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This essay is a result of my experience discovering my own family history. It is therefore Australasian based. The sources mentioned are suitable for beginner to intermediate level family historians, and are offered as part of a course on the subject at Mosman Community College.
Caution: don’t build a false family tree. Make sure that whoever you research is a real ancestor. There are many instances of several unrelated people of the same name living in the same place at the same time (do a search on your own name and see how many of you there are). Make sure you add people to your tree only if there are two or three confirmations of data (eg, same name, and same spouse, and same occupation). It saves time in the end.
A. FAMILY STORIES AND PHOTOS
You usually have a valuable resource to draw on when you start research, before you look at internet resources: your memories, and the memories of your parents and other relatives. Although not always reliable (discreditable events were hidden, inaccurate or false stories were sometimes repeated) what your relatives know of other family members is your most valuable resource. A systematic attempt to note down what relatives know is important, and time-limited. Use a form, with set questions you want the answers to, one for each ancestor, and avoid a general ramble on ‘the old days’. Try and get some general information, such as what the fashions were, who were popular film stars and singers, what was thought of political events, what the entertainments were, as well as descriptions of each ancestor (colour of hair and eyes, build, clothing style, hobbies etc) and their life events. Ask for stories and scandals about the subject person. If possible record the responses to preserve voices, and photograph or film you and the subject of the interview talking. Label with date, time, place and people involved. Collect letters and photos, and make sure you label and annotate this material too, giving its source. You don’t have to do it all yourself, involve other people, but make sure they will follow the procedure you formulate. The procedure has to be limited to near relatives (siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and their siblings: and yourself). This will give you an idea what to look for in tracing earlier generations. See yourself as writing a biography, not just compiling a family tree. Remember, much of the information you seek might not be thought ‘important’ by the relative you interview, so you may have to draw them out.
B. BMD: BIRTH, MARRIAGE AND DEATH DATES
Most family trees are build around BMD dates, starting with the tree owner’s own birth certificate. This is so because these documents provide information on the previous generation that help identify them as ancestors. Your birth certificate for example (which many people will already have as an important ID proof) gives the age, names, year and place of birth and occupation of your parents and the date and place of their marriage. Transcripts can then be ordered of the marriage entry, which gives details of your parents’ births, and a transcript of their birth registration in turn ordered. And so on. This becomes quite expensive (as you have hundreds of ancestors in the records). A transcription service is much cheaper than a certificate from the RGO, and much quicker as well.
1. Trove: Australian newspaper archive
Articles and notices 1788-1952. Placed first, as newspaper entries can give more information even than BMD transcripts, of personal matters such as family reactions to a death, biographies of deceased, names of relatives in extended families, place of burial, business transactions, emigration details, bankruptcies etc. Facsimiles can be downloaded, or text copies of entries copied to your files, free of charge. Always include publication details so the entry can be traced.
2. Papers Past
A similar service giving access to historical New Zealand newspapers.
3. NSW RGO
Historical BMD indexes for NSW. One of the best search engines on the web, as you can search under any field. Eg, under family name and father and mother’s personal name to find all births of a marriage and all deaths; under groom’s name and bride’s personal name to find her family name, under personal name to find a family name when you are unsure of its spelling. Searches can be restricted by date or region. Information is not available after about 1960, 1910 for births; though the Ryerson Index (mentioned below) gives death dates to quite recent times. For details such as dates and other personal items you need to buy the certificates. These are expensive and take a long time to arrive. An authorised transcription service is a preferable alternative.
4. Joy Murrin Transcription Service
Provides an authorised copy or transcript (not a certificate) for NSW historical BMD records, suitable for family history research. You need to provide the index reference from the NSW RGO site. Pay online, they post the transcript. Current cost $18 (RGO charges $30), time about 14 days (RGO can take up to 6 weeks). Also provides an ordering service for British certificates, one payment covers all transcripts/certificates.
5. Queensland RGO
Queensland BMD historical records index.
6. Victorian RGO
BMD historical index for Victoria. Pay a small fee to search the index.
7. Western Australian RGO
BMD historical index for Western Australia.
8. New Zealand RGO historical index
NZ BMD historical records index.
9. British RGO
The index and ordering service for certificates from England and Wales. Pay online, they post certificate within 10 days.
10. Family Search
A site maintained by the Church of Later Day Saints (Mormons) which contains millions of BMD transcripts as well as user contributed, undocumented research (much of this last being US based). The site also contains information on how to carry out research, and provides downloadable forms (tree diagrams, data sheets etc) as well as free software (limited, but you can upgrade to a less restricted version). Gedcom files and scans are available for download.
