Genealogist unearths centuries of family history from headstones

By Amelia Wade

Graves and headstones in the Grafton cemetery. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Graves and headstones in the Grafton cemetery. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Centuries of history is buried in cemeteries around New Zealand, all you have to do is research the person named on the headstones.

Beneath the ground at the cemetery on Symonds St in Auckland Central is the son of a builder who happened to be a witness to the Treaty of Waitangi and two men who drowned in a sailing accident in the 19th century who could only be identified by their clothing.

The New Zealanders' stories were uncovered by international family history expert Brad Argent who is in the country for Family History Month which kicks off today.

Mr Argent, who is based in Sydney, took a trip up to the cemetery yesterday and chose two graves at random then researched the people.

"It's amazing what you can learn about your country's history by visiting cemeteries, all you have to do is go for a walk, take a photo of some gravestones and then go away and learn the stories behind them," he said.

One of the stories he uncovered was that of Alexander Black senior, a builder, who was one of the early settlers in the Bay of Plenty in 1837 who witnessed the proclamation of the colony in 1840.

"And the story goes that they had the proclamation in a desk draw ... and for whatever reason, they couldn't get the draw open. There was some suggestion that the Governor had left the key behind, but Alexander Black stepped forward and got the draw open and then became one of the witnesses," Mr Argent said.

He learned this tale by finding the grave of his son, Alexander Black junior, at the Symonds St cemetery then researching his history.

Mr Argent also found a grave belonging to Kenneth McKenzie and Robert Smith, brothers-in-law who drowned after a sailing accident in the Kaipara Harbour in 1881.

On the day of the tragedy, Mr McKenzie's wife - also Mr Smith's sister - gave birth to a son whom she named after his father.

Only one body was found and it could only be identified by the clothing he was wearing, including his socks, Mr Argent said.

To kick off New Zealand History Month, the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, in association with Ancestry.com.au, will be holding a special event Auckland Library's Whare Wananga that will include an expert panel discussion on national identity and what it means to be a Kiwi today.

- NZ Herald

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