Autosomal DNA

Autosomal DNA is inherited by both males and females and received equally from each of our parents.

In commercial genetic genealogy tests our autosomal DNA is compared against a large database of others, looking for identical segments of inherited DNA that may indicate we have shared ancestors.

Some questions that might be answered by an autosomal test include:

  • Can I find previously unknown cousins, solely from my DNA?
  • Can I look for relatives on all branches of my pedigree (not just my father’s patrilineal or my mother’s matrilineal lines)?
  • Can I test the accuracy of the family tree I have constructed?

How does it work?

Autosomal DNA tests examine 22 of the 23 pairs of chromosomes that we inherited from each of our parents.  The remaining pair (called the ‘sex chromosomes’) determines gender. (X-chromosome analysis is often also reported in autosomal tests.)

We inherit about half our autosomal DNA (atDNA) from each of our parents and so about one quarter from each of our grandparents (and an eighth from each of our great grandparents…) – eventually we may not have enough DNA from a particular ancestor to be recognisable.

Close relatives share large segments of atDNA that each has inherited from a recent ancestor in common. More distant relatives may carry smaller sections of identical DNA. Commercial DNA testing companies predict the approximate relationship between genetic cousins based on the size and number of shared identical segments of autosomal DNA. (Very small pieces of atDNA in common are more likely to be coincidental rather than inherited.)

Because of randomness each time autosomal DNA is passed on, even siblings do not have identical autosomal DNA inherited from their parents and the amount of atDNA shared between relatives can vary greatly. As the amount inherited from a particular ancestor diminishes over the generations, eventually two distant cousins may not share enough DNA for a commercial test to identify them as genetic relatives.

While first and second cousins (and closer relationships) should be recognised in an autosomal test, and third cousins are extremely likely to be identified, only around half of fourth cousins will be found by their atDNA. By the time of fifth cousins, only about 10-15% will be recognised and by sixth cousins, only about 2-5% will be identified as genetic relatives.

Because of this, the general rule of thumb is that best results from autosomal DNA tests occur when there is up to about 5 generations back to the shared ancestor. For those hoping to prove relationships beyond third cousins, it may be necessary to test more siblings or first cousins on one side (or both) in order to find a recognisable shared segment of inherited DNA.

Because of this ‘number of generations’ limitation, in autosomal tests it is better to test the oldest living family member (or the one who is in the earliest generation).

What do autosomal DNA test results look like?

The commercial companies’ autosomal tests generally report your matches in the database (and their contact details) with predicted relationships based on the amount of shared autosomal DNA.

Three main companies provide autosomal tests for genetic genealogy. Family Tree DNA calls their autosomal test ‘Family Finder’. 23andMe call their atDNA test ‘Relative Finder’. AncestryDNA also provides autosomal DNA testing.

Family Tree DNA and 23andMe also provide information about the location and size of shared segments.

Currently AncestryDNA does not provide any such chromosome information, directing those who test to look at the public trees of their matches, in the hope that shared ancestors can be recognised. ‘DNA circles’ link people who match DNA and who also have the same ancestor in their family trees.

Family Tree DNA and 23andMe provide ‘chromosome browsing’ tools, showing on which chromosome/s lie any shared segments. Because the test alone cannot distinguish which chromosome was inherited from a mother and which from a father, these chromosome maps appear as images showing only one of each pair of chromosomes. For instance, in the image below the background (dark) chromosomes are mine, and the segments I share with three close relatives are shown overlaying, in different colours.

FamilyTreeDNA 3 close relatives cf to KF

FamilyTreeDNA: chromosome segments I share with 3 close relatives, compared to my own chromosomes

Simplifying to only showing each pair as a single chromosome means that it might appear as if I match two people in the same area of the same chromosome but maybe I match one on the chromosome inherited from my mother and one on the chromosome inherited from my father. The two predicted genetic relatives may each match me but not each other. I should ask each to check if the other appears in their list of matches.

When a segment is shared between three or more people (meaning at least two besides myself and where each person also matches the others at that same location) then we share the same ancestor – this is called triangulation.

From the websites of all three companies (FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA) one can download the raw autosomal test data in order to upload it to third party sites such as GEDmatch – which provide more tools for chromosome analysis as well as finding matches with those who tested with the other companies.

