sabbath to answer the accusation of Agnes Fairweather.

November 24th 1805

The Seſsion meeting constitute. Appeared William Watson, Butcher at Kirriemuir and being informed of the accusation of Agnes Fairweather against him and being suitably exhorted by the Minister to be sincere and ingenuous in telling the truth positively denied being guilty of fornication with Agnes Fairweather or the father of her child. But she being called in adhered to her former confeſsion. The Seſsion ordered the both to attend here the next Sabbath.

December 1st 1805

The Seſsion meeting constitute. Agnes Fairweather appeared and adhered to her former confeſsion and accusation of William Watson. William Watson not appearing nothing further now done in the matter.

What is interesting is that the Kirk Session would contact ministers in neighbouring parishes to inform them of the possible misdeeds of their parishioners and request the attendance of malefactors from elsewhere to appear before the Kirk Session

When the Kirk Session met to act as a court of morality it was obviously quite a formal proceeding. The formulaic phrase The Seſsion meeting constitute appears each time in the minutes prior to the report of the Kirk Session as a court of morality. I had a little trouble with the word constitute, but the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines it as to open formally which certainly fits with the tone of the minutes.

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Madeleine Smith and marriage

I was going to leave Madeleine alone for a bit, but while I was researching the marriage of my great-great-great grandfather several things about Madeleine and Emile’s relationship clicked into place.

In her letters to Emile, Madeleine signed herself as ‘your wife’ and addressed him as ‘husband’. Given that Madeleine had also had a sexual relationship with Emile, and moreover had written about it, it could have been argued in a court of law that in fact they were married as the law stood in Scotland at the time.

This isn’t an isolated case, the Yelverton case a few years later turned on a similar point.

There are also cases of people in similar irregular relationships being made to formalise the relationship.

Therefore, if Madeleine was to marry Walter Minnoch, as her father desired, she had to destroy any proof that there was of the nature of the relationship  with Emile, which is why she wanted her letters back.

As long as he had her letters, Emile L’Angelier had a hold over her and could potentially blackmail her.

Poisoning Emile when he would not return her letters made the problem go away, or so she thought …

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Banns and Proclamations

One of the things that I like about family history is that you learn things about how a society worked.

For example I was researching the marriage of my great-great-great grandfather who I knew was named James Moncur.

I also knew that he was married because the birth record for his son from 1814 states

James Moncur in Moſside of Inglistoun had a child by his wife baptised and called James

Now as we know, the land tenancy system in the north east of Scotland was such that someone would take the tenancy of a farm for a number of years and then hire farm workers – fee in Scots – for a period of six months or a year at a time.

This meant that people did move around a lot, especially when they were younger and less likely to have acquired particular skills – for example a skilled ploughman could name his terms (within reason), but a general worker might have to scrabble to get a decent job.

So, while in 1814, James Moncur père might be living on a farm in the parish of Kinnettles, he might not be a few years previously. Equally, this was the early nineteenth century – while people did move between properties, they probably only moved a few kilometres at most as getting their next fee would depend on their reputation.

However searching for marriages involving a James Moncur anywhere in Scotland came up with exactly three results:

Screenshot 2021-01-15 153927

Notice something strange?

One record appears duplicated. This is because the banns (notice of marriage) were read in two separate parishes, most probably because one lived in one parish and the other in another.

However Kinfauns and St Madoes are adjoining parishes and some distance from Kinnettles while Airlie is not that far from Kinnettles.

So based on nothing more than wild supposition I went for the Airlie entry

marriage of James Moncur to Margaret Smart highlight

which comes from the Kirk Session minutes of 01 December 1805, and just below the notice of a Day of Thanksgiving for victory over the French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar is the entry we are interested in:

Jas. Moncur in the Parish of Eaſsie ⁊ Mgt Smart in this Parish were procld pro tem

and further down the page we have a second entry from December 8, 1805

james and margaret second time

Jas. Moncur in the Parish of Eaſsie ⁊ Mgt Smart in this Parish were procld pro 2 tem ⁊ pro 3 tem

Marriage in early nineteenth century Scotland was based on the principle of mutual consent, and most took place in private homes, albeit usually, but not always, in the presence of a minister. As a consequence, there may be no record of the marriage, but in James and Margaret’s case they were following procedure and giving notice of their intent to marry so we might expect a record of the  marriage itself.

