Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Enigma of a death

One of the most frequently published story lines in family history magazines is that of a stunted tree branch where a person has inexplicably gone missing, usually just before death, rendering retrospective investigations impossible. The question then arises as to how much time and effort should be invested in pursuing any answer.

Sometimes the government agencies which manage officially collected meta/data inadvertently push the search forward by releasing a ground-breaking new service. In the case of Australia, one such service is called Trove. Hosted by the National Library since 2009 and built with the generous collaboration of local, regional and national memory institutions, Trove has unveiled a wealth of research material. As described by the Orange Family History Group in 2010, Trove is "a super-site". 

Trove logo large colour
Inveigled by the possibility of solving a family mystery, I took the bounding parameters provided by four official certificates to trace the life of a man named John Henry De Chave. He appeared in Grafton in June 1865, marrying Catherine Halligan (1848-1931). [In 1931, the NSW Registrar added parents' names including Henry De Chave, squatter and Margaret Ogilvie.]

Trove includes the relevant digitised newspaper of the time, the Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser. In March 1866, De Chave appears as a witness in a trial of two men accused of killing cattle:

The two men were eventually convicted, and De Chave was offered a reward by the Cattle Stealing Prevention Association, which was refused:

Just prior to this article appearing in July 1866, De Chave and his wife welcomed the birth of a daughter, their only child, Mary Ada Isabelle. While their ages remained consistent, John Henry's birthplace was given as Melbourne instead of Sydney. The birth notice did not appear in the paper. In April 1868, De Chave and his wife were witnesses at the second marriage of Catherine's mother. One month later, there was an eventful accident:

There are quite a few clues here to a life prior to his Grafton arrival, but these have not been confirmed. 


Four years later, in April 1872, an even more sensational event occurred:
The court reporter uses a different spelling for the surname, several of which then ripple through the public record, if not the official one. By June 1872, De Chave/Chauve has become a stonemason. This spelling echoes the family's pronunciation of their surname:

The discovery of gold in and around Grafton led to many claims, many of which were left deserted by the mid 1870s. 27 August 1872, Claim No. 80
The last mention of (De) Chave is in August 1873, when he appears in this shipping list from Sydney. If the newspaper's digitisation is complete, this was a return trip for an April 16 departure.

In March 1878, Catherine de Chave married again. She was described as a stonemason's widow.

Perhaps the occupations of stockman and stonemason are solitary, and reflect a quiet personality in a man who nevertheless contributed a lot to the local community. The latter makes his subsequent "disappearance" inexplicable, although it may just be the consequence of a spelling or typesetting decision. The permutations are endless - Chave, Chauve, Shave, Shauve, sometimes with a D', sometimes not. The worst, found in an official index, was D'Chair.

The forethought of Trove's search engine architect in providing default fuzzy finding techniques overcomes any approach used by the fuzzy searcher. Trove then reveals new pathways with facets. It also helps to ameloriate the indistinct characters of this rendition of the newsprint. In this case, there is no need to worry about fine spelling distinctions such as d' or de. 

Of course De Chave could appear in a paper not yet digitised. Despite this, Trove has allowed me to eke out more years of life for an enigmatic man who breezed in, out and around a slight branch on my family tree. The context provided beyond the official record is priceless.