Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Find my family

One day, I asked my dad what his grandfather's name was.  Dad had no idea and I kind of felt heartbroken about that.  So I said, "I'm going to see if I can find out."  It didn't take long to find my great-grandfather's name and in the process I was totally hooked on family history.

If you think family history is just a list of names and dates, or that the aim of the game is to find out if you're somehow connected with royalty, you've missed your mark.  There's so much more to find than just names.  Even people from a long time ago have often left traces that open up a world of history within your own family.

I found an ancestor on my mother's side who owned a pub and was murdered by the convict labourer he employed.  Through following up on coroner's reports, I read of the sad death of one of my husband's great-great grandmothers who died in childbirth after a terribly long and agonizing labour in the diggings of the Victorian goldfields.  Several family members spent long periods in mental institutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Another ancestor on my husband's side is responsible for some of the beautiful stone work still visible today in the older buildings around Sydney.

And it's not all that distant.  As you sift through it all, you realize that those events have influenced your own in many ways.

So if I've whetted your appetite and you've never tried researching family history, here's some links and ideas to get started...

1.  Get a notebook.  Put everything you find in there.  Don't lose it.

2. The first thing you want to do is collect all the dates you can.  Be bold, grab the phone and ring up your oldest relative. Tell them you're looking into the family tree and they'll usually be more than willing to spill the beans.  Make sure you have as much of the following as you can get:  grandparents names (the fuller the better - ask about maiden names too), birth dates (even if they can't tell you the year of someone's birth, note down the month or day if they remember it), number of marriages, number of children they might have had and any death dates.  If anyone can remember further back to great-grandparents, you're doing well.

Write everything down.  You might not think it's important now but you might need to go back to it.  When you search family records, a number of people with the same name as your family member can come up.  To work out which person actually belongs to your family, something like "they were born in March, the same as my brother" can become crucial.

2. Now you can start searching records.  Check your local library's website and find out what resources they have.  Our library has a room dedicated to family research and has a large collection of records on CD ROM from all around Australia as well as some overseas records.  Members of our library can even use the library's Ancestry.com account for free.  They had some unusual resources that I didn't know even existed.  For example, to celebrate the 1988 bicentenary, the good people of WA compiled a huge biographical index of all their early WA ancestors.  My mother's family appeared several times and it included short histories and memories from other branches of the family tree that our side had never heard about.  Invaluable!

3.   Here's a set of links from the National Library of Australia to get you started.You can begin your searches using the Births, Deaths and Marriage records of each Australian state.  Some states, like mean old Victoria, will charge you to view their records.  That's why it's really worth asking your local library as they have probably already purchased the whole lot.  But there are other records in that list that are free to search.

4. You can pay the big bucks, and join something like Ancestry.com.  They have a free trial so it might be worth beginning there and seeing if you want to go on.

5. Once you have names and vague locations for your ancestors, you can research side-ways into their lives.  Run your list of names through the coroner's records for example.  Or through the Australian War Memorial's indexes.  Trove, which is part of the National Library of Australia, will let you search online through all of it's books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more.  Putting family names through Trove, may bring up interesting newspaper articles (turns out one of my husband's family was arrested for assault after a fiery union rally and I found another fascinating article about a plane crash on my grandfather's farm that I knew nothing about) and photographs (you might be able to find photographs of houses or work places connected with your family).

6.  If you have family members living in and around a certain town or region, make sure you search library catalogues for books about that area.  Check whether that town has a local historical society online. Often local historical societies have received funding to write the history of a local area and your ancestors may well be featured.

