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How Do I Start Tracing My Family? - A Brief Introduction

Shauna Hicks

There are many ways and means to tracing your family history both in Australia and New Zealand as well as overseas in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. Before you start, there are some standard practices to be aware of that will make your search easier and more organised.

Where Do I Begin?

Always start with yourself and work backwards through time. Don’t assume you are automatically related to someone with the same surname.

Obtain your parent’s marriage, birth and death (if relevant) certificates to establish basic information such as dates and places of birth, death and marriage. Don’t assume that everything on a certificate is true as the information is only as good as the informant.

Marriage certificates are usually the most accurate as the participants are the informants; however, beware – they may have wanted to hide something. One of my ancestors was illegitimate and he listed his grandparents as his parents which confused my research for some time until I finally sorted out the conflicting pieces of information.

Registrars of Births Deaths and Marriages in Australia and New Zealand:

  • useful website for all States and Territories is Cora Num’s Websites For Genealogists: An Australian Gateway For Tracing Your Family History – see the Birth, Death and Marriage Records in Australia section - it lists addresses, current costs, published indexes and links to any online indexes.
  • New Zealand – under the responsibility of the Department of Internal Affairs and relevant information can be found on the Family History Records web page
  • New Zealand also has online indexes

You should have at least two separate pieces of evidence before accepting a piece of information.

Don’t forget to talk to other family members, especially the older generation as they may be able to provide valuable information and memories that can be recorded for the family history.

The spelling of given names, surnames, places and so on can vary - especially the further back you go. There are many contributing factors:

  • human errors in recording, indexing, transcribing
  • not everyone could read and write and this could lead to variations in spelling
  • people’s accents led to phonetic spellings
  • foreign names could be anglicised on arrival in Australia to make it easier.

So as you can see, be very flexible with spelling and the format of names.

This means that you need to check for all spelling variants when looking up indexes, searching databases, contacting others and so on. My own Johnston family was often recorded as Johnson or Johnstone as well as Johnston. This can make it tedious to search but if you don’t, then you may miss a vital piece of information. For example, my g g grandfather Adam Johnston’s death was registered under the name of Johnson because he died in a hospital and the informant was the matron. Had I not also searched Johnson entries, I would never have found his death.

As you progress backwards with your certificates, each new piece of information is not proven until you have confirmed it with another separate record source. You can indicate this information on your charts but note that it is not proven or confirmed yet. Some family history software programs actually allow you to do this.

As you obtain each new document, make sure that you read it carefully and abstract all the clues and information. For example, who were the witnesses to the marriage, were they relatives and so on. These names or pieces of information won’t always make any sense or may not seem relevant at the time. Therefore, it is a good idea to revisit your research on a regular basis as you gain more information.

Once you have basic information such as names and dates, you will want to move on to establishing when your ancestors arrived in Australia or New Zealand, where they lived, what schools they went to, did they enlist in the military, were they involved with their communities and so on. It is this information that helps us to know more about who our ancestors were and what they did. Family history is more than just collecting names, dates and places.

Genealogical Research DirectoryHas Someone Already Researched My Family?

It is possible that someone else either in your direct family line or a collateral line has researched the family or done parts of the research. A quick and easy way to see if this may be the case is to look at the Genealogical Research Directory: National and International published between 1981 and 2007 by Keith A Johnson and Malcolm R Sainty, Sydney, NSW. Annual volumes between 1981 and 1993 have been digitised and are available through Archives CD Books and the annual volumes between 1994 and 2007 are available on a CD searchable database. It should be available, in either hard copy or CD at your local genealogical or family history library, perhaps a local council library or the State library.

Another useful source is Rootsweb which hosts over 30,000 genealogical and family history mailing lists. It is possible to do keyword searches of the mailing list archives as well as subscribing and posting your own queries.


Many people also use modern social networking sites such as Facebook to locate and keep in touch with living relatives, including descendants of collateral family lines. In the section below on sharing information, there are a number of other online sites which may also be useful to search for anyone else researching the same families.

How Do I Stay Organised?

As you gather more and more documents and information, it is essential that you keep it organised. There are many ways to do this.

Perhaps the easiest is to establish a paper file for each surname with perhaps a subdivision by given name if you have lots of information on one individual.

Some people also establish place files so that they can keep all information on a particular place in the one file.

There are a range of charts and other templates that are freely available on the Internet. A wide range of examples can be seen at:

Other practical tools include keeping a research log of what you have looked at, when and where - don’t forget to record negative searches as well. This will save doing a search twice but keep in mind that new information may warrant repeating a search. This applies to online resources and websites as well as traditional sources such as archives, books and microform.

Always record the full citation of the material you have noted or copied from so that you or others can go back and look at the same material. A citation includes the author’s name, title of the publication, publisher, data and place of publication and the page reference. If citing archival records, it is a good idea to follow the guidelines of the archives where you are researching.

