Guest Post - A Frenchman in Australia, part 1
04 December 2020
It is a time of richesse, Dear Readers, for once again, we are most pleased to present a series of guest posts which, together, form a superb example of French genealogy research. It is a tale which we believe will, as did that of Madame S., shed light on new research ideas and possibilities which, in turn we hope, will enable you to further your own research.
This four-part series is part of a much broader narrative of an Australian family that has extended, thus far, to six generations from a relationship between two colonial convicts: Englishwoman Frances JOHNSON (nee MILLS), and Frenchman Jean Pierre MEUNIER. The focus of the family history is Frances (Lord Melville, 1817), whose married name survived through a slender thread of successive generations, while Jean Pierre (Indefatigable, 1815) is characterised as a ship that passed in the night, briefly sighted before disappearing. The elements of social history embedded in the biographical lattice will, perhaps, contribute to the meta-narrative of Australia’s convict beginnings. There were few women and even fewer Frenchmen among the cohort of some 160,000 convicts transported to Australia, so these two lives are worthy of rescue from the mists of history. The author, Brian Wills-Johnson, has been pursuing his family’s history for five decades – but he never expected to stumble across a Frenchman.
A SHIP THAT PASSED IN THE NIGHT
He was the mystery man in the life of my great-great-grandmother Frances JOHNSON (nee MILLS), an enigma whom she barely knew, even – perhaps – to the extent of her being unaware that he was the father of her only Australian-born son, William JOHNSON. He was, as Longfellow said, “a distant voice in the darkness”, who left behind just one fragment of evidence that he had passed in the night.
Jean Pierre MEUNIER was, beyond reasonable doubt, my great-great-grandfather; the first of my ancestors to arrive in Australia; and the end-point of a decades-long search to identify the progenitor of my family’s male lineage.
Why should there be a connection between Frances Johnson and Jean Pierre Meunier? There is no known documentary evidence that they ever met and, so far as the historical record goes, the best that can be said is that they were both in Hobart, Tasmania, at the critical time when William Johnson was conceived. Genealogists and family historians, however, today have recourse to a powerful ‘research tool’ in the form of genetic matching.
In 2019 I decided to have my Y-chromosome analysed, and sent my swabs off to Family Tree DNA, an outfit in Houston, Texas, that had been recommended for yDNA testing by a university workshop I attended a year earlier. This yielded an interesting cluster of names amongst 1,212 men with whom I had an apparent common ancestor. All of these, with the exception of one, listed their earliest known male ancestor as Dr Johannes Mousnier de la Montange – John Miller of the Mountain. They were all in the same haploid group as I am – R-M269 – which, not surprisingly, is ‘the most common European haplogroup, greatly increasing in frequency on an east to west gradient (its prevalence in Poland estimated at 22.7% compared to Wales at 92.3%).’ (1) Some geneticists believe this haplogroup arose amongst Neolithic hunter-gatherers about 10,000 years ago, with that population being pressed steadily westwards by expanding farming peoples.
This group of men drew my attention because, while I matched all other 1,211 men, each of them shared 12 markers with me, whereas there was only one with whom I shared 25 markers.(2) He, cautiously, did not bridge the gap back to the Mousnier de la Montagne name, but listed his earliest known male ancestor as John C. Montayne (1823-1890). What this coincidence of markers means is that the probability that he and I have a common ancestor in the past 16 generations is 72%, in the past 20 generations it is 84%, and in the past 24 generations it is 91%. This indicates that somewhere around 600 years ago, or earlier, we both reach the same man, via a long line of French males.
I soon discovered that the connection between this man and Dr Johannes was accepted by the Society of the Descendants of Johannes de la Montagne, an association that has both intensively explored the life of this American pioneer, and which appears to stand guard against false claimants of family connections. The other men from my cluster are all members – or members of member families – of the Society of the Descendants. One apparently has the most reliable lineage, but since the others all have high-level matches with him, their connection to Dr Jean is virtually assured. So far as these four go, my 12-marker matches also show, typically, that we have about a 91% probability of a common ancestor in the past 24 generations.
For a time, this is where the trail went cold. Then, during one of my forays into Australia’s colonial musters, when I’d been looking for a name that might match one of the Montaigne variants by skimming down the M-list, I chanced on a Jean Pierre Meunier. He seemed sufficiently French to be interesting, and Meunier is the French equivalent of Miller, while Mousnier is an older form of the same name.(3) Some quick research turned up a convict assignment record that read:
1 April 1823, text of document No. 550:
Jean Pierre Mounier [sic]
We hereby Certify that John Pierre Munier [sic] who came in the ship Indefatigable which arrived in the Year 1815, has not been convicted of any Crime or Misdemeanour in this Colony, but is to our certain Belief an honest, sober and industrious character, having served faithfully Mr Wm. Mitchell in the District of Argyle from April 1815 to August 1821, (4) William Howe Esquire in the District of Minto from August 1821, to the present Date. Sentence Life. (5)
This recommendation earned Jean Pierre his ticket of leave.
At first this seemed to block any chance of demonstrating that Jean Pierre Meunier and Frances Johnson were in the same place at the same time, Argyle and Minto both being in New South Wales, while Frances was in Hobart in 1817-18. The breakthrough was in discovering that Argyle in NSW was not named by Governor Macquarie until 1820. Was there another Argyle? Yes, the original subdivision of Tasmania included a District of Argyle, right where Hobart is. So, who was Jean Pierre Meunier? Who was this unexpected Frenchman who suddenly appeared in an Anglo-Celtic family? Clearly he was a convict, as was Frances, but his story lay well outside my genealogical comfort zone of England, Scotland and Ireland. It was time to plunge into the unchartered waters of French family history.
Next: A drummer for Napoleon.
©Brian Wills-Johnson, 2020
(2) A marker is a physical location on the Y-chromosome. I had 67 markers assessed and, of these, 25 were at the same locus as 25 of one of the others.
(3) Meunier and the English surname Miller are both occupational names derived from the Latin word for mill, molina. Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, 2013. The etymology is molina (Latin), molīnārius (late Latin), munoiere (old French), meusnier (middle French), meunier (modern French). - https://etymologeek.com/fra/meunier. The famous Moulin Rouge, ‘Red Mill’, shares this etymology.
(4) A William Mitchell came free per Providence in 1811, property at Argyle, m. Elizabeth Huon – Colonial Secretary’s index to correspondence, 1788-1825.
(5) Series: NRS 898; Reel or Fiche Numbers: Reels 6020-6040, 6070; Fiche 3260-3312.