Normally there would be a second set of records from the parish of Eassie, but these seem to be missing – perhaps the rats got to it. If they married in Eassie, and the Eassie register is missing this would explain why there appears to be no record of the marriage itself.

And why do I think this is my great great great grandfather?



Screenshot 2021-01-15 162427

The parish of Eassie and Nevay adjoins the parish of Airlie – its about 8km between the two parish kirks. Kinnettles kirk is 10km from Eassie kirk, and these are the sorts of distances over which we might expect people to move.

Kinfauns, on the other hand is about fifty kilometres away probably more than a farmworker could easily move his family and effects …

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Inglistoun, Inglistoun, wherefore art thou Inglistoun ?

While I still had some credit left on my account with Scotland’s People, the Scottish Government’s genealogy service, I thought I’d try and find the birth record for my great-great grandfather, who was rather unimaginatively named James Moncur.

I already knew that he was born in 1814 in Kinnettles which was part of the parish of Glamis.

Finding him was relatively straightforward, and his birth date was given as August 26 1814 in the old Kinnettles Kirk register:

james moncur kinettles

As always, these records pose more questions than answers. The record reads

James Moncur in Moſside of Inglistoun had a child by his wife baptised and called James

(the weird character is a long s or ſ which was still used in Scots orthography at the start of the nineteenth century)

So, most unhelpfully, it doesn’t give either the mother’s name or the name of the witnesses, but it does give the fermtoun he was living at – it doesn’t of course mean that he was the tenant, merely that he lived there.

So where was Mosside of Inglistoun?

Inglistoun – which in Middle Scots literally meant ‘English Settlement’, toun being cognate with the Anglo Saxon tun rather than what we now mean by town – usually became Ingliston in the mid nineteenth century when the early, often monoglot English speaking, surveyors for the Ordnance Survey wrote place names down as they thought they should be rather than how they were pronounced, and indeed, there’s an Ingliston between Balkeerie and Eassie not too far from Kinnettles

Ingliston Angus

But there’s two problems – Eassie has a church and you would have thought that the birth would have been registered there, rather than Kinettles.

What’s more there’s no Mosside of of Inglisto(u)n farm nearby.

The map dates from the 1860’s, so it’s not impossible that the farm could have disappeared in the intervening years.

However given that the birth was registered in Kinnettles it made more sense to look on the 1865 Ordnance survey map for Kinnettles, and there it was, a couple of kilometres north was a cluster of farms with the Ingliston element in the name

mosside of ingliston

including Mosside of Ingliston.

However, sometime between the 1860’s and today, the farm seems to have disappeared leaving no trace, though the cluster of Wester, Middle and Easter Ingliston still seems to be extant …

Screenshot 2021-01-12 150138

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Captain John Moncur

One thing that has puzzled me in recent years is why there are quite a few people in the Bahamas whose surname is Moncur.

Given that Moncur is a relatively unusual name, and the Bahamians with that surname are the (presumed) descendants of enslaved people, I was worried if my forebears had had an involvement in slavery.

The answer is probably not, they were simply too poor to be investors in sugar estates, and none of them seem to have had clerical jobs in the sugar trade, or indeed spent any time in the Caribbean.

But in the course of researching this I came across Captain John Moncur, who was a Royal Navy agent afloat in Caribbean in 1807 when the slave trade ended. (He also had an island off Tasmania named after him.)

(In 1807 it became illegal to trade in slaves in British Empire, but not to keep your existing slaves – slavery in all its forms became illegal in the British Empire on 01 August 1834),

As the British Navy had to do something with the captives they freed from slaving vessels, they settled them on various islands, including the Bahamas.

At the time I wondered if he had had something to do with the settlement of the captives, and that this was behind the prevalence of the surname on the Bahamas.

Well I don’t know, and I don’t even know if he is a relative.

But I thought I’d use my recently acquired MyHeritage subscription to do a little digging.

I didn’t find very much more than I didn’t already know, other than he had a wife, Katherine, who also seems to have left very little trace, and to confirm his date of birth.

So I tried something.

Knowing his birth date, I searched the Scottish Births register for boys named John Moncur born in 1743 (plus or minus a year).

There were exactly two births.

One was in the parish of Dunottar which then included the port of Stonehaven

Dunottar 177430202snip

The birth record is so brief as to be unhelpful as it doesn’t include where they were living or even more importantly the name of the mother.

