“If not for the 1918 flu, you’d be Australian!”: Family history and the 1918 flu pandemic

I’m not sure what I expected when I made the phone call, in 1991, to tell my mother that I was moving to Australia.  I think my family had already pegged me as a traveller, as the daughter most likely to end up in far away places.  But there is scarcely any place farther from New York than Australia. I expected, perhaps, some alarm, at least surprise. What I didn’t expect was the proclamation made by Mom: “This was meant to happen, Kelly.  You know, if not for the 1918 flu, you’d be Australian!”

Clearly there was a story here, and one that I had not heard before.  To tell the story now, let’s go back to January 20, 1904, to the wedding day of my great-grandmother, Theresa May Taylor, to my great-grandfather, Jesse Fremont Williamson, in the State of California.  Here they are on their wedding day:

Jesse and Theresa

Jesse and Theresa homesteaded a 3,000 acre piece of land in the coast range of California, about 200 miles south of San Francisco in the Coalinga Hills.  They were living in a dugout on the land and building a cabin when the 1906 earthquake struck. They were so isolated there, that they didn’t realise the extent of the earthquake until they took the horse and buggy into Coalinga for their monthly supplies! Sometime in 1907-8, for reasons I’m not sure of, they moved into Coalinga and ran a boardinghouse.  Jesse worked as a roustabout in the oil fields, which was dangerous but paid well.  By early 1918, they had four children, Ruth, Pauline, Lloyd, and Claude.  I love this photo, from 1913, of Theresa with Ruth Victoria Williamson, my grandmother.  Theresa looks so mischievous and happy in this photo, as does baby Ruth.

Theresa and baby Ruth

Around this time, Jesse learned that Australia was giving away ranch land to those who would come and settle and work the land: 10,000 acres was his for the taking, if he could move his family half-way across the world.

Jesse bought steerage on a ship, scheduled to leave from San Francisco to Australia in September of 1918.  Steerage for six was a huge amount of money for the family.  But the lure of a farm of his own in Australia (and no doubt, also, the lure of adventure) convinced him. They packed up all of their belongings and prepared to set off for San Francisco and a long, difficult sea voyage.  And that is when the flu struck.

Jesse and both boys – Lloyd and Claude – were felled with the flu.  They were sick for some time and were slowly nursed back to health by Theresa and the girls.  The boat left without them.  There was no such thing as travel insurance; their savings and their dreams of adventure were gone.

Is this a sad story? No, it isn’t.  All three regained their health.  Jesse went back to work in the oil fields.  Theresa had two more children, Dorothy and Jim.  Sometime in the early 20s, they bought a ranch of their own, in Riverdale, Kings County, California.  Jesse ran the ranch and continued to work as a roustabout until he broke his leg in an accident at an oil well; afterwards he became a full-time rancher/farmer.  The boys eventually all bought neighbouring ranches.  It was a good life.

Here is a photo of my mother, Marylou, at the ranch in 1940:

Mary Lou horse

And another of Jesse a few years later in 1943:

grandfather horse2

When I was a child, we would go to the ranch on holiday.  I remember helping Theresa in the kitchen and in the vegetable garden.  I would walk with Jesse, my great-grandfather, and he would show me the horses.  Here is a photo of Jesse on the ranch, taken around the time of my birth in 1961.  This is how I remember him.

Jesse color

Over the years I have heard many stories of Jesse and Theresa.  My mother grew up on the ranch, surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles, and open spaces, and farm work.  But until I prepared to move to Australia, I had never heard the story of how, except for the flu of 1918, I might have been Australian!

Some years later, when I became an Australian citizen, I wondered what Jesse and Theresa would have made of this turn of events.  I think they would have liked that their sense of adventure was passed down to their great-granddaughter.