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Tracing Your Family History

Top ten tips for Westmont residents wanting to trace their family history in Australia from The National Archives of Australia.

Prior to the early-to-mid-1800s – before birth, marriage, and death certificates were introduced, either in Australia or in the UK or in whichever country it might be that your ancestors came from – you generally need to turn your attention there to church records of baptism, marriage and burial. These can lead you back many generations, depending upon, of course, the survival rate for the area concerned.

  1. First of all, talk to your elderly relatives. Your parents, aunts, uncles, whoever it might be. Other family members who might have been doing some research as well. There’s always someone in most families that has undertaken some research into their family history. So, talk to your family. Find out what they all know. However small, however little the piece of information they might give you, it might be crucial later on down the line in solving a dead-end problem.
  2. 2.    Work from the known to the unknown.Genealogical research is often likened to following crumbs along a trail. You can’t jump ahead and know that you’re in the same place, that you’re on the right track for the right family. You’ve got to work on a step-by-step basis from one known fact, finding out an earlier fact, linking an earlier generation. You might be tracing a particular surname in the late 1890s and come across a reference to the same surname in the same place 80 years before and think, well, that’s going to be an earlier ancestor. And it may well be. And research might show that that is the case. And similarly, it might not be. And if you just assume that it’s right, you might end up spending all of your time and all of your money tracing someone else’s family history, which probably isn’t the point of the exercise.
  3. Record your progress. You’ll amass a great deal of information at every stage. And so, you need to know where you are and what you’ve discovered. It’s so confusing, especially when they’re all called ‘John’. Which particular ‘John’ are you talking about? Is this the ‘John’ from 1892? Or the ‘John’ from 1895? So you need to sort some sort of system out to record the information you find. This can then act as a handy reference for future research. The that I use site has an area where you can upload your family history information to share it with other people in the genealogical community. There are a variety of other sites that have a similar sort of thing. So it’s worth putting your research facts out there, because you never know who might get in contact with you, who might search the family trees and discover that you’ve got the same three times great-grandfather. They may have a lot more family history information that they can share with you. They may have some different photos or memorabilia that perhaps hasn’t come down your branch of the family.
  4. Record your searches. It’s important to know what you’ve looked at, what records you’ve looked at, especially where you haven’t found anything. It’s quite easy to come back to a particular family a couple of years down the line and thinking, ‘oh why didn’t I search for the birth of that person?’ And then you go away and do it. And it’s only when you got to the end of doing it again that you realise, ‘I actually think I did it, and I didn’t find anything, and I forgot to write it down’. And again, you’ve wasted a bit of time and effort and possibly money duplicating your research. So, it’s important to write down what researches you’ve undertaken and the results of them, whether they’re positive or negative.
  5. Get a map. One problem people find is that their ancestors move around from parish to town to another locality. And so, it’s worth studying a map, working out where all these places are. You’ll be able to find the roads and the rivers and the other transport links in the area that may give you a clue as to where they’ve gone. They might not have gone west because there’s a big huge mountain in the way. They would have gone to the north, or whatever. Similarly, you’ve got to make sure you’re researching the right place. There are lots of places in this world that have the same name. And just because you assume that the ‘Newtown’ that your ancestor came from is the ‘Newtown’ you knew when you were a child, or the most famous ‘Newtown’, doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t one of the other hundreds of different places called ‘Newtown’ that they actually did come from. So, it’s worth studying the locality and making sure you’re in the right place.
  6. Consider spelling variance. There is no such correct way to spell a name. And certainly, any research back to the 1800s, you’ll find that most names have some sort of variant recorded for them. People spelled their name in the way in which made most sense to them. Obviously, a lot of people weren’t able to read or write. And so, they’d say their name, and someone else would write it down for them. And depending upon that person’s origins and how they interpreted what the person said would be how they wrote the name down in the manner they thought best fit. So, there’s no such thing as a correct name. And if you’re just looking for records that belong to your spelling, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of information that may well be your ancestry. Just because it’s got a double ‘t’ in the middle, you’ve discarded it. And that may be the wrong thing to do. So, names like ‘Whitaker’ – there are a variety of ways to spell ‘Whitaker’, with ‘t’s, with ‘h’s, one ‘t’ in the middle, two ‘t’s.
  7. Don’t make any assumptions. You can’t rely on your ancestors to have acted in the way in which you would have expected them to. Most people marry between the ages of 20 and 30 and have children in the 15 years or so after that, but not everybody. It was legal for girls to marry as young as 12, or 14 for boys, prior to 1929. Very few people did. But it’s still possible. Similarly, not everyone had their first child after their marriage. Often these were before their marriage. And a lot of people if they’re searching for the marriage of parents, would only search for the period prior to the birth of their ancestor. Whereas in some instances, it may obtain six months after the birth of the child for the marriage to take place, often six years or 16 years, or possibly never at all. You can’t assume that your ancestors did everything by the book or the information they provided for birth, marriage and death certificates, for instance, is entirely accurate. It may have been accurate to the best of their knowledge, but still wrong. Or in some instances, they may have been downright misleading as well, depending on the circumstances. So, you’ve got to make sure you cover all eventualities in your searching.
  8. Try to work as effectively as possible. Discover what information is available online, and importantly, what information isn’t available online and that you need to look at in person at an archive or a record office. If you are using online material, do try and double-check it against the original material at some point in the future. If you can do a lot of research before you come to an archive, using their catalogues, using their help guides, using information leaflets, you can maximise your research time in the archive. So that you’re getting the best out of your day rather than spending the first hour or two hours trying to work out what it is you’re trying to find and how to do it. If you can do all that preparation in advance, which you can now with most archives and their websites, that will allow you that much more time to sit there are pour over the records.
  9. Share your findings. As I said, one of the benefits of researching your family tree is you’ll discover many members of your family that you either lost touch with, or had never heard of, or had never met or ever imagined they even existed. Second, third, and fourth cousins whose relatives have long lost contact often get back into contact through researching their family history and getting in touch through the wider genealogical community. So, it’s worthwhile sharing your findings if at all possible. You never know what you might get back from passing on a little piece of information to someone. They may have the family Bible that you’ve been aching to see for all these years and didn’t think existed. So do share as much of your information as possible.
  10. And one way to do that is to join a family history society. There are thousands of family history societies over the world. And they do a great deal of work indexing material, making it available to family historians. They’re all volunteers. And it’s a great community of people out there that you can be an important part of if you join the society. You can attend local meetings. Listen to lectures on various different sorts of records. They have fairs. And of course, swapping information and telling people what’s available where and how to help with the research. So, there’s a lot of information and education that you can gain from your local family history society. So, I’d recommend that you do that.

And I think that’s ten top tips, so probably just to summarise, enjoy yourself when you’re doing your family history research. There’s a world of information out there that will keep you going forever. You’ll never come to the end of it. There’s always something else to look for, something else to find. And do try and enjoy yourself while you’re doing it.


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