The other was in Auchterhouse, which was the neighbouring parish to Glamis, where I know for definite some of my ancestors were living in Kinnettles in the early 1800’s

Auchterhouse 17430111snip

More usefully this entry gives the mother’s name as Agnes Andersen and that they were living in East Adamston, which is a fermtoun that is shown on the 1865 Ordnance survey map

east adamston

None of this of course means that either of these John Moncurs is a sibling of one of my ancestors, or indeed that either of them is Captain John Moncur – after all he could have been born elsewhere…

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And George was a liar …

A few years ago, we took advantage of a free day on Ancestry to research Judi’s grandfather. And then, having confirmed his record at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, we left it there.

However, I’ve just bought myself a subscription to MyHeritage for a year as a sort of Christmas present and given that the whole Covid thing is dragging on I reckon that I’ll need a hobby to divert me.

So, the first thing to do was import and fill out the family tree.

Now we didn’t have George’s birth certificate but we did have a copy of his army record from September 1914, which gives his supposed date of birth and his profession as an apprentice carpenter.

There’s only one thing wrong with all this – no George Henry Hill with the correct parental names was born in Victoria in 1894 (or 1893).

In fact, no person with the correct name and mother’s name was born until 1896.

And then I realised that for the first round of recruitment for the Australian Imperial Force, volunteers had to be nineteen or older and George was still eighteen.

So he’d simply added two years to his age, and no one checked, or if they did, they didn’t care.

To us, this would seem incredible, but of course then, it was quite normal. People simply didn’t have the documentation trail they have now, no drivers licences, passports, bank cards etc, etc.

And so George could simply say he was twenty. And as they never asked him for his birth certificate, he got away with it …

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Digitised diaries and class bias

Increasingly, when researching the past, we make use of digitised records, and increasingly, for the nineteenth century at least, there are a slew of  newly digitised diaries and journals.

But there’s a problem:

Most of the people who wrote and kept journals and diaries were middle class, and what they recorded and commented about were things of interest to the middle class.

This means that what we see of life we see through the lens of the middle classes.

Studies based on digitised newspaper articles have their own problems – the articles and reports tend to reflect the biases of the readers of the newspapers, with stories of drunken servants and rural misdoings always a good standby.

Yet we know there were skilled tradesmen, gardeners and the rest who kept workbooks and journals, yet, these have either not been digitised or have not survived,

There are exceptions of course. J has the workbook of Robert Warwick, who was her great ↑n grandfather, a market gardener and seedsman in Barnard Castle in 1820 or thereabouts, and while much of it is quite mundane we have records of the gentry who did not pay there bills (Christmas Bills indeed!), and other items that tell you about the nature of society at the time.

(We have arranged, when we can travel again, to donate it to the Royal Horticultural Society in England for digitisation.)

Now there must be others, but they seem to be rare.

And personally I think that’s a problem. When I look at my own family history, I can see that those who had farms and businesses would have records that would have told us much about life in rural Scotland over the nineteenth century, but the records have all gone, as has any chance of recording the oral history of the area …


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Reading Frankenstein …

Some time ago I wrote about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. At the time I hadn’t actually read the book (tsk, tsk), but it was an interesting little exercise teasing out some of the linkages.

I am by no means a literary scholar, but when I came to read the book, I found it interesting to see these connections play out in the text. Some of it is clearly inspired by Mary’s life events, her time in Geneva, her journey down the Rhine with Shelley, and the connection with whaling which I guess was partly inspired by her time in Dundee, and some by hearing Coleridge recite the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

What I’d failed to appreciate was that at the time the novel was written – it was first published on New Year’s Day 1818 – arctic exploration was a hot topic and was covered extensively in the papers.

While Buchan’s Spitzbergen and Ross’s Greenland government sanctioned Royal Navy expeditions – where Ross first encountered the Inuit – did not take place until later in 1818, there had been several informal journeys of exploration by various whaling ships such as those by William Scoresby – who was later to play a life in the Brontë saga in his second career as the Vicar of Bradford – had already built up a body of knowledge about the Arctic.

I don’t know how much Mary Shelley knew of the preparations for these expeditions, but she would not only have heard stories about whaling and talk of the scientific discoveries in the Arctic.

The real surprise to me was the almost complete lack of references to galvanism – in fact her description of the assembly of the creature seems to owe more to early experiments in anatomy and physiology and the idea that life can be created, that and the reference to chemistry and ideas which may have come from hearing about Humphry Davy’s dream experiments …

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