Do you know what your family tree looks like?

A deciduous tree stands rather bleak and forlorn.  Spring will see it clothed in the leaves and colours of its kind.  Your family tree is just as bleak and forlorn until you clothe it with facts of every hue that represent the names, dates, places, occupations, achievements and passions of your family story. The leads you have been able to glean from those birth deaths and marriage certificates you have purchased, or been given a copy of by another researching relative, are like rungs of a ladder that will enable you to climb further into your family tree.


Knowing where previous generations of your family were born will encourage you to find out about where they lived and if they played any note worthy roles in their local community. This is why I find it hard to separate family history and local history.  The story of a locality relies heavily on the people who lived there and the contribution they made to life in that community. Family history is about people, where they lived and what contribution they made to their family and community.


Look at websites about the locality, particularly the history page if there is one and for the contact details for the local library. If you can’t visit the localities, inter-library loans are most useful.  Also search out the local Historical Society. They will usually do small searches for you.  Don’t begrudge the small fee they may request because maintaining an historical society does take funds and your small contribution will be appreciated.

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Talk to your relatives


Within families it is fairly usual for an older relative to want to start a conversation with “I remember when ….”, it is just as usual for other family members to want to cut that conversation short.   By the time that person is no longer able to share those stories with you it has dawned upon you that she may have been able to fill in gaps of knowledge about your family.  Now you will never know but don’t make that mistake again.


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Make an effort to talk to your relatives. Make notes about all that they tell you.  Ask if they will share photographs and documents with you; these are very special to them so it is best if you can copy them on the spot. Digital cameras, even phone cameras make that quite easy in this age of emerging technology. They may allow you to take them away and copy them but make sure you return them as quickly as possible. If they offer to have them copied for you please offer to pay for the copying and the postage to you.  Do you have anything to share with them?


Sort fact from fiction


Don’t scoff at information passed on by others.  It may sound impossible but you need to check it out.  One particular gem that I was once given was typed many years ago on thin typing paper.  It was easy to see that the typewriter used was of the vintage of the machines that I learned to type on some 60 + years ago and the paper was a size that has vanished since the introduction of metric measurements.  The person who gave it to me honestly believed it was absolutely true.

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After all it was obviously very old. The information was exciting and I desperately wanted it to be correct, but I was suspicious because there were no references to give the information credibility, so I began researching these startling facts.  It did turn out to be untrue but the story had an essence of truth and the leads I obtained from it led me to a First Fleeter, 4 additional convicts and a place in the history of Norfolk Island.   Wow!  What if I had discarded it and not checked out those emerging leads or even worse had added the so called facts to my family story.


Use your imagination as you search. 


Look up local history books in the localities you have identified and hope they have a good index to help you search for your family. What a pity if the books you search don’t have an index, it will take you longer to find what you want but you may discover exciting information as you browse.  (Take the hint and include an index when you write your book.)

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Don’t just search for your ancestor’s name but also look for details about his occupation if you know what it is.  If he was a farrier look for details about the local blacksmith; if he was a coach builder did he build coaches for Cobb & Co; if he was a farmer, what did he grow? Was he married and did they have children.  Check out school histories.   Where did the family live; how was his house built – did it have a freestanding kitchen, why?

Use your imagination as you search.  Build a picture of your ancestors and enrich it with details that includes the social history of the time; involvement in community organisations – church or school for instance; health issues – was there a local midwife, were there any epidemics that locals had to battle with without medical assistance.  The more you use your imagination to search out information the more interesting and powerful your family story is going to be.


photo: tonypowell