ancestor story, puzzling

Unraveling the John Boles Mystery – Conclusion

BOLES, John Thompson & Christina, headstone
John Thompson Boles & Christina Montgomery Boles headstone, Stellawood Cemetery, Durban, Kwazulu-Natal.  Photograph by Maureen Kruger for the Gravestones in South Africa project on the eGGSA website.

John Boles is my 3rd great granduncle.  The disappearance of his entire family from Scotland in 1890 has been a mystery to me for several years.  With the discovery of the existence of his possible estate file, and the microfilm containing that file, I ordered the film from BYU and looked forward to learning new details that might finally answer my two big questions:

When did John Boles leave Scotland for South Africa?


Why did John Boles move his entire family of 9 to South Africa?


After ordering the microfilm containing his possible estate file, life got busy and I didn’t make it over to BYU to view the file before RootsTech.  So, I decided to look up the file while in Salt Lake City at the FHL.

To my utter delight, I found both John’s 27 page file and Christina’s 2 page file very quickly and made several discoveries.  The important first discovery was that they contained information that confirmed these estate files were about my John and Christina Boles.

MONTGOMERY, Christina, 1927 Estate File
Christina Montgomery Boles’ death notice.

The biggest discovery was that John and Christina had two children after they settled in South Africa – Alice and John.  They are listed as children numbered 10 and 11 on Christina’s death notice.  Child number 12, Isabella Miller, belongs in position 3.

I also learned that John owned land, several pieces of very nice land.

1930 map of Durban Harbour, from the collection of Allan Jackson.  Used with permission.

At the time of his death in 1935, John owned land that was part of the Farm Sea View.  This development is found west of Durban Bay just north of the sizable Clairmont Estate.

In addition to the land, John owned shares in several different mines.

He also had quite a list of movable property, nice furnishings, a piano, and many other possessions acquired during the years he lived in South Africa.

John and Christina’s estate files did not enlighten me on when they came to South Africa, but they did open my eyes as to why they came.

In Scotland, John was a coal miner.  This was not a life that afforded opportunity.  He would never own land.  His daily existence was hard and his earnings were meager.  His children would work from a young age and live a similar life.

In studying the estate files of John, Christina, and their children, I discovered that the entire family experienced a much better life, financially, in South Africa than they ever would have experienced in Scotland.  They helped manage mines and stores.  They owned land and homes and movable property of value, as well as shares in several mines.

This knowledge is bittersweet for me.  They went from being the poor workers to managing the poor workers.  My understanding of South African history and apartheid is limited, but it’s broad enough to know that my Boles family benefited from this cruel system.  I am happy that they were able to experience more comfort and safety in their new life but I am also saddened to know that it came at the expense of others.  History is complicated.

When they came is still a bit of a mystery.  I reviewed the documents I currently hold for this family and have this timeline:

  • 4 July 1889, Agnes Smellie Boles is born in Holytown, Lanark, Scotland and her father John is the informant.
  • 18 February 1890, John Boles dies in Holytown, Lanark, Scotland.  The informant is not his father John Boles, but his uncle Alexander Boles.  It is possible that John has already left Scotland for South Africa at this point.
  • 5 November 1890, the 7 living Boles children travel to Natal, South Africa aboard the Methven Castle, traveling with Chas M Boles.  A recently found record indicates that their father John Boles, residing in Dundee, was the surety name for the children.

John left Scotland sometime after 4 July 1889 and before 5 November 1890.  While I haven’t found an immigration record for John or his wife Christina, I know that neither of them traveled to South Africa with the children.  Did they come together?

My original goal in learning more about John Boles was to hopefully learn more about his parents, my 4th great grandparents.  Unfortunately, learning the end of John Boles’ life did not add new information about his parents.  I did learn more about John, Christina, and their children.  I do feel a sense of closure for their family, but as is the case with most research, I now have more questions than when I started.  Fortunately the questions are not essential to my research so I will be able to put them away and move on to other members of the Boles family.

It was a fitting end to find an image of John and Christina’s headstone pictured at the top of this post.

This research journey from Scotland to South Africa that John and Christina took me on deserves two follow-up posts – one about FamilySearch records and one about South African records found in various places online.

Happy Thursday, I hope you make a fantastic genealogy discovery today!


15 thoughts on “Unraveling the John Boles Mystery – Conclusion”

  1. Fascinating! My grandparents William and Jane Boles came to Canada for a better life, leaving the coal mines of Holytown. Thank you for shedding some light on this branch of our family. Sheila

    1. Thank you Sheila! I love the story of your William’s parents. I feel like they were so brave to send their surviving children off to Canada for a better life. I hope it was better, I seem to recall that William was mining in Canada as well, is that correct?

  2. Great post. So many of our ancestors immigrated to find greater opportunity and many of them found it. Your thoughts about South Africa are so thoughtful. Every time we move up the economic ladder, it’s likely at the expense of someone else. Of course, South Africa’s system, like American slavery, was particularly heinous. We can hope we have learned what oppression and prejudice do to all members of a society.

    1. Thank you Amy. I struggle even today knowing that I benefit from horrible labor practices outside of the US where much of our goods are created. Oppression, it seems, will never be gone from the earth. We just get better at hiding it from ourselves. I wish there was a solution. I guess I will just keep doing the bits I know I can do to help. My current favorite organization to support is Days for Girls International. They are remarkable. I wish that were enough…

      1. I just came home from an interfaith rally against hate. There are so many good people out there—we just need to stand up for what is right.

        1. Good for you! I happen to live in a little town that is 97% LDS, the other 3% are mostly children of LDS people who just don’t attend or associate with our church anymore. We don’t have any type of interfaith anything local. We do however, have quite a few service organizations we can support in the surrounding cities. I grew up in Washington which is such a liberal and very diverse state. It’s very strange for me to live somewhere that is so homogeneous.

  3. This is really interesting, and I’m glad you’ve answered one set of question. I have an uncle relatives who migrated to Africa –Rhodesia/Zimbabwe rather than SA — for a better life. He was also a miner in Scotland, but became “management” in the railways in Rhodesia. Although that country didn’t have the formal aparthied system, it was still true that white settlers improved their lot at the expense of the indigenous people. My grandmother visited her son in the early 1970s and was appalled at the way they lived and the routine, casual racism she encountered.

    1. Thank you Su. I bet it was a horrible shock for your Grandmother. I don’t think I could have handled that. I know that even today I benefit from the struggle of others whether I know about it or not. How many items of clothing in my home were sewn for pennies in horrible circumstances? And the list of similar privileges goes on and on. We have done a really good job hiding the oppression but it’s still there. Sigh.

      1. I feel the same way; confronted on all sides with the cheap products of virtually slave labour. And it’s so easy to ignore when we don’t actually see the people whose suffering we benefit from.

  4. What incredible information you found, Amberly! This must really help you feel closer to them. I understand what you mean about the system they entered, but in those days it was “eat or be eaten,” you know? So happy you were able to locate the right documents!

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