Bravery in Family History

B2020It’s an intriguing question: what is bravery and what is courage? I’ve seen bravery as fortitude in the face of a challenge, perhaps even a private challenge, whereas courage is more of a one-off Victoria Cross kind of event. On discussions with Mr Cassmob he felt it was the opposite. Dictionaries didn’t enlighten us much in distinguishing between what are largely synonyms. So today I’m going to regard them as fairly much interchangeable.

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady in the United States.[i]

Perhaps in years to come we may think we showed bravery in the face of the confusion, ambiguity and fear that we’re living with right now, world-wide, in this pandemic.

I think every one of us faces some level of difficulties that require us to face our fears and move forward. Certainly, I can think of many instances where my ancestors, or those I research, confronted their fears, their life’s aspirations, and perhaps their mortality.

My earliest Australian ancestors arrived in the mid-1800s and I think their challenges were surely about the vastly different geography and climate. How did they know what to grow when, what would thrive and what would fail? How did the women even cope with those heavy clothes in temperatures that hit the mid-90s or 100s Fahrenheit at the time?

To have courage for whatever comes in life – everything lies in that. Saint Teresa of Avila.

railway family col BW
This old image is thought to be Fountain’s (railway) Camp near Murphys Creek.

The bravery of my female ancestors leaves me astounded. To deliver their children in tents in railway camps along the line, as did my great-great grandmother, Mary O’Brien Kunkel with the attendant risks of childhood and maternal illnesses like typhoid, measles, failure to thrive, dysentery etc. My own grandfather was born in such a camp outside Dalby…it really wasn’t all that long ago.

And then there was the likelihood, or reality, of losing children at birth or soon after. My great-grandmother, Mary McSherry nee Callaghan arrived in Australia with two infant children Bridget and James McSherry (aka Sherry or McSharry). In Australia, Mary would give birth to another 13 children of whom 8 survived: one set of twins and three others. How do you even recover from those losses? Bravery in a very female form.

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman Statesman.

Bankruptcy was a common experience for many of our ancestors. Imagine the courage it took to rebuild and rebound from the loss of their livelihoods? We wondered why my Kunkel ancestors had left Ipswich to head west with the railway line towards Toowoomba. It was Trove that revealed the impetus for that. Daily bravery on George Kunkel’s part to turn the family’s financial safety around, and from his wife Mary for following him and making her life on the line and then helping to build their property at the Fifteen Mile while he worked for the railways.

Our courage needs to rise with difficulties and obstacles. Saint Mary Mackillop, Australia

Stephen G and Emily Melvin
Stephen Gillespie Melvin and his wife Emily in later years.

My Melvin family seemed to suffer more than their share of challenges, requiring bravery on a regular basis. Stephen Gillespie Melvin had left Scotland with his wife Janet Peterkin and small son, Laurence. You might say their voyage was a success and yet having reached Moreton Bay, Janet died in quarantine at Peel Island before they’d even got to the town. Just imagine the stresses, and the courage required, for a young man to establish himself in a new environment with a small child….and yet he did, and remarried a young woman called Emily Partridge with whom he had a large family. Ten years after Janet died, fate came to haunt him again. Australia’s “drought and flooding plains” very nearly claimed his life by drowning but it was the bravery of James Shadrack Livermore whose courageous actions saved him. At the same time Stephen’s businesses were in dire straits because he’d overextended himself. His wife, Emily, showed enormous strength and bravery to keep the family afloat throughout this difficult time.

Love and peace of mind do protect us. They allow us to overcome the problems that life hands us. They teach us to survive… to live now… to have the courage to confront each day. Bernie Siegel, American writer.

When we talk of bravery, we tend to think of dramatic instances of courage. One such was the rescue by some fishermen from Courtown, Ireland, among them being my own 2xgreat grandfather, David Callaghan. After pulling three miles, and after a most severe and determined struggle, they succeeded in reaching the wreck and taking off the crew in a most exhausted state… The men were “Davy Callaghan, Michael Kelly, Any Kelly, John Massey, John Hudson and Edward Nolan”.

Returned soldiers in uniform surrounding the Digger War Memorial in Chinchilla ca. 1920
Returned soldiers in uniform surrounding the Digger War Memorial in Chinchilla ca. 1920 SLQ image 4579, copyright expired.

It is instances of military bravery and service that also capture our attention. Among the young men fighting in World War I, were the descendants of Bavarian families who had emigrated to Australia. Did they face cousins across No Man’s Land? We will never know. Two of them were awarded gallantry medals for their service. At home, John Zeller, a first generation Australian had four sons serving in the war of whom two were killed. He worked making walking sticks for the wounded and said “as I am too old to go and fight with our boys I feel that I must do something to help those that are fighting for us.”[ii] Surely his daily courage and bravery were a match for his sons’.

The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity. Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Can you think of situations or events where your family showed bravery or courage in the face of life’s challenges?



[ii] Mathews, T. Footsteps through Time: A History of Chinchilla Shire, Chinchilla Shire Council, Chinchilla 2004, page 365.

13 thoughts on “Bravery in Family History

  1. This is an excellent post for the moment in history that we are living through. As we socially distance in the face of COVID-19, we all need to channel the bravery of our ancestors and remember the hardships they weathered to survive so we can be here today. Look forward to more of your A to Z posts.


  2. When we reflect on the challenges our ancestors faced compared with the easy lives most of us live today it puts our our current challenges into perspective.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.