by Greg Barron
Richer than any fictional story, family history is steeped in the cycles of birth, life, work and death. It’s as much a journey as a process. You’ll learn of the major events that caused the movement of vast numbers of people to British colonies: the Irish famines, the Industrial Revolution, pogroms and battles. You’ll come to understand the formative stages of the Australian character – the periods of pastoral expansion, the frontier conflict, gold rushes, droughts, floods, world wars and health disasters like the influenza epidemic.
Having researched dozens of family trees through the course of my writing and research I can categorically state that no family has uninteresting forebears. Scratch the surface and you will find madness, illegitimacy, criminal behaviour, sexual liaisons and matches that were most definitely not made in heaven. Prepare yourself for some shocks, plan to spend a lot of time and some money, and expect frustration and pleasure in equal parts.
A decade or two back the best way to start a family tree was to obtain a large sheet of paper, pencils and a ruler, then start interviewing elderly relatives. Digging up birth certificates and wedding albums might have followed, then a long process of drawing up a family tree. These days you’ll save a lot of time by using one of the big family tree websites such as Ancestry or My Heritage, though I would still suggest that you glean as much information from family members before you get started.
Ancestry has a free version in which you can sketch out your tree, though when you try to search for records you’ll go to a page asking for a subscription fee. My advice, if you can afford the $179.99 annual fee for a UK Heritage subscription on Ancestry, is that it’s well worth it. The full world subscriptions are more expensive.
Most people, however, can do all the research they need in twelve months, then ditch the subscription. If you’re on a budget, however, the app version works quite well on an iPad, and you can choose to only pay for the records you really want.
The first step is to add yourself to the tree, then your spouse, parents and children, including birth places and middle names. Then hit the search button, and the website “engine” will start looking for records. Unless you have a very common name, you’ll soon be able to populate your tree with your forebears.
Warning: This is a very addictive activity.
If you don’t want to, or can’t pay, there is a free website based in the USA that will get you at least part of the way there. FamilySearch.org is a USA site run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s totally free, though it does not have as comprehensive records as Ancestry.
Another free alternative is WikiTree.com, though once again, it is aimed more towards the USA and UK than Australia. This site takes a biographical approach, and is very handy for getting “hits” on particular names. It’s not so good for mapping out an entire tree.
Online searches can be frustrating. You will often hit road blocks, and it might seem that there is no way forward. Success, however, might be just one snippet of information away. You might spend hours fruitlessly searching for your great-grandfather’s birth place, but a mention of a possible region from a relative, added to his profile, suddenly leads to a torrent of results.
Birth, Death, Marriage and Travel Records
Each state has their own system. Most allow you to search for name and date fields, and multiple events at the same time, ie births, marriages, deaths and even travel. Most allow you to purchase PDF copies of these records online, or paper copies by post.
I’ve found Queensland and Victoria to have the most user-friendly interfaces. PDF records are available instantly, and most seem to contain quality images.
Once you receive an original record, be prepared to spend some time trying to decipher the handwriting. Archival clerks were often in a hurry, and letters were formed somewhat differently to today.
Trove is an online database operated by the National Library, and is a treasure house for researchers, writers and family history enthusiasts.
One evening my father was telling me how he could vaguely remember that two of his small cousins were killed in a house fire in Parramatta in the 1950s, but he couldn’t remember much about it. A minute later, after a quick search using my iPad, I was reading him a newspaper article about the fire, including eyewitness reports.
When you first go to https://trove.nla.gov.au/ you’ll find that it is divided into the following sections:
Digitised newspapers and more, Government Gazettes, Journals, Articles and data sets, Books, Pictures, photos, objects, Music, sound and video, Maps, Diaries, letters, archives, Archived websites, (1996 – now), People and organisations and Lists. I generally start with Digitised newspapers and more.
The best tool to use is the advanced search feature. Choose the time period you’re after, then the newspapers the articles are most likely to appear in.
I was once researching a family living in St Kilda, Melbourne in the 1860s. Through diligent searching I found the following minor, but illuminating events: a fire destroyed their outhouse, the eldest boy was very good at cricket, and they had an argument with a neighbour about a wandering goat. Trove, therefore, is a great way of putting “meat on the bones” of your family history research, and I highly recommend giving it a try.
All Australian state libraries now have a portion of their collections available online, and these are invaluable starting points for your research. Digital image collections, for example can be a mine of information, particularly if your relative was a public figure.
Yet, if you are located near a capital city, I suggest that one of the first things you should do is join the relevant state library. Not everything is online, and if you are looking for mission records, station records, church records, institutional records, employee records, old books and the like, you can’t go past your state library.
Membership can also have substantial benefits for the family history researcher. If you join the State Library of South Australia, for example, you may submit up to four requests for research assistance each year, get home access to a number of full-text family history resources and have archival sources, including images, delivered to the reading room for you to study.
The National Archives offer a dedicated Family History section of their website. Just go to naa.gov.au and click on Researching Your Family.
The National Archives hold records on people who might have: migrated to Australia, become an Australian citizen, applied for a relative to visit from overseas, served in the army, air force or navy, enrolled to vote, registered a patent or trademark, or worked for the government. It’s usually the best place to obtain military records.
To search this database you’ll need a name and dates, indicating when the person you are searching for was active.
Some of the best records are not online at all. The best way to access these records is often through local historical organisations, who will search records for you, usually in return for a small donation.
Local history books, often published by local councils or historical organisations, contain a lot of information you will never find online. I have dozens of these books, and I actively look for them at second hand book sales. Not only are they great reading, but I never know when I’m going to be interested in a certain town or region.
These have a wealth of information, and are often overlooked.
There are several online resources, such as australiancemeteries.com.au but many cemeteries have their own website. In most cases you can search for names, and obtain a plot number for you to visit. Photographs of headstones are a bonus in cases where you are unable to travel to the cemetery in person.
If you have Aboriginal heritage, your searches might be harder. Records of births and deaths were often not kept, even well into the Twentieth Century. Several state libraries provide fact sheets that might help in your search.
Very common names like Smith and Jones make searching very difficult as so many irrelevant results are obtained. My advice in this case is to arm yourself with as much factual information as possible. Birth dates and middle names should be a minimum before any meaningful results from online searches are obtained.
The latest development in family history research is a DNA testing service, the best known of which is run by ancestry.com. They use autosomal testing technology to discern your genetic ethnicity and, through their database, help find new family connections. They claim to map ethnicity back through multiple generations. Many people learn which region of which continent their ancestors are from.
The most powerful aspect of AncestryDNA is that it can help identify relationships with unknown relatives through a list of DNA matches.
Putting it all together
One of my aunts spent years researching our family history, then presenting the information in a booklet. She had dozens of sets photocopied, bound them herself using plastic combs and distributed copies around the family. This is a resource that will be invaluable for future generations, and is well worth doing if you are so inclined.
Other families set up private Facebook groups, or simply share the tree on ancestry.com between family members. Even if they don’t have a paid subscription they’ll still be able to see the tree.
Whichever way you choose to share your hard work, it will be appreciated by others. The most important benefit, however, will be to you. Researching family history is a labour of love, and there’s always a way to delve a little deeper …
Greg Barron is an Australian author, published by HarperCollins, and his own small press, Stories of Oz Publishing. Find out more at storiesofoz.com