Friday, 12 July 2019

"A 100 year old Lithuanian in New Zealand"

This was the title of a newspaper article published in 1950 by prof. Mykolas Biržiška about Jurgis Šeižys, probably the first Lithuanian to have settled in New Zealand. Here is my abridged version.

The story begins around 1850 when Jurgis Šeižys was born in the village of Šiukštoniai, in the parish of Joniškelis in northern Lithuania. Around 1875 he left his home village and settled in Riga, Latvia, where he found work in a large tobacco factory. After 12 years at the tobacco factory Jurgis began to complain of chest pains; the doctors couldn't help him except to recommend a change of employment, preferably in a fresh air environment. He then decided to set out on a long journey, first to Belgium and Holland, then London and finally to New Zealand, arriving there around 1888.

In New Zealand Jurgis Šeižys became known as George Scheigis and tried his hand at several occupations before settling down. He married a local Maori girl but after 4 years was left a widower with a young son. By 1900, having established himself as a successful sheep farmer with a few other business interests he decided to return to Lithuania to find a wife. However, without a passport he only got as far as London. Fortunately, while there he was able to make contact with his sister and nephew in Riga who were able to travel to London to meet him and spend a few weeks together.

Jurgis returned to New Zealand and married a local englishwoman with whom he had more children. His relatives in Europe lost touch with him after the First World War and it was only after the Second World War that his nephew, by then a displaced person in Germany (living in the USA from 1950), managed to make contact again. By that time Jurgis was around 100 years old. 

Source: The article appeared in Australijos Lietuvis (the Australian Lithuanian) on 6 February 1950, pp 8-10 and was based on information supplied to Biržiška by fellow academic prof. Jonas Šimoliunas, the nephew of Jurgis Šeižys. My thanks to Dana Grigonis, a volunteer with the Australian Lithuanian Community Archives, for providing me with scans of the newpaper and links to the above images. 

  1. Jurgis may not in fact have reached 100 years of age in 1950; other online sources (Geni, Ancestry, MyHeritage, the NZ Government's BDM online) suggest his date of birth may have been more like 1860, or even 1865;
  2. He settled in the far north of the North Island, living at Rangiputa and Rangaunu, and was buried at Kaitaia in 1950. His story has also been recorded by at least one local historian in New Zealand and his name is commemorated by Scheigis Rock in Rangaunu harbour;
  3. Jurgis' first wife was Ani Mihaka, the second was Elizabeth Read;
  4. The first son, Henry Scheigis (1896-1965) served in both World Wars (WW1 - Maori Pioneer Battalion; WW2 - 28th Maori Battalion);
  5. A greatgreat neice, presumably from the USA, visited the Schengis family sites in the North Island in 2000-01 (see images above);
  6. There are suggestions, so far unverified, that Jurgis Šeižys was not the only early (pre-WW2) Lithuanian to settle in New Zealand. Other surnames to research include Vasiliūnas and Raudonis.  

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