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1620 echoes in the 1950s

At a time when America was incredibly prosperous, it was almost unheard of for an American family to migrate to Australia. How did descendants of Mayflower passenger Edward Fuller end up here in the 1950s? Steve Isham explains, tracing the echoes of his pilgrim ancestors through to 21st century Tasmania.


On the road to San Francisco to set sail for the southern hemisphere. Steve Isham & his father, 1958.

The Plymouth Brethren

To explain how my family came to Australia, I need to start with a historical note.


J N Darby, an Anglican clergyman, withdrew from the church around 1830 questioning the tenets of the established church, like ordination by a bishop, and sounding similar to fellow Anglicans 200 years earlier. Like the 17th century Separatists, he wanted to return to the simplicity of the early gatherings of Christians recorded in the first century narratives of Peter and Paul. Within decades of his influence, there were gatherings of 'Plymouth Brethren', so-called because they refused to give themselves a name, in several countries across the world.


My father and his family belonged to one such group in Chicago in the early years of the 20th century. Blessed and happy days filled my father's early memories but increasingly, the small gathering felt the tyranny and manipulative leadership that had evolved in the wider sect. By the mid-20th century, hundreds were leaving the sect, nearly always at the cost of cruel estrangement from friends and other family members.


Leaving America in search of fellowship

Longing to re-create the fellowship of those early sunny days, my father, the first man named Edward in the 12 generations since the Mayflower passenger Edward, started a wide correspondence with ex-Brethren around the world. In his neat fountain pen 'long-hand', he exchanged letters with kindred spirits in England, Wales, Germany, India, South Africa, and New Zealand.


By the summer of 1958, my father was so drawn to some of these folk that plans to travel brewed and climaxed one Saturday in an auction of all our household goods on the lawn of our house in Gambier, Ohio. There followed a U-haul trek across the country with crates and large steamer trunks towed along behind our 1950 Ford.


In San Francisco, the trunks were loaded for the last voyage of the SS Orcades, and out under the Golden Gate Bridge we sailed. Destination: Christchurch, New Zealand. My mother, father, and I disembarked 28 days later. I have no siblings.


I could imagine a Pilgrim parallel and think of New Zealand as our family's Leiden sojourn. People were good to us but the fellowship my father hoped to find did not quite eventuate and I suspect my parents did not want me to grow in what they might have thought of as a place with limited horizons.


So 18 months later, instead of returning to the USA, my family loaded those trunks on another ship that entered Sydney Harbour in December 1959. I was 13 year old. It was unusual. There were very few American families back then doing that sort of immigration.


Disembarking in Sydney December 1959. That's 13 year old me.

'Barnstable' becomes home in Tasmania

Within weeks, we were in Tasmania where I spent most of my high school years and it was the state I returned to many years later to build a house and raise a family.


I found myself with my wife Marion and a small son Luke back in Tasmania in 1981. It was in building our house that I feel particular resonance with the first house builders of Plymouth Colony.


Like many of the Pilgrims, I had no building skills but friends helped and advised. There is something deliberately rustic and barn-like in the house that eventuated. It has a thick-beamed architectural skeleton and vertical cladding of rough sawn timber supplied by two burly leather-aproned brothers from just down the road, who shepherded great eucalyptus logs along their whirling saw blade in a kind of awesome bush poetry.


Piles of sweet smelling planks came to our site in a smoke-belching old truck. Later we laid an infill of mud brick that we made on location one wet and unconducive summer, and also a west facing wall of stones gathered from the paddocks surrounding the house.


My imagination observes my forefather, young Samuel Fuller and his uncle, building those first shelters in the winter of 1620. And imagination is much enabled by my own untutored labour in making the shelter we still enjoy in 2021.


The 'barn' at Margate, Tasmania, under construction about 1983.


I believe Samuel Fuller built at least two other houses. One in Scituate where he lived with his new bride Jane Lothropp after their wedding at which the celebrated Miles Standish officiated. And one in Barnstable where Samuel moved his young family in the following decade and where they lived out the rest of their days.


Samuel is the only Mayflower passenger to live and die in Barnstable. I doubt there are any remnants of Samuel's house left in Barnstable but his father-in-law's house is still standing and today shelters the Sturgis Library. It's the oldest building to house a library in America.


We've called our Tasmanian property Barnstable to honour the memory of those early days. It's in the public record by that name and confirmed by a sign at the gate.


'Barnstable' Tasmania, home today.

By Steve Isham, Australian Mayflower Society Elder and descendant of Edward Fuller
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