11. Irish Family History Foundation
Transcripts of surviving BMD data are available at this site. You must register, and searching is free, but the transcripts cost 5 euros each. The search form is limited and it is easy to request an irrelevant record.
12. Dublin Heritage
A sponsored site which gives church BMD records for free, mainly for Dublin, Kerry and Carlow, though other counties are promised.
13. Free BMD
A transcript of England and Wales BMD indices which enable you to order certificates. Includes links on the site to a similar transcript service of parish records and census data. Incomplete, but very useful.
14. Non C of E BMD records
At one time religious dissenters in Britain were a political threat, and were forced to ‘conform’ to the rites of the national church before participating in any ceremony. Many dissenters chose to attend their own church, and other registry offices were opened to record their births, deaths and marriages. This pay site gives transcripts of surviving records, and is useful if you have dissenting ancestors.
C. PLACES AND OCCUPATIONS
Where your ancestors lived, what they did for a living, who lived with them, where they were born, all this is contained in published census documents, and helps bring them to life. Also of interest are wills, divorce papers, inquest reports, electoral rolls which give occupations and addresses and names of others in the household.
1. Australian National Archives
A surprising amount of information available from date of Federation (1900). Can include naturalisation papers, war service records, historical photographs, assisted immigration. Records are in facsimile. Pay to make them available online (usually available within 24 hours) then download. Once scanned the records stay online, so if someone has researched before you the download is free.
2. NSW State Archives
Records for Australia 1788-1900. Indexes cover immigration, convict records, court records, deceased estates, divorce, land purchases etc. Much information can be derived from the indexes alone, but a copy service is available, pay online and delivery by post. A project to scan assisted immigration records has been completed and these records are now available free to view and download. Shipping records give name of ship, date of arrival, name and ages of immigrants, literacy, religion and place of origin (this could mean place of birth, place of residence or place of embarkation, as the phrase is ambiguous). Bounty certificates in addition give parents’ names and occupation. Tipperary and Galway emigrants’ records are available free of charge (see below under Irish Emigration).
3. Queensland State Archives
Useful information including probate records, sometimes including death certificates. Pay online, records posted within 10 days.
4. New Zealand Archives
Includes immigration and war service records. Pay online, they email you a pdf scan, usually within 24 hours. They will also do simple research for a fee.
Ancestry.com is one of the largest genealogy sites on the web. They have indexes to the British censuses, and facsimiles are downloadable. Lots of other records are available, shipping and immigration, electoral rolls and family trees. An expensive site to join as they provide an automatically renewing subscription for you, but you can choose to join for a monthly fee: if you then cancel, you pay only one month’s fee ($40) and can work over that month to see what you can find.
6. Irish Census
Not much survives of Irish records, but the 1901 and 1911 census returns are available free of charge at this site.
D. IRISH EMIGRATION
Ireland’s biggest export is people. The Hunger of 1850 and before, discontent with English oppression, disease and political punishment have sent millions of Irish all over the world, and there is likely to be at least some Irish ancestry in many Australian family histories. The bad news is that many records in Ireland have been destroyed; but the good news is that as exiles and convicts and assisted immigrants, records exist in many other countries whereby the Irish can be traced as they settled in new lands around the world.
1. Irish assisted emigration from Galway
Transcripts of bounty certificates. A useful source of information about emigrants’ parents and peers. A note about who they know in the colony can reveal a sibling’s Australian marriage to another settler.
2. Tipperary Emigrants
A similar listing to the Galway one. Note that checking the parents’ names can reveal married daughters and their spouses also on board.
3. Irish convicts
DB of convicts and recorded personal data. Often gives trial details and the trifling crime for which a harsh sentence was imposed.
The big sleep. Pouring over death entries or wandering through cemeteries may not sound a cheerful or satisfying occupation, but it somehow is. You can gain an insight into changing attitudes to death, as well as a realisation how soon we are forgotten (something your research will counter).
1. Australian cemeteries index
Listing and links to transcripts and headstone photos. Headstones can be valuable. They often give clues to relationships (a spouse’s parents buried in the same plot) or provide birthdates and place of origin. Some are very beautiful. Search for sets on flickr.
2. Australian cemeteries
A hyperlinked listing which gives contact details and whether or not online records are available.
3. St Patricks old Catholic cemetery Parramatta
One of Australia’a oldest Catholic cemeteries.
Our largest cemetery and a spectacular place to visit if you’re interested in history. The website is a bit wobbly. Once you register you can enter a search term and find relevant entries, but the data so far is minimal, year of death and location of plot.
5. Gore Hill cemetery
You can download pdfs of groups of names, and this sometimes helps identify family members buried in the same plot. The cemetery itself is well worth a visit and a look around.
