Some knowledge of the gold rushes in the nineteenth century can help us understand aspects of our families’ history that we’d been missing. It is difficult for us now to imagine the enormous pull that a gold rush had on people, the chance that a fortune could be made so quickly, and so we may not consider that our ancestors took part.
This knowledge would have helped me enormously when I was first researching my Stewart family.
The Stewart family
My grandmother was very proud of her father, William Stewart, an architect and inventor who lived in Albury, New South Wales, for most of his life. He married Sarah Louisa Craig Lowe of Auckland, New Zealand, and they had seven children, all born in Albury.
Peter’s farm in Victoria
William’s father was Peter Hannah Stewart, a Scottish immigrant from Oban, Argyllshire, who arrived in Victoria in 1855. He married another Scottish immigrant, Grace Simpson, in Albury in 1863.
At the time I didn’t question why he would have come in to the colony through Melbourne rather than Sydney. I just figured that Albury is closer to Melbourne than it is to Sydney. As I said, I was new to family history research. I found that the Stewarts were the only branch of my family tree that paid their own way to Australia; all the others were assisted immigrants. This fit in with my grandmother’s attitude that she had married beneath her, and I thought no more about it for years.
The eldest child was born in Albury in 1865 but I couldn’t find William until I looked in Victoria. Peter was a farmer in Barnawartha, between Chiltern and the Murray River. There were no farmers in his background: his father was a cooper; his maternal grandfather was a tailor and cloth merchant; and his father-in-law had been a flax dresser. William’s younger siblings were also born in Barnawartha.
Margaret marries a miner
It was when I started looking at Peter’s siblings that the truth started to emerge, if only I’d been able to see it. Peter’s younger sister Margaret Stewart married John Carlyle Irving in 1859 in Beechworth, Victoria. Peter, still unmarried at this time, was one of the witnesses. My knowledge of Victorian towns was not what it is now, and at the time the name ‘Beechworth’ didn’t mean anything to me. I then made the mistake that many new researchers make, and I didn’t look into Margaret any further, as I was only interested in Peter.
John and Margaret had two sons in Ballarat before migrating to Invercargill, New Zealand, in the early 1860s, where six more children were born. Why Invercargill, at the bottom end of New Zealand? I didn’t know.
Big brother Hugh
Peter had an older brother, Hugh, a cooper like his father. Hugh arrived in Victoria from Scotland in February 1855 aboard the James Baines with his new wife, Elizabeth, months before his younger brother Peter. Hugh and Elizabeth also settled in Albury, New South Wales, becoming a well-respected member of the community. His obituary in the local paper mentions some time in America. America?
Hugh, as I discovered, was the first to arrive in Victoria, I found more information in a book in the local history collection of the Albury Library. Hugh went to New York and was working there as a cooper when the Californian gold rush started. He went to California, and then to Victoria when the gold rush started in 1851. This was news to me! Apparently he went back to Scotland for a year, got married, and brought his wife back to Victoria, although whether he worked as a cooper or as a miner, I’ll never know.
The gold rushes
The waves of gold seekers moved around the continent; into New South Wales and Victoria in the 1850s; across to New Zealand in the 1860s; to Queensland in the 1870s and Far North Queensland in the 1880s; across the Top End into the Northern Territory and the Kimberley in Western Australia in the late 1880s, and down to Kalgoorlie in the 1890s.
The chain of gold discoveries was self-perpetuating. The best chance for individual miners to strike it rich was to get there early and harvest the easy pickings off the ground. As the alluvial gold ran out in one place these miners moved on, and now they knew what to look for. As gold was found elsewhere the miners were lured to the next gold field, and the next, and the next. Others stayed behind to dig the gold out of the ground, and formed partnerships or became employees of newly-formed mining companies.
The largest and richest gold fields were the most attractive, particularly Victoria in the 1850s and Western Australia in the 1890s. The longer the rush continued the more tempting it was to pack up and go. People who had never worked as miners before travelled hundreds of miles to strike it rich. Many had never even worked outdoors before. Others saw opportunities in catering to the miners – stores, equipment, alcohol, entertainment, transport.
Most didn’t stay. They left the mines and became farmers or shopkeepers, settling down with wives and children, on properties of their own.
Gold rush timeline
1850s New South Wales
1860s New Zealand
1880s Far North Queensland
1880s Northern Territory and the Kimberley
1890s Western Australia
I can now see my Stewart family with new eyes. I know about places like Beechworth and Chiltern, and I can guess why Peter Hannah Stewart came to Victoria when he did. Peter was said to have been a carpenter when he was a young man, and he went back to carpentry in Albury when the farming didn’t work out in Victoria. I imagine there was plenty of work for a carpenter in the new gold field settlements, as shops and houses were being built.
If your ancestor went missing, or seemed to move around a bit, or if any of the gold rush placenames ring any bells, then perhaps they were chasing the California Dream of striking it rich on the goldfields, as Hugh Stewart, the cooper from Argyll, Scotland, did.
- Geoffrey Blainey, The Rush that Never Ended, Melbourne University Press, 1978.
- Beatrice Brooks and Lorraine Purcell, Golden Journeys, Visits to the Western Goldfields of New South Wales, 1852-1859, Hill End & Tambaroora Gathering Group, 2012.
- Kerrin Cook and Daniel Garvey, The Glint of Gold, A history and tourist guide of the gold fields of the Central West of New South Wales, Genlin Investments, 1999.
- Shauna Hicks, Tracing Mining Ancestors, Unlock The Past, 2014.
- David Hill, The Gold Rush, William Heinemann, 2010.
- Geoff Hocking, Gold, A Pictorial History of the Australian Goldrush, The Five Mile Press, 2006.
- Nancy Keesing (editor), History of the Australian Gold Rushes, by those who were there, Angus and Robertson, 1967.
- Ian MacFarlane, Eureka, from the official records, The story of the Ballarat Riots of 1854, and the Eureka Stockade, from the Official Documents of the Public Record Office of Victoria, Public Record Office of Victoria, 1995.
- Dorothy Wickham, Family History Research in the Central Goldfields of Victoria, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2004.
Also look for local histories of goldmining districts and contemporary accounts of individual golddiggers.