Adopted Ancestor: Finding Kate

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Esther Fitzpatrick, Guest Writer

I am called Pākehā here in New Zealand. This means I am a descendant of colonial ancestors originating from Europe. Through an autoethnographic project I generated data to understand who my ancestors were, to disturb the notion that Pākehā are all the same and, further, that Pākehā have no culture. Here is one story.



It was last July and summertime in Amsterdam. I was sitting upstairs in the Sephardic synagogue looking down through the dust filtered light to the ghostly patterns on the sandy floor below. Giant stone pillars rose to the ceiling where my ancestors’ prayers had echoed and become embedded in the soul of the building. I sat there, an answer to their prayers. When the synagogue was consecrated in 1679 the Chief Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca wrote a poem called Cheshki Chizki (Be brave, be strong). In New Zealand we say, ‘kia kaha’.

Almost 200 years later, in 1873, in Thames New Zealand, my great grandmother Ada was born. There was no birth certificate. Only in the front of a Bible a scribbled note: Ada – adopted. Even during the chaos of a gold rush, having no birth certificate was unusual. My mother and her cousin tried for many years to locate Ada’s family; letters back and forth, to and fro, and so on. The Administrator of ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ determined that no record of Ada’s birth, or her mother and father, ever existed. All we had were rumours, stories and questions. How could I find the mother of this adopted ancestor?

Ada grew up in a small town on the Coromandel Peninsula where she was known as ‘the little Jewish girl’. On Ada’s wedding day her mother, Mary Ann Otto, told her she was adopted. And so the lacuna came and the search commenced. The family story was that every year a well-dressed lady would arrive from Auckland, a lady who Ada called Kate. Some of Ada’s daughters remembered the visits of ‘Aunt Kate’. In Ada’s later years, my grandmother Molly took Ada to look for Kate in Auckland, only to have a door shut in their faces. And so the truth of Kate remained elusive. Before she died my mother gifted me all the letters, all the stories, and all the photos of trying to find Kate. And, eventually, 140 years after Ada was born, I finally found her.

I spent many hours in dusty corners of library collection rooms with careful librarians hovering nearby. I would sit with a box of historical artefacts, like a treasure hunter looking for clues, examining the contents and trying to make sense of what lay within. It was in one such box I found a letter from Governor Sir George Grey to Kate informing her that, as she had requested, all her letters to him had been destroyed. I speculated that perhaps Governor Grey, an old friend of Kate’s grandfather Hartog Keesing, had been Kate’s confidant. So what secret did Kate have?

I stayed up late at night exploring historical records, such as those available on the website ’Papers Past’, which revealed a long relationship between Kate’s family and the Ottos. It is amazing the snippets of peoples’ lives one uncovers in these records; like a puzzle with missing pieces. The Otto family first arrived in Kororoeka, Bay of Islands, as traders in 1838, before shifting to the newly founded capital Auckland, and then to Thames as neighbours and gold mining speculators. Keesing family history tells us that Kate often visited her favourite Aunt Amelia in Thames. Amelia was a neighbour of the Otto family. After adopting Ada the Otto family moved to Colville, a small village further north from Thames. The gaps in the puzzle continued to haunt me.

I only know fragments of Ada’s story. My great Aunt Hilda described Ada’s life as that of a slave. She was even made to get up early every morning to collect oysters before she went to school. My favourite story was when she was courting Owen Evans. Ada had no shoes, so Owen bought her a pair of shoes so they could go dancing. Ada married her dancing partner and filled her life with a large family. Aunt Kate still came to visit.

I had an advantage over my ‘mothers’ in my search for Kate. Technology has made the task a lot easier and quicker. One of the first methods I employed in my autoethnographic study was to sign up to Through this site I located and developed a relationship with a Keesing family historian. After sharing our stories and swapping photos she was convinced I was part of the Keesing family and invited me to the next family reunion. This was a very different response to that which Ada and my grandmother had encountered all those years ago.



Serendipitously, that very same day I sat in the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam further confirmation arrived. I had submitted my DNA for testing. My results showed my maternal line went back 4,000 years to one of the four Jewish mothers ̶ and 6,000 years back to ‘Katrine’, one of the ‘seven daughters of Eve’. Also, I was an exact match to the Keesing family historian, a descendent of Rose Keesing, Aunt Kate’s sister. I found Kate.


Esther Fitzpatrick (Ph.D. candidate) is a Lecturer in teacher education at the University of Auckland.She has published on issues of racial-ethnic identity in postcolonial communities, drama as a method of inquiry, and ethical issues of arts based methodologies. Her current research uses a postcritical ethnography where as a bricoleur Esther draws on a range of arts based methods to explore her topic of inquiry: What it means to be a Pākehā educator.

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