Admixture predictions are also based on autosomal DNA. Genetic admixture means the interbreeding of mixed population groups represented by our ancestors. This tends to be reported in a summary such as ‘30% British, 20% Northern European, …’. In fact this analysis is based on comparisons against databases which were probably created for other purposes than genealogy and the conclusions may not be accurate.

23andMe call their admixture analysis ‘Ancestry Composition’. Family Tree DNA calls theirs ‘My Origins’. AncestryDNA calls their admixture analysis ‘Genetic Ethnicity’. While these analyses might be interesting, the conclusions are not yet completely reliable.

What to do with the results?

Include in your profile information with the companies the surnames in your ancestry and where those ancestors lived. Contact others likely to be close relatives based on their autosomal testing – starting with those whose surnames or locations you recognise – or where some clue points to the relevant part of your ancestry. You may be able to identify where previously unknown genetic relatives fit into your family tree. Then you can begin to share photographs and information in the same way as with more traditional genealogical methods.

You can also test known second or third cousins in order to identify which portions of DNA you share with them, that must have been inherited from known ancestors, and then see if those same segments are also shared with potential matches identified in the database. This might help identify to which branch of the family a new suggested genetic relative belongs.

By testing the DNA of known relatives, you can also check the family tree you have constructed, to see whether DNA confirms the expected relationships.

Autosomal DNA provides another tool that genealogists can use to find relatives and prove relationships. Its benefit is that it is not restricted to a single line (patrilineal or matrilineal) but instead relates to all branches of our ancestry. Its limitation is that it might not be able to identify relatives with a shared ancestor more than about five or six generations earlier.

26 February, 2016 at 2:11 pm Leave a comment

DNA from our mother’s mothers

This article discusses the DNA we all inherit from our mother’s mothers (our matrilineal line). This genetic material is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA for short.

Mothers pass mtDNA to all their children but only their daughters pass it on – largely unchanged – to the next generations. Your mtDNA was only inherited from your mother and she inherited it from her mother – and so on – back through the generations. Everyone (male and female) can test mtDNA and compare our mtDNA with others. Those who match us share a direct maternal line ancestor.

Family historians often find it difficult tracing female ancestors because women traditionally changed their surnames with marriage. As DNA does not concern itself with surnames, genealogists can use mtDNA testing as another tool to find maternal ancestors, in conjunction with other more traditional family history research methods.

Some questions that might be answered by a mtDNA test include:

  • From what (general) region did my maternal line come?
  • My great grandfather married twice. Am I descended from his first or second wife?
  • Can I find other people also descended from the same direct maternal line to help my search for my female ancestors?

How does it work?

mitochondrial images

Human cell                                                       Ring-shaped mitochondria

Other DNA tests examine the 23 pairs of chromosomes that we inherited from each of our parents. Such chromosomes are found on the double helix shaped strands inside the cell’s nucleus. Mitochondria are quite different– they lie outside the nucleus, are approximately ring-shaped and also contain DNA.

Mitochondria also carry variations caused by copying errors that occurred in the past when cells copied mtDNA to pass on to the next generation. Such mitochondrial mutations occur only very rarely so large groups of population share much of their mtDNA.

The first commercial mtDNA tests only examined small areas of the ring (HVR1 and HVR2) which together make up the D-loop area of mtDNA. Matching someone on HVR1 and HVR2 does imply a shared maternal ancestor but that ancestor possibly lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

In recent years Family Tree DNA has offered a Full Mitochondrial Sequence test (FMS) of the entire mitochondrial ring – including the Coding Region. Exact matches in a full sequence test share a maternal ancestor who probably lived within a genealogical timeframe – that is, in recent enough generations that we may be able to identify her in our family trees.

What do mtDNA test results look like?

A group of scientists examined and sequenced all the mtDNA of one individual and published those results in 1981. They named those results the Cambridge Reference Sequence (or CRS). A corrected version (sometimes referred to as the revised Cambridge Reference Sequence or rCRS) was published in 1999.

When I have my mtDNA tested, companies report to me where my mitochondrial DNA differs from the standard (rCRS). For each of the areas HVR1, HVR2 and Coding Region I am told the small number of differences that my mtDNA has from the rCRS. I can assume that for any locations not reported, I have the same result as the standard.