Most archives have published guides to citing records. Examples include:

There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to remember where you saw something or found a particular piece of information. You may remember today but chances are you won’t in five years time and future researchers may also want to revisit a particular record that you noted.

RootsMagicAs mentioned earlier, there are a number of family history software programs that allow you to enter data, scanned photographs and documents and generate various charts and reports automatically. Most of these software programs have trial versions on their websites so that you can see which one best suits your particular needs. The most popular programs in Australia are (in alphabetical order):

It is also a good idea to make copies of your certificates and other documents as you go and put them in another place in case of fire, flood and other disasters. It would be a shame for your research to be lost because there was only one copy. These days some people even scan their documents and give e-copies to relatives. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that a copy is stored offsite with someone else.

Where Do I Go For Help?

There are many genealogical and family history societies and groups in Australia. By joining the society or group closest to where you live, you will enjoy many benefits of membership including access to a library and resources, meetings and speakers, journals and newsletters and the advantage of being able to discuss with others your research and any problems you may have.

It can also be useful to join a society in the area of where our ancestors lived. For many of us our ancestors came from widely different areas and even countries and it is not financially practicable to join them all. Perhaps if you are having particular problems tracing a family in an area, then it might be useful to join a society in that area.

The major genealogical and family history societies in Australia are:

Two websites that are extremely useful in locating genealogical and family history societies are:

  • Websites For Genealogists: An Australian Gateway For Tracing Your Family History by Cora Num - see the section headed Family History and Historical Societies
  • Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites On The Internet - see the section headed Australia

The Internet has made family history much easier in that we can access some resources online, communicate with others and share our research without leaving home. Knowing how to find and navigate all these resources and to make the most of the opportunities provided is something that will come with time and experience. By attending society meetings, seminars, conferences and so on, you will become more familiar with these online resources.

BUT not everything is online, there is still a need to do original research in archives and libraries and to check original records that you have found indexed on the Internet.

The major federal and state archives and libraries in Australia are:

Unlock the Past
also conducts or participates in many genealogical and family history events and to see what is coming up, go to the Events section of this website for details.

How Do I Share My Information?

There are many ways to do this including giving a copy of your research to your local genealogical or family history society, other family members, historical societies in the areas that your ancestors lived or even your local council library.

Also as your research progresses, you may want to make contact with others tracing the same family although on different collateral lines. There are many online sites that allow this type of interaction including (in alphabetical order):

Find My PastFacebook
Family Link
Find My Past
Genealogy Wise
Genes Reunited
Lost Cousins
World Vital Records

You should only share information if the person is deceased. If the person is still living, you should not give out their details without their consent. It is a very good idea to read carefully the terms and conditions of any website before you decide to contribute your data or information.

Final Tips

  • Clearly define what it is you are looking for – a passenger list, a land record, will or probate, school record and so on. This will allow you to focus in on what sources are available rather than a vague general area such as immigration or education.
  • Do any homework before visiting a specialist repository such as an archives or library. Make sure you have your background information before doing archival searches, because in a lot of instances, the records are not indexed and the more precise your query, the easier it will be to find. More and more indexes and digitised records are becoming available but proper background research will save you time and perhaps money.

Research takes time and don’t think that you can do it all in a day, a week or even a year. Many people have been tracing their family history for decades and it is the type of past time that you can do as time permits. If one line of the family hits a brick wall, then another line can be researched.

Recommended Reading

There are a number of popular published guides in Australia including:

Compiling Your Family History  Who Do You Think You Are

  • Compiling Your Family History, Society of Australian Genealogists 2008, 22nd edition, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney, NSW
  • Family History For Beginners & Beyond, Sue Fallon 2009, Heraldry & Genealogical Society of Canberra, Canberra, ACT
  • New Zealand Beginner’s Guide to Family History Research, Anne Bromell 2004, Whitcoulls, Auckland, NZ
  • Tracing Your Family History in Australia: A National Guide to Sources, Nick Vine Hall 2002, 3rd edition, Nick Vine Hall, Mt Eliza, VIC
  • Tracing Your Family History in Australia: A Bibliography, Nick Vine Hall 2002, Nick Vine Hall, Mt Eliza, VIC
  • Tracing Family History Overseas From New Zealand, Anne Bromell 1997, Godwit, Auckland, NZ
  • Who Do You Think You Are? The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family, Angelo Loukakis 2008, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, NSW
  • Your Family’s History: Research, Write and Publish It, John MacGibbon 2009, Ngaio Press, Wellington, NZ

As well as the above publications, most genealogical and family history societies, archives and libraries have a ‘How To Do Family History’ section on their websites. My suggestion would be to visit the State Archives, State Library and Genealogical/Family History Society websites for your State and make yourself familiar with their resources.

Researching family history is a learning process and you will acquire new skills and knowledge as you progress. Best wishes with your research.