Sunday, October 24, 2010

Knocking About: Being Some Adventures Of Augustus Baker Peirce In Australia

Knocking About: Being Some Adventures Of Augustus Baker Peirce In Australia

I've just finished reading this book, written and illustrated by Augustus Baker Peirce
published by Yale University Press in 1924. It was edited by Mrs. Albert T. Leatherbee, presumably from a manuscript written by the author. The foreword, written by Edwin Howard Brigham, MD, states that he (Brigham) met Augustus ('Gus') Baker Peirce in 1892 when Peirce had returned to the United States (his nation of origin).

The introduction also tells us he was born in Medford, Massachussets on October 7, 1840, the son of Major Moses Peirce and Mehitable Nye. The family's nautical past spurred Gus Peirce to the seas on the 'Oriental' which sailed from New York for Australia in 1859. Unhappy with his treatment, Peirce fled the ship there and as such

Peirce was an artist, actor and storyteller, and the few book reviews that appeared in Australian papers in the 1920's appear to have registered this. 'The Queenslander' (25 Apr 1925) stated "...but one has a shrewd suspicion that Augustus baker Peirce, who was obviously born a humorist, did a considerable amount of gentle 'leg pulling' when he returned to his adoring relatives in America, and appeared before them as a Robinson Crusoe back from strange lands." This is perhaps exemplified when Peirce writes that shark fins could been seen flashing about the boat in Port Phillip, and that as a result of a bungle when departing the boat with others, he was forced to swim a mile to shore in these waters.

Nevertheless, in Australia Peirce had a wide range of occupations, from gold-digger to labourer to actor/stage producer to photographer, he mapped the Murray Darling system and was a steam boat captain on those same waters. His travels took him up and down the Murray Darling River and to Hill End/Tambaroora in NSW (the reference point that lead me to pick up this book).

Irrespective of his 'leg-pulling', some stories can be confirmed in the newspapers, and it seems Peirce was often in the right (or wrong) place at the right time.

As examples
- Early in his time in Australia he wrote that a Greek man shot at him and just missed.
- One amazing story Peirce refers to relates to SHIRES, a man who sold snake bite lotion, and proved its worth by having himself bitten by a snake. Peirce went out with Shires when they met to catch a snake. Peirce relates that many years later in Melbourne, the Police Chief, a man named Drummond, had insisted the snakes must surely not be poisonous, and had himself bitten - he died the next day. Shires was charged with murder for allowing the bite to occur, but was acquitted. There are some remarkable detailed accounts of the events and case in the Australian papers of the time.
- He dined with a police constable named SMITH./SMYTH who was subsequently shot by the bushranger Dan Morgan (in 1864). That he really knew Smith may be inferred from the fact that a drawing of Smith is included in the book.
- A number of adverts appear in papers showing he was a riverboat captiain.

The memoirs are extremely informative, and a number of facets of Peirce's experiences particularly so. Peirce makes a point of highlighting the number of fellow Americans (especially Bostonians) that he meets and associates with in his travels - a part of the colonial population in Australia that doesn't get as much exposure. The book also reveals the way Australians in far-flung towns were entertained in the 1800's - travelling shows, pantomime in makeshift tents, recited poetry and song, and exhibited rolls of paintings of far-away lands. Great detail on the difficulties in navigating the Murray-Darling river system is given. Finally, Peirce also spent time as a photographer using the colloidon process in Australia, and some detail of how they travelled and sold photographs was given.

Peirce makes very few references to his family, except that they travelled with him as he moved from place to place. We can tell from records that he married Agnes CARNEY at Moama (on the NSW side of the Murray River) in 1869. It appears that they probably met in Sydney the prior year as a son Augustus was born in 1868 in Balmain (Sydney), and a second in Echuca, Victoria (over the river from Moama) in 1870. While Victoria and NSW have good family history records, South Australia does not and so other children may have been born. Augustus left Australia in the early 1890's, an he simply states that he returned home to see his family and because his wife had passed away.

In the 1900 US census Augustus was living in Massachusetts with his brother, and apparently died in 1919. His sons remained in Australia when he departed, as evidenced by a memorial in the 'Argus':

Argus 1 May 1924
"In loving memory of my dear brother Gus, son of Augustus and the late Agnes Pierce (late of Geelong) who died 1st May 1921, at Melbourne (Inserted by his loving brother, Bert Pierce)."

Curiously the death notice does not state that their father was 'late'. How the book came to be published isn't entirely clear. Given the detailed drawings Peirce produced the complement the text, it is assumed he was preparing the manuscript at the time of his death, and that they were finalised by the editor prior to publication.