My results also include my mitochondrial haplogroup, which provides a summary statement of my DNA and mutations, indicating where I fit into the mitochondrial genetic tree of all humans.

Commercial mtDNA tests also report to me other people who have tested with the same company whose DNA closely matches my own. A ‘genetic distance of 0’ indicates that in the areas we have each tested (HVR1, HVR2 and maybe Coding Region) my mtDNA is exactly the same as that of my match. A ‘genetic distance of 1’ means that there is 1 difference between us – and so on.

Which company to use?

Family Tree DNA is the only company that currently offers a full sequence test of mtDNA for genealogical purposes. They call that test mtFull Sequence or FMS. Family Tree DNA often has sales when significantly discounted prices are available. (The company’s Facebook page is one way to learn about such sales.)

Family Tree DNA also host projects based on mtDNA geographic origins and also mtDNA haplogroups. Projects are managed by knowledgeable volunteers who analyse the similar DNA of large groups of people in order to draw further conclusions.

Joining such projects is free and you can usually join any that might be of interest – such as for those whose maternal ancestors came from a particular geographic region. Once you discover your mtDNA haplogroup, I recommend you also join the relevant mtDNA haplogroup project – others in these projects share maternal heritage, even though they do not share surnames.

What to do with my results?

We all have mitochondria inherited only from our direct maternal line (although only females pass that mtDNA on to their own children). Family historians can look for others who share ancestors with us on that matrilineal line.

In addition, genealogists can consider any female of interest in their family tree and follow her female lines forward through her daughters’ daughters and on to (either gender) in the current generation. By testing the mtDNA of other living family members, we can also look for their mtDNA matches.

I do not try to identify shared ancestors with anyone who has only tested HVR1 or HVR2. Any shared maternal ancestors might have lived thousands of years ago. However if I match exactly with someone who (like me) has tested the full sequence of mitochondria, we have about a 50% chance that our shared maternal ancestor lived within around 150 years and a 90% chance that the shared ancestor lived within about 400 years. In other words, our shared maternal ancestor may have lived recently enough to be found in our family trees.

Because testing of the full sequence of mtDNA has only been commercially available in very recent years, far fewer people have taken that test than (for example) males have tested the DNA of their direct paternal line. So currently the chance of finding someone who shares direct maternal ancestors with us is still small. However as more people take a full sequence test of mtDNA, our chances of finding others related to us on our direct maternal line will increase. As a family historian, I look forward to anything that will help me find my female ancestors and those related to me on that line.


26 February, 2016 at 1:52 pm Leave a comment

Using Y-chromosome DNA

DNA testing does not provide names and so is not a substitute for more traditional family history research techniques. However a genealogist can use DNA testing as another tool to answer some family history questions in the absence of other documents.

Some questions that might be answered by a Y-chromosome (Y-DNA) test include:

  • Another man with the same surname lived near my ancestor. Were they related?
  • I think my female ancestor had a lover (or a second husband). Can I determine which man fathered her son?
  • My grandfather was adopted. I have a theory about who might be his father, can I prove it?
  • Can I prove that he and his brother are sons of the same man?

Father-to-son inheritance

Y-chromosome DNA (or Y-DNA) is a particular type of genetic material that is passed largely unchanged between a father and his son. As such, comparing the Y-DNA between two men can answer questions about whether they shared ancestors on the all-male line.

A female like myself who wants to answer the same sorts of questions needs to find a willing male close relative to be tested. I have ordered Y-DNA tests for my father, his mother’s nephew and also my mother’s brother in order to examine my nearest male lines.

In theory Y-DNA follows the path of surname inheritance and so finding a close Y-DNA match with another male who has the same surname is a good indicator that those men share an ancestor.

There are many reasons why a surname might not have been inherited along with Y-DNA. Geneticists refer to these as ‘non-paternity events’, when the father is either unknown or not the person commonly believed. A Y-DNA test could confirm a theory about paternity even when the possible father and son have different surnames.

To look for relationships between men long dead I need to find a living male descendant (down all-male lines) from each of them.