Large NSW cemetery.
7. The Ryerson Index
Australian newspaper index of death notices. Date and place of death.
8. List of NZ cemeteries
Links to most NZ cemeteries. Most but not all provide online data.
9. NZ Memory Tree
Index of death notices and obits for New Zealand. Some data, full transcripts cost a small fee.
10. Auckland War Memorial
DB of NZ soldiers.
Many genealogists publish the fruits of their research, but they rarely give any documentation with it. Online data of this type should therefore be used with caution as it may be incorrect. Researchers could have committed error #1 in genealogy (assuming someone of the same name is the same person). On the other hand researchers are usually delighted to be contacted, collaboration can be very helpful.
1. Google etc
A search engine is the best way to start, Google, Yahoo, Ask, or whichever engine you normally use. Use a restricted search (“John Smith” or John+Smith) to reduce the millions of results and avoid unhelpful results (eg instances of “John” not related to “Smith”). Even so, a search engine is interested in returning you as many results as possible to justify their advertising charges, so you may have to add modifier terms to your search, eg, date or place (ie hard to avoid “Elizabeth Johnson and Mary Smith”). Results will vary, from photos, archive material, Google book pages, others’ research or your own findings to absolutely nothing. Persistence will yield results though.
Many cemetery sets are available. You may find an ancestor’s headstone.
A French based site of millions of published family trees and digital photos and records. Sign up is free but access is restricted till you pay a fee.
A DB with millions of family trees. A search form will give a summary of results. Individual entries can be person based, and may include a gedcom file. The researcher’s email address is published for enquiries.
Mundia is the family tree component of Ancestry.com, where you can currently see, free of charge, the trees of people who have stored their researches there. The site is in beta and the interface is clunky but there are thousands of trees stored here. With the usual proviso that undocumented work has always to be checked before assuming it is correct, here is a way to tap in for free to some of the resources of Ancestry.com.
Just as you search others’ published results, consider publishing the result of your own researches on the internet. Often this will lead to enquiries from those researching the same people. You may make contact with hitherto unknown family members. Others may want to add data or documents and photos to your tree.
1. Tribal Pages
A community of millions of published family trees, this site provides the best online presentation of the tree format, with superior searching ability and navigation, and a photograph slideshow facility, as well as an address book, chart printing, and preservation of your records on DVD (for a fee). Simply upload your current gedcom file. It is a free site, but a small fee ($20 pa) frees your site from advertising.
The aim of family history research is ultimately to rescue individuals who were your ancestors from obscurity, not to compile an enormous database of BMD dates. You want to write stories that bring people to life in their own time and place. One way to publish this material is on a blogging site. Social networking may put you in touch with others sharing this interest, but sites like Facebook are too restricted, and a full blog can be the answer. The best one is probably still WordPress. Completely free, here you can publish photos and stories that show the result of your researches. Many people are interested in reading this kind of material. Often you will gain information to complete a gap in your knowledge from these casual readers who in many cases are doing their own researches on family members. Enquiries may uncover errors, on your part or that of another researcher, which is beneficial.
Sooner or later it is advisable to put your data into a genealogical database. On the Windows platform the favourite is Family Tree Maker, on the Macintosh platform it is iFamily. (In my opinion iFamily is one of the best software packages I have ever used, for any purposes). Some reviews are located here:
Mac software: http://genealogy-software-review.toptenreviews.com/mac-genealogy-software/
Windows software: http://genealogy-software- review.toptenreviews.com/
Much information from government departments is available in print form, so a scanner is a useful addition. Documents, photographs and other digital data can be modified, enhanced, copied and emailed to family members or to a collaborative website. Data from other researchers is often available as a gedcom file (a format devised by the LDS which has become a standard) and software can import and export data as gedcom. A genealogy program can usually hold data, scans of documents, display photos, play recordings or movies, and make clear relationships. Many have sophisticated chart printing features for those who prefer this. Some have outstanding html output which makes your data web ready. And digital data is easier to back up. After doing all the work, the last thing you want is to lose it. Like any work you do on a computer, backup to a safe place on a regular basis.
You will create a large database in time, interact with other researchers, meet hitherto unknown family members, accumulate and preserve valuable documents, and bore those not interested with your discoveries and frustrations. The chances are nobody else in the family will be interested. Yet. But one day they are going to be very glad you worked so hard, because one day the information you have gathered will be lost forever, surviving only in your files. In the meantime, half Sherlock Holmes, half archaeologist, you will have been fascinated to discover facts you never dreamed of, often ones you were not even looking for.
©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.