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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 4, May 1970

George Fairweather Moonlight

page 27

George Fairweather Moonlight

On completing his surveying cruise round New Zealand in 1769 Captain Cook wrote: "It was the opinion of every body on board that….was this country settled by an industrious people they would very soon be supplied not only with the necessaries but many of the luxuries of life."

Almost three-quarters of a century was to pass before settlement was attempted in an organised manner and a further quarter-century of strenuous efforts by hardy pioneers were to win them even their barest necessities of life. Yet, soon after, in the short space of five years a stupendous change occurred which enabled them to enjoy the beginning of luxurious living. To this day every New Zealander benefits from that miracle. What event and person, if any, was the prime cause of this dramatic change?

Analyse our pages of history as you will, conviction grows as you return full circle to the hypothesis that the subject of this article is an important source and inspiration of that change. This view, however, will remain pure conjecture until we verify even the faintest of clues. It is a matter of grave concern that some adequate research on a reconstruction of this noteworthy character has not been attempted before items of prime value are utterly lost. Perhaps his death certificate entries of birth date, place, and parents being recorded as "Not known" have deterred further investigation. Hence the body lying in the Wakapuaka Cemetery is that of an almost forgotten man.

Our eminent historian, Professor John C. Beaglehole's protests against New Zealanders' partiality to mythical presentations of people and events—the Waitangi Myth, the Wakefield Myth, etc. It is certain he would be equally critical of the Moonlight Myth shrouding this notable man's name, burying his true merits under a mass of hearsay and empty credulity. Worse still, there is so little by way of known private papers and documentary records available with which fact can be sifted from fiction.

Fortunately in the "History of Goldmining in New Zealand", Professor J. H. M. Salmon preserves several perceptive pointers which could be correct or curb our ignorance. He lists Moonlight among the eight most notable men of the last gold rush days (p.264). Earlier, on page 139, he tells us "Moonlight, on the other hand, had no interest in wealth begetting wealth and went back to his solitary explorations once the rush set in." This became the characteristic

The author lives in Charteris Bay, Lyttelton R.D.I, and welcomes correspondence with others interested in George Moonlight.

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pattern of Moonlight's prospecting career, hallmark of the true prospector, clearly distinguishing him from marauding miners. Recently Dr Salmon, in a private letter, writes: "George Moonlight… was certainly a fascinating and, up to now, mysterious character and I agree with you about his importance in the discovery and development of N.Z. goidfields.…I hope you find enough about Moonlight to restore him to the place he deserves."

Seaman Moonlight joined the 1848 Californian gold rush. Finding no "lucky strike" there he migrated to the newly discovered Australian diggings again without success. Then in 1861 he came to New Zealand and apparently travelled far into the Alpine ranges, paying little heed to Gabriel Read's recent rich strike in Otago which attracted so many miners. Soon news of his Moonlight Creek discovery, close to Lake Wakatipu, became known and started a mammoth rush into that area for this was indeed the mother-lode country. Experienced miners knew the significance of Moonlight's discovery of this country which fed the royal metal into alluvial valleys below and his name and reputation rocketed overnight—it was no fortuitous find, as subsequent achievements proved. Moving into Nelson Province in 1863, virtually at the opposite end of the South Island, he repeated this feat a number of times until the golden belt and gold bearing reefs of the West Coast became world famous.

As a result of discoveries of rich mineral wealth miners and migrants flocked into the Colony which by 1870 had a population of nearly a quarter of a million, and officially recorded gold mined to the value of about £20 million. As the winning of gold became more difficult the colonists readily turned to farming.

To the miners Moonlight was a wizard of high and etxraordinary ability. The writer of this article contends that he was possessed of a genius which guided him instinctively to mother lode terrain. The nature of that hidden genius remains to be determined.

It took the love of a good woman to tame the explosive force in him for, after a final burst at Moonlight Creek in the West Coast Paparoa Ranges, which eventually produced large gold nuggets "like potatoes in a dish" seen by Hindmarsh in a Greymouth bank, he chose a settler's status in rural Murchison. Having shown the way, his task done with no large fortune in his hands, he then bent his energy to encouraging and caring for the welfare of the men and women there opening up new country.

John Grigg's book "Murchison" devotes a full chapter to a brief but so far best recorded, sketch of Moonlight's career. Unlike Cook's well documented exploits written by a team of dedicated companions, but for a lone letter written by Moonlight to his daughter just a few days before entering the Glenhope bush on his fatal page 29foray, no private papers are, as yet, known to exist. His living New Zealand descendants have tried in vain to secure a copy of his birth certificate. Hence it is most difficult to establish the possible origin of his genius. Rumour runs rife and to explain his unusual name it is generally believed he was a foundling child given his names by a magistrate, "George," after the reigning monarch; "Fairweather," in contrast to the wintry weather usually experienced; and "Moon-light", because "by its light he was found".

Preliminary probes into claimed Scottish origin, however, have produced some fruitful results, viz: 1. Photocopy of tombstone records of a Moonlight family already existing around the time George Fair-weather Moonlight was born. 2. Copy of family tree from a professional genealogist (himself a direct descendant) of the probable family from which our genius stems. 3. Several overseas items which give strong evidence indicating a high level of intelligence running through this family of farming stock: e.g. (a) a contemporary, possibly cousin, Thomas Moonlight (1833–99) became Governor of Wyoming State in U.S.A.; (b) another is believed to have been a Professor in Hobart, Tasmania, who returned to his hometown to die there; (c) a closer N.Z. relative wrote "cousin Tom Moonlight came with George to the Otago goldfields from Australia" (Nelson Evening Mail 16/5/1935). This is substantiated by the written inscription "Thomas Moonlight, Hampden* 1881" in two large volumes now in the possession of George Fairweather Moonlight's descendants.

His death in 1884 caused quite a stir throughout the district and the mining fraternity due to the unusual circumstances of being "lost" in bush country he knew so well and had fearlessly mastered many times before. Is the record of that genius to be likewise lost and New Zealand deemed ungrateful for the great gift bestowed? Surely truth demands serious effort to prove or disprove the validity of this genius theory!

Because of extreme scarcity of known source material this will be no easy task. Success can be better assured by concerted efforts of teams of dedicated people. It should provide a challenge and most interesting exercise to members of Historical Societies and scholarly historians alike. A recent four-day search in Nelson un-earthed useful documentary records, indicating this city and area could be a rich source of valuable data. Where better, since Moonlight made it the centre of his remaining 21 years of life. His great contribution to New Zealand history culminated in this Province, his wedded life was rooted in this soil, his ultimate bankruptcy proceedings, the police search for his lost body emanated from here, the inquest on his unfortunate end as well as his burial also took place here.

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Even if the theory of genius is proven to be unfounded it is possible, nevertheless, that much valuable historical data will be found from so rich a field of inquiry. If, on the other hand, this theory is proved to be well and truly established Nelsonians can treasure and embellish both the record and resting place of a truly great man. Every New Zealander will then know to whom they owe a very great debt and let the world also know we, at last, now recognise and accord due honour to this outstanding colonist.

* Now Murchison.