Information in the service record of a World War One Aboriginal soldier has been used to assist with the possible identification of the photograph of a young woman in a collection of images of Aboriginal people from the Clarence Valley NSW. These were taken by John William Lindt in the 1870s and in 2004 saved from being sold overseas by a businessman and collector Sam Cullen and his wife Janet. They not only purchased the collection and donated it to the Grafton Regional Gallery but with others have strenuously endeavoured to find out the identity of the Aboriginal men and women who are its subjects.

Sam Cullen and those involved in the search both before and after their purchase have had few clues to work with. However one, the pencilled name ‘Mary Ann of Ulmarra’ on the reverse of the photograph of a young woman, has led them to some promising connections. Using information in the World War One attestation of Harold Arthur Cowan, an Aboriginal member of the 6th Light Horse, plus marriage registrations and family information, it has been possible to suggest the young woman’s identity and to place her in a Clarence River family.

The story of the purchase of the photographs and of the Cullens’ efforts to put names to the people and to meet members of the Clarence River Indigenous community (possibly the descendants of Lindt’s subjects) was the subject of a recent ABC television program Australian Story. In this Nola Mackey, a local Grafton historian, described the way her research progressed after she made contact with elder Debbie Taylor:

Debbie told me that she had a great uncle called Harold Arthur Cowan and he’d gone to stay with an aunt, Mrs Williams, in Grafton. Harold Arthur Cowan went to the first world war and so I went online and found his World War 1 papers and these revealed very interesting material in the fact that his next of kin was Mrs Mary Ann Williams. I found a marriage certificate which turns out that her maiden name was Mary Ann Cowan, which then led me further to suspect there may be a family connection because Debbie’s great grandparents were Cowans. I also started to wonder if this Mary Ann could possibly be the Mary Ann of Ulmarra. She was born near the back of Ulmarra so this put us in the right place then when their ages were calculated it also put them in the right age group that it could possibly be this Mary Ann of Ulmarra. And within all the hundreds of searches I’ve done looking into records, this is the only Mary Ann that I have ever found. (Australian Story Transcript)

Nola’s conclusion was strengthened by comparison of the photo of Mary Ann with one of Harold Arthur Cowan in AIF uniform. Nola and Debbie also immediately saw a likeness between the two individuals:

Straight away I was struck with some of the similarities between these people. The eyes of Mary Ann of Ulmarra and the eyes of Arthur Cowan as we know him, the mouth. And therefore there’s a great possibility Mary Ann Cowan was actually Debbie Taylor’s great great aunt, that she is connected to MaryAnn of Ulmarra. (Transcript)

The participation of Harold Arthur Cowan in World War One, documented in his service record and the photo which his decision to join up generated, have played a not inconsiderable part in this story. The involvement of these two sources of information provides yet another illustration of the fact that the act of volunteering for World War One led to the creation of records about an individual whose value extends far beyond the military context in which they were produced.

Philippa Scarlett 11 February 2013

About Indigenous Histories

Author & Publisher of Australian history, art and culture.
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