Legend has it that the second most popular subject on the internet — after pornography, of course — is family history.
Now, this seems to be one of those apocryphal claims that can’t be traced back to a reliable source, but the fact that people believe it’s true says a lot about how massively popular this hobby has become.
August is National Family History Month, so we thought we’d take a look at why more than 250,000 Australians are researching their family history, and how you can get involved.
Why research your family history?
“I guess it must be an identity issue, mustn’t it?” says Stephanie Ryan, who oversees the State Library of Queensland’s extensive family history resources. “What has influenced me? Why am I the way I am? People want to go back and have a look at the past and the people who created that past for them. Of course, you also have situations where the family’s split, and they want to know where that missing person is — that missing father, that missing mother, and so on.”
“I guess I’m interested to know how I came to be where I am,” says Sue Reid, Vice President of the Queensland Family History Society, “and what decisions my ancestors made that put me here at this point at this time today. I also want to know what part — however small — that it was my ancestors played in history.”
“I think you become more attached to the past and you see where you’ve come from,” says Marg Doherty, President of the Genealogical Society of Queensland. “For instance, my people came to Queensland and stayed in Queensland. I probably always knew I was a Queenslander, but now I understand that we’ve been here for 150 years or more, and I’ve learned more about the history of early European settlement in Queensland in places like the Darling Downs. Being a Brisbane girl, too, I’ve learned more about the social history of Brisbane… you understand why things are there, and you do become more attached to them.”
“With a number of baby boomers coming into the retirement phase of their life,” says Sue, “they have time to investigate family history and they want to be able to tell their children where their families came from and what they did. I think family stories can get lost very easily if you’re not careful.”
“That’s very much the case,” agrees Stephanie. “People want to be able to tell the kids, ‘This is where you belong, this is how you belong, this is who we are’. So it is a family thing, rather than just an individual thing.”
“You can sometimes determine a pattern and say, ‘Oh, I might need to keep an eye on this because people in my family have had bowel cancer or breast cancer’,” says Marg. “If people died early, you can find out if they died because of an illness, which might be hereditary, or if they died because of an accident, which is nothing for you to worry about. For instance, I just found out my four-times-great-grandfather died of asthma in Scotland in 1830. That’s obviously why I’ve got asthma, isn’t it? It’s come down the line!”
“There is, at times, a medical angle to it,” says Stephanie. “If you’ve got a history of heart disease, for instance, a doctor might ask you to indicate all the family members who have this disease. So that is one angle, but it’s not the most common angle.”
“The other thing is the jigsaw puzzle challenge,” says Stephanie. “People want to put these things together, and there’s a real sense of satisfaction that they worked it out. They might know the year someone came to Australia, but then they want to know the name of the ship and the exact date. I’ve seen people actually burst into tears over things like that. There’s a sense of somehow being in control from knowing more about them. It’s the detective thing.”
So, you’ve decided to have a crack at filling out your family tree. Where do you start?
“You’ll sit down and write what you know,” says Marg. “You’ll write down your name, your date of birth, who your parents were, when they were born, when they were married, when they died — if they have died — and work back from that. You work back from the known to the unknown.”
Since more recent records aren’t publicly available, you’ll have to be able to trace your family history back to certain dates by yourself before you can begin trawling through the archives.
“You have to be able to get to the limits of the birth, death and marriage [BDM] indexes,” Stephanie explains. “Death indexes go up to 1984 for Queensland, but of course there are cemetery records which are more recent. Marriages indexes extend no further than 1939, and births no later than 1919. Now, if you know various family members, you can start tracking them back through electoral rolls and through notices in the newspaper. A death notice, for instance, will have other family members listed.”
While sites like Ancestry and Find My Past are popular with family history aficonados, you can save yourself a substantial amount of money on subscription fees by visiting the State Library of Queensland, where you can access those databases for free. The State Library also has a number of other resources to help you research your family history, and trained staff who can help you navigate and make sense of those resources.
From there, you can pay to join groups like the Queensland Family History Society (membership costs $73 for one year) and the Genealogical Society of Queensland ($77 for one year) to access their library collections and subscription services, connect with like-minded family historians, take part in special interest groups and receive regular journal publications. By that point, you’ll be well on your way down the rabbit hole.
“Oh yes, it’s addictive,” laughs Marg. “But it’s something you can pick up and put down. When I was working, my career took over, so I only picked it up when I had a bit of spare time. So you can do a bit and then leave it for a while, or you can do it as a full time activity these days.”
Tips for researching your family history
Get the whole family involved
Genealogy isn’t just about working on your family tree — it’s about working on your family relationships. Researching your family tree is a great excuse to get in touch with your family members and encourage them to open up, because the more information they can give you about their lives, the easier (and more interesting) your job will be. Older relatives, in particular, might also have scrapbooks, letters, certificates, and other records that will assist with your search. And if someone else in your family has already attempted to research your history, pick their brain and add their information to yours.
Start with a family story…
Stories are always more interesting than plain facts, so why not channel your research through a story from your family’s history that interests you? Track down newspaper archives, migration records, military records, and — if need be — criminal records to shed new light on a family legend and add an element of intrigue to your new hobby.
… but take it with a grain of salt
Stories that have been passed down your family through the generations are going to be a bit like Chinese whispers, and definitely shouldn’t be treated as primary sources. Don’t go making additions to your family tree straight away because somebody tells you your third cousin twice removed was the PM — use these stories as jumping-off points, and treat them as theories until your research can prove or disprove them.
