When we get to a certain age (sorry, but it's true), questioning where we come from, and understanding our family history becomes more important. As our parents, aunts and uncles leave us, we lose our connection to our past history. And it's at this point that many of us decide to find out more. But where do you start?
We won’t lie; researching your family history can be time-consuming and there will be some expenses involved. However, it will reward you with a glimpse into the past. In this article, we'll give you some tips on how to start and resources you can use to research your family tree.
What do you know about your family?
Your first task is to set out your family tree as you know it. Start with your immediate family, then add parents, siblings, grandparents and their children. Then talk to as many of the older generations as you can. Tease out stories, and approximate dates, find out where the families lived, when they married, the names of cousins; keep going until you hit a dead end.
Family papers or old photographs?
Depending on whether or not your parents are living or have passed away, you should be able to track down important documents like birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates and photos of older or deceased family members.
Bear in mind that photography wasn’t as common back in the early part of the last century and in the 1800s, only the very wealthy could afford to have photos taken. The other thing is, if your family is like most families, you won’t know who is in the older photos; why put names on the back when everyone knew who the person was?
How dates help you with your research
Once you have some key dates, you can work back from there. For example, death certificates will have quite a bit of detail including parents’ names and marriage dates. Marriage certificates (from 1911 onwards) have details, too, about parents; names, where the marriage took place and when.
When you have your grandparents; names, you can find information about their marriage, death (if they've died) and their parents.
How charts help you organise information
When you put the information you have already into a family tree chart, you'll see where there are gaps in your knowledge and the questions you need to ask.
The National Library of Australia has free downloadable charts or ones you can complete online. Other State Libraries have similar resources; check out the State Library of Victoria family history research resources.
Where did our ancestors come from?
Many of us researching our family tree have our origins in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Tracking back further using your grandparents; death certificates, you might find that their parents emigrated, came on 'assisted passage' (mainly for the Irish after the potato famine of 1845-1852) or arrived as convicts. That's right, most of us have ancestors who were boat people
You will likely find records relatively easily online if your ancestors were from England, Scotland or Wales. However, if you're seeking Irish records, you might have to take a trip to the parish from where your ancestors hailed.
In 1922 during the Irish civil war, a fire destroyed Ireland's Public Records Office (PRO) and most of its records. These records included Irish census returns and more than 1,000 Church of Ireland parish registers filled with baptism, marriage and burial records. Some records survived but the Census data from 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851 were burned
If you're researching ancestors who came from Europe, Asia, or North America, there are many resources available.
How did our ancestors arrive?
When you know approximate dates for when your grandparents or great-grandparents arrived in Australia, you can check the immigration and shipping records to find the ship on which they arrived (as all people arrived by ship).
Where did our ancestors live when they first arrived in Australia?
Finding where our ancestors lived can prove to be a challenge. If you can't find information from other sources like living relatives, one resource is the Sands Directory, also published as The Sands and Kenny directory, Sands and McDougall Directory and Sands, Kenny & Co
Available online through (usually) State Libraries, the directories covered a variety of information including street addresses and businesses, householders, farms and country towns, stock numbers and public watering places. The main function of the directory was as a post office directory.
However, when we mentioned a challenge? Addresses are listed first rather than the name of the householder, and the search function doesn’t work too well. In Sydney, the directory is available from the Mitchell Library and the City of Sydney has digitised it.
Getting help researching your family tree
Yes, it can be a challenge to know where to start and what to do. For a start, our ancestors may have used multiple different spellings of their names so online search can be tricky unless you have, say, the date of birth of the person for whom you're seeking information.
Happily, many local and state libraries have courses to help you. And most of us will have seen the ads for ancestry.com.au. Many local libraries and State Libraries run workshops on researching your family tree, too. You'll be in a room with like-minded people, all of whom will help you.
DIY family tree research
If you'd prefer to try it yourself first, below is a list of handy resources:
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