Sometimes that means stepping sideways – for example, researching a brother’s line if some man in the line had no male descendants. In other words, it is necessary to combine the use of more traditional family history research techniques with the new information offered by DNA.

A male with no clue about their father could take a Y-DNA test to learn which surnames occur most frequently amongst their genetic relatives and use these names as possible clues. (Alternatively a different DNA test – an autosomal test – might locate a cousin and that might help identify the father.)

I have also had serendipitous discoveries, when someone who tested with the same company was identified as a Y-DNA match with one of my family and we were able to identify the shared ancestor. Thus I have discovered previously unknown cousins, allowing an exchange of information about family history.

How does it work?

Every cell in your body has 23 pairs of chromosomes, inherited from your parents. The 23rd pair are the sex chromosomes – males have an X- and a Y-chromosome while females have two X-chromosomes. Note that only males have a Y-chromosome.

In each generation the Y- chromosome (or Y-DNA) of the father is copied (largely unchanged) in order to be passed on to his sons. However occasionally cells make a copying error.

Sometimes the number of repeats of a group of DNA ‘letters’ (called a short tandem repeat or STR) is increased or decreased.

The other mutation occurs only very rarely, when a single DNA ‘letter’ is miscopied (rather like a typo) – this is called a single nucleotide polymorphism (or SNP, pronounced ‘snip’). As both these changes are then transferred to future generations, the Y-DNA becomes rather like an audit trail, recording inheritance on the direct paternal line.

These mutations are illustrated in the diagram below. In the example Man 1 is the father of Man 2. When the Y-DNA of Man 1 is being copied, a SNP occurs when a ‘T’ is accidentally miscopied as an ‘A’. This change is inherited by Man 2 who then passes it on to his descendants.

Man 1 also has a segment of DNA with a short tandem repeat (STR) where the ‘letters’ CTA are repeated 5 times. We say that Man 1 has a repeat count (or allele) of 5 at that point. When that repeating section was copied for passing to Man 2, the number of repeats was increased – so 5 repeats became 6 repeats. By the time that DNA was re-copied and passed to their descendant Man 3, those 6 repeats have mutated to become 7 repeats. Note that Man 3 also continues to carry the ‘A’ variation of the SNP inherited by Man 2.

A genealogical Y-DNA test reports on certain STRs on the Y-chromosome. Rather than checking the whole chromosome, a male can order a Y-DNA test of certain useful sections of DNA (or markers) – currently available tests examine between 12 and 111 markers. When the repeat counts at those markers are compared against those of another male, a close match indicates that the two men share an ancestor on their all-male or patrilineal line. Depending on how closely they match, an estimate can be made about how many generations earlier their most recent common ancestor (or MRCA) probably lived.

Genealogists should test at least 37 markers. Anything less and it could be that an indicated shared ancestor lived many hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Genetic genealogy tests also examine the SNPs (‘typos’) on the Y-chromosome. Such SNPs indicate the haplogroup – or where the male tested fits into the broad family tree of all men.

Which company to use?

The US company Family Tree DNA is the main company offering specific STR marker testing of the Y-chromosome with the required level of accuracy required by genealogists as well as having a large database of others’ Y-DNA results for comparison.  This company offers tests of between 37 and 111 markers as well as tools to interpret the results. For under US$170 (at the time of writing) it is possible for males to test their Y-DNA with sufficient accuracy to determine whether two men are likely to share a common ancestor ‘within a genealogical timeframe’ and also receive an estimate about how many generations ago that shared ancestor lived.

You can save money by ordering the Y-DNA test through a surname-specific project. Projects are managed by knowledgeable volunteers who analyse the similar DNA of large groups of people in order to draw further conclusions. By looking at the DNA of enough people with the same surname, it may be possible to identify when a particular mutation occurred. For example you may learn that ‘all those with this particular mutation descend from one brother but those without that mutation descend from the other brother’.

Many projects focus on a common surname but there are also geographic and ethnic heritage projects. Joining projects is free and you can usually join any that might be of interest – such as for other surnames that occur frequently among your DNA matches! Once you discover your Y-DNA haplogroup, I recommend you also join the relevant haplogroup project – those matches share Y-DNA heritage, whether or not they share surnames.

