How to research your Family History

Go online to start your family history search.

The search for the story of your family is exhilarating, frustrating, time consuming and can be expensive; it’s wonderful!   Slowly your heritage is revealed, you meet fellow researchers, you have the joy of sharing what you have found and being given wonderful information that you dreamt of finding for yourself.  You find cousins four times removed and become instant friends.

Names and dates, even places, make a very unimpressive story.  You need to clothe your tree in leaves of every hue to make it memorable.  It is better if you place your ancestors within their historical landscape to give meaning to their lives by making them a part of the social history of their times.

But how to begin; your own details are the perfect place.  Jot down as much as you know, or think you know. There are going to be many surprises as you continue!

The Births, Deaths and Marriage records are a really good starting point. The records are available in various formats. The earliest form for ‘home use’ was microfiche, then came CD ROMS, now you can use the internet, even order and pay for certificates online.  It is a little cheaper to order a certificate if you have a registration number. 

The microfiches could be quite difficult to use if you were unlucky enough to want to look at entries that were recorded in hard to read script.  The CD ROMS are easy to use but they were expensive. If you have broadband then the Internet is the way to go.  Most libraries of any size have good family history records, including the Births Deaths and Marriage records and the microfiche readers and the computers to use them.

There is a great wealth of information available on the Internet. Go online to start your family history search. The National Archives has added new information to its website specifically for family historians. The website includes hints on how and where to begin your family history research, as well as more detailed information to really get you into the collection. There are case studies of both famous and everyday Australian families, highlighting some of the Archives’ most useful records and expert advice on how to look after your own precious family archives.

Let’s think about 20 ways to start to keep your information: 

  1.  Get yourself a set of blank cards.
  2.  Decide a pattern for recording the information you find. i.e. Surname in upper case, followed by all given names, date of birth (leave line blank if you can’t find that record).  If you use an estimated date use c. followed by the assumed date and so on.  Use a married woman’s maiden name as her surname.
  3.  Record what you know, or think you know.
  4.  Ask relatives for information.
  5.  Enquire if relatives have any photographs and request copies.
  6.  Be prepared to pay for copies of the documents or photographs you have requested!
  7.  Sadly most of us have some wonderful photographs of people whom we can’t identify.  Take copies of these photographs with you when you visit relatives; perhaps they can identify some of them. The Mechanical Eye in Australia traces the story of early photography in Australia and will provide a valuable research tool for family history.
  8.  Always record details of where you find information.  These references are invaluable.  They also provide the credibility that your family story requires.  
  9.  Start talking to fellow researchers about suitable computer programs to record your family records, but keep recording details on your cards.
  10.  By the time you decide on a computer program you will probably have quite a few cards filled in.  You will have worked out just what information you should be keeping and how to do it.  It will make it much easier to transfer your information into your computer. 
  11.  Births, Deaths and Marriage records are a wonderful source of information. Australian records start with the Pioneer records, but then different states began to keep records.  In New South Wales there are also the Federation Records and finally the Between the Wars CD ROMS.  Online records for marriages and deaths don’t go as far as the Between the Wars CD.
  12.  Births, Death and Marriage transcriptions can also be obtained through a Transcription Agent. You do not receive a certified copy from the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages but they contain all the information at a smaller cost.
  13.  Put your ancestors into the social history of their times.  Borrow Australian history books from your local library and specialist books like The Convict Ships.
  14.  The State Library of New South Wales service is designed to help you discover information about your ancestors and their histories. For example, you could find out when your great-great-great-grandparents were born, married and died, what they did and where they lived. If they came from overseas you might be able to find out when they came and the name of the ship in which they travelled.  Don’t forget to visit your local library and you may also find useful resources in the Mitchell Library.
  15.  The State Records Authority of New South Wales is for anyone wanting to explore the official archives of the State of New South Wales. Here you'll find catalogues, guides, indexes and other tools for searching the archives, online galleries and services, information about Government employees, events and activities, and much more.
  16.  If you have ex-service personnel in your family tree check the Australian War Memorial records for information about Australians at War.  Other sources of relevant information are the National Archives, the World War 2 Nominal Roll and the Commonwealth War Graves websites.
  17.  If you find the mention of an ancestor involved with something significant, research that event/activity. For instance seek a little bit of information about the Sydney Harbour Bridge and some statistics about unemployment during the Depression if you have an ancestor or relative who worked on the Bridge’s construction because it places your relative in time and history. 
  18.  The Land and Property Management Authority (LPMA) has a wealth of information.  Do you know that you can trace the history of your own home quite easily? The deed to your house has a number on it; it also has the number of the previous record for that land.  By tracing back through those previous record numbers you can go right back to the original land grant. [The Land and Property Management Authority (LPMA) was abolished under the NSW Government restructure announced in April 2011 and its former business divisions transferred to new departments. All divisions are continuing business as usual and the previous customer contact points are available.]
  19.  Get yourself some display books and keep every scrap of information you find. When you have time collate information into manageable chunks.  Eventually you will have to make time to link all of those stories together.  
  20.  Collect family stories.  No matter how farcical they seem there is usually an essence of truth in them and will provide valuable leads for future research.  Most of us have selective memories, and we pass those chosen memories on to others leading to the most fascinating stories.

Talk to older relatives now and take note of all they say.  Even a small detail may be the key to future research.  Most of us will say at some time “Oh, I wish I had talked to Gran about that.”

Could this person be an ancestor?

Charles St Julian, Chief Justice of the Kingdom of Fiji 1874