Don’t be afraid to go beyond Queensland
“This is a point that needs to be very strongly made,” says Sue. “The Queensland Family History Society equips people to research their families wherever they are, not just Queensland. A lot of people think that because Queensland is up front in our name, we’re just dealing with Queensland, and that’s not the case. We have records here from all over Australia and all over the world. The research skills that you need to research your family history are applicable anywhere.”
The State Library of Queensland and the Genealogical Society of Queensland also have access to records that will enable you to track your family’s history to other states and nations, although some countries keep better records than others.
“It’s probably easier for Britain than for anywhere else,” says Stephanie. “For Greeks and Italians, more of that is still kept within the family. If they came from a war-ridden country, that could be difficult because records could have been destroyed. But we certainly have to be able to make the links overseas, and that can be done through shipping, through births, deaths and marriages, and through those very big databases like Ancestry, Find My Past and Family Search.”
Record your successes and your strike-outs
It’s a given that you should record your new discoveries as you make them, but you should also take note when you don’t find anything. If you spend time on a record that doesn’t mention your ancestors, it’s easy to put it back and forget about it, only to find yourself trawling through the exact same record six months later because you didn’t think to cross it off your list the first time. Better to keep track of all the searches you’ve undertaken and records you’ve consulted to avoid doubling up.
Cast your net wide when researching your ancestors, and don’t assume that they followed the same social norms you would today — or that they fell in lockstep with the conventions of the day. Your great-grandparents may have married at a younger (or older) age than you’d expect, for example, so you don’t want your search parameters to be too narrow when you go through the archives.
Along those lines, don’t assume that a name will always be spelt the same way — this isn’t a Spelling Bee, and older records may feature different spellings of names than you’d expect.
Bad guys have all the fun
In real life, as in fiction, bad guys are just more fun. It will usually be easier to track the black sheep of your family than the upright citizens, because criminals will have left more of a paper trail. Newspaper articles about their exploits, court documents and prison records should make them a breeze to research, even if your family members would rather not talk about them.
We’ll never be Royals
Unless, that is, you can find what family historians call a ‘gateway ancestor’ — one who links your family to a known noble ancestry. Any mention of titles like ‘Esquire’ or ‘Gentleman’ should be seized and investigated, just in case they open the door to your heretofore unknown royal pedigree. Who knows? That kind of luxe just might be for you after all.
Some people just don’t care
If you commit to researching your family history, you’ll be discovering distant relations you never knew existed in no time — and you might get the urge to contact some of them. While some people will be genuinely excited to hear from you, it’s probably a good idea to brace yourself for rejection just in case.
“Generally, people are interested,” says Sue. “Sometimes they can be a bit suspicious of how you found them and sometimes they’re not interested. Sometimes they just ignore you. But certainly, I’ve established a lot of relationships, both in Australia and overseas, through family history research. You definitely get a wider knowledge of your extended family.”
“It depends how you go about it,” Marg adds. “If you find those people on another family history website, they might be looking for you as well, and you’ll at least have a mutual interest. Otherwise… there are informal rules you should follow. You should write to them and provide a bit of background, and be very clear about why you’re contacting them, so they’re not affronted.
“You might not want to tell them the bad things you’ve found out about the family, although what’s ‘bad’ is relative — a convict in the ancestry is seen as a badge of honour in Australia these days. We no longer hide our convict past, so that wouldn’t matter to most people these days. But otherwise, you just try to be polite. If they’re interested, they’re interested. Try and give them some information and get some back from them. If they’re not interested, you leave them alone and respect that they’re not interested.”
Back that thing up
You might end up spending a lot of time on this, so you don’t want to leave your findings to the whims of fate (or your temperamental PC). Back everything up — a cloud storage provider is probably your safest bet, but if you insist on something physical, go with an external hard drive, USB stick or DVD/Blu-Ray discs. Or don’t worry about it — I mean, we’re only talking about your family’s recorded history and legacy here, right? No pressure.
Get involved in National Family History Month
A number of events are still to be held in Queensland throughout August to celebrate National Family History Month, including:
- The Queensland Family History Society (58 Bellevue Avenue, Gaythorne) will host an Open Day on Saturday 23 August.
- The Logan River and District Family History Society (Kingston Butter Factory, 1-21 Milky Way, Kingston) will host an Open Day on Saturday 16 August.
- The Caloundra Family History Research Inc (CFHRI Gate 2, Corbould Park Racecourse, 170 Pierce Ave, Little Mountain) will host an Open Day on Saturday 16 August.
- The Genealogy Sunshine Coast Resource Centre (Petrie Park Road, Nambour) will host an Open Day on Saturday 16 August.
- Demolishing brick walls: Tips and tricks, a seminar with genealogy expert Shauna Hicks, at Kallangur Library on Tuesday 12 August, Burpengary Library on Monday 25 August, Strathpine Library on Tuesday 26 August and Redcliffe Library on Wednesday 27 August.
- Writing your family history, a session with Queensland Family History Society expert Sue Reid, at Albany Creek Library on Monday 25 August and Arana Hills Library on Wednesday 27 August.
- Ancestry Antics, an introduction to family history research, at Upper Coomera Library on Thursday 14 August, Helensvale Library on Wednesday 20 August and Robina Branch Library on Wednesday 27 August.