A final thought: when I started researching to find my great-grandfather's name, I had no bigger goals than that, but I was surprised to find how much I came to appreciate having "roots" and a history to who I am.  In trying to get all the information I needed, I had to have several long chats with elderly relatives on my husband's side of the family.  For a newcomer to the family, that became a way in to a much deeper relationship with my husband's grandparents.  By the time I was married, my husband's paternal grandmother was quite unwell.  When I went to ask her about her family's history, she was already losing her short-term memory.  She had no idea who I was even after I was introduced to her.  But we had brought along her childhood family photo albums.  And although I think she would have struggle to tell me what day it was, she knew every detail of those photos.  I even asked her the name of one of the dogs in picture of the family farm and she knew instantly.  So that afternoon, I had a lovely chance to glimpse her real self, unclouded by age and muddled thoughts, as we chatted about things from long ago which seemed as fresh to her as yesterday.  I am so thankful to have had that special privilege.

And see that lady up on the verandah in the picture?  That's Abigail.  She's on my side of the family.  That's the hotel they owned.  Not the one with the convict - that's a different one.  Come to think of it, there were an awful lot of publicans in the family line.

Have you ever looked into the family tree?  Any convicts you are prepared to own up to?


Fiona said...

No convicts. But a lot of Frenchmen. The woman on my fathers side of the family seemed to marry someone from France every second generation or so. My cousin married a frenchman and lives there. My great grandmother also married a frenchman, and my great great great grandmother married a frenchman who emigrated to Australia. In a twist of fate(chance or randomness); my cousin now lives where he (my greatX3 grandfather) was born in France and I live close to the town where he died!

Caroline said...

I became interested in family history just after we opened our shop in Williamstown, when my aunt gave me some information about my great-great-grandfather who was born there, whose father was a ship's captain. Up until that time I had thought that all my family came from NSW, like I did, but being able to walk the streets, and see the buildings that my forebears did (and the building where one of them saw the doctor on the day he died), made me much more interested in it than I think I would have been otherwise.

I found a lot of sad stories too, some of which explained mysteries in our oral family history, such as the couple who both lived for about 40 years as widowed people, one in NSW and one in Victoria. One of their sons died in the first world war, and I suspect that my great-grandmother, his sister, never knew.

And I have found convict ancestors, one of whom (a woman) was convicted of highway robbery, but when you read the reports, there was nothing in the slightest daring or glamorous about it, it just seemed a bit sordid and desperate really.

I hope you labelled those photos (if they weren't already) - we've got quite a few that we've got no idea who they are.

Deb said...

There's something about knowing you are in the place they have been or holding something you know they used, isn't there? Those tangible connections to the past. History is interesting for me full stop. But when it's my own family, it's fascinating.

Did you do most of your research through the local library or other sources?

Deb said...

Oui, oui!

Deb said...

That was, of course, the full extent of my French. Oh, that reminds me of the Year 8 French extra I was given a while back! Funny, they've never asked me to take a French extra again.

Caroline said...

I started out at the library, and one of the volunteers at the Williamstown Museum was really helpful too. Also, sometimes I got talking to customers at our shop, who gave me ideas about where to look. One of them came back an hour or so later with a picture of the shipyard where my great(x3)grandfather was having a ship built when he died. (We had great customers!)

But it's been something that I've done in fits and starts, as I've had the time. It's certainly not a finished project. These days, there's such a lot online. I've particularly enjoyed the newspapers on Trove, now that they've got more local papers available. For example, I was able to look up my husband's great-grandparents in the North Melbourne local papers, and now have a reasonable picture of the sort of social things that they did, and even where they might have met!

And one of my sons and I had great success at the cemetery one day. Just when we were about to give up, we spotted the grave we'd gone to look for, and it had a large and informative inscription. We then found a nearby one of other relatives about whom we'd read a somewhat unusual story in the newspapers, the headstone of which again gave us quite a bit of extra information.

Deb said...

I love old cemeteries. Good family history info but just fascinating too - looking at the dates and inscriptions that give glimpses of lives and loves. I've seen some fantastic inscriptions too that I would be love to have on my tombstone.

Petrina said...

Very cool. There's a 'family association' on my Dad's side, who can trace back to William the Conqueror & beyond, which I find pretty fascinating. No claim to the throne here though - my ancestor was an illegitimate son of King John :p

Deb said...

Wow! That's a long way back. The English were great for keeping records. What about in more recent times? Have you looked at much of your Australian family history?