Family Tree DNA often has sales when significantly discounted prices are available. (The company’s Facebook page is one way to learn about such sales.)

Family Tree DNA
Projects on Family Tree DNA 
Webinars on Family Tree DNA
Family Tree DNA on Facebook
Ysearch   (for those who have tested with another company and want to compare their results against the Family Tree DNA database)

18 June, 2015 at 10:37 am Leave a comment

Introduction to using DNA with your family history research

Traditional family history research involves looking for documents that name an ancestor – and hoping that everybody told the truth! By contrast, genetic tools that are now available to genealogists tell the truth but do not name ancestors – however they can be used to find relatives and to check the accuracy of our constructed family trees.

Why use DNA testing?

Birth certificate without father's name

Birth certificate without father’s name

I have an ancestor who was adopted. When I eventually located his original birth certificate, no father was named. I developed a plausible theory about who his father might have been, but I could not find any record to prove or disprove my idea.

In another case my ancestor, John Etherington, a builder, sits at the top of one of my ancestral lines but I cannot find any documentary evidence that he was related to the John Etherington, also a builder, who lived two streets away. Another ancestor, Samuel Etherington, was reputed to also be the Samuel Holmes who fathered another family. To solve puzzles such as these I needed a different set of genealogical tools.

What is DNA testing?

Genetic genealogy testing is all about comparing our DNA with others. Closer relatives share more DNA in common with us than more distant relatives. Genetic genealogy tests examine the areas of DNA where we differ – and predict approximately how closely we are related.

Sometimes we have a particular theory to check and we know in advance the two individuals we wish to compare. At other times genealogists are ‘fishing’ in the DNA ‘nets’, hoping to find unexpected genetic matches who might share an ancestor with us and who might then have information about unknown family branches. In the latter case there are benefits in comparing with as many people as possible. One way to do this is choosing a company with a large database of other people already tested.

DNA testing companies

Currently the main options for genealogists looking for living genetic relatives are the three US companies Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA (a branch of

  • Family Tree DNA is the company chosen by most genealogists – and these tend to respond to family history enquiries. Moreover this company’s website has useful tools available for comparing DNA as well as recorded webinars freely available.
  • 23andMe offers genetic health predisposition reports as well as ancestry information. Many of their customers chose the company for those health reports and so are less interested in responding to genealogists. A dispute with the US Federal Drugs Administration (FDA) currently prevents 23andMe from providing health reports to new customers except in the United Kingdom and Canada.
  • AncestryDNA tests were released first to US consumers and so most of the people in their database are in the United States. Recently AncestryDNA began offering tests to Australians. AncestryDNA test results can be linked to Ancestry trees.

Ordering a test involves going to the company’s website, selecting a test and paying by credit card and then the kit will be posted to you. Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA tests involve swabbing inside your cheek (with something like a toothbrush) – in the way we have seen on television crime shows. The 23andMe test involves filling a test tube with saliva. In either method customers then post their completed kits back to the company and some weeks later are advised by email when their results are available online. Customers log on to the company’s website with a userID and password to find their results and matching customers predicted to be genetic relatives.

Which test should I take?

DNA testing is advancing (as well as becoming cheaper!) and so is more available for checking theories about your family history and perhaps even breaking down brick walls you might currently face. This article introduces the options currently available that might be useful to family historians.

Test 1: Y-chromosome tests, for males to test DNA inherited from their father’s fathers

For under US$200 we can test whether two males are likely to share a common ancestor ‘within a genealogical timeframe’, and how many generations ago that shared ancestor probably lived.

This test is valid for any two men who might share a male ancestor – they do not need to have the same surname. When testing with a company that has a huge database of people already tested, I might find a match with some living descendant who shares with me a common ancestor. This is useful for all genealogists but perhaps especially for adoptees.

I have used this test to discern whether two families with the same surname were actually related to each other, in the absence of documentary proof. I have also used this test to check (and refute) a theory about who might have been the biological father of an adopted male. It was necessary to find a living male descendant (down an all-male line) from the adopted male and also to find a living male descendant (down an all-male line) from the hypothesised birth father, and then compare the DNA that each inherited from their father’s fathers.

Y-chromosome tests are only available to males, as only males have a Y-chromosome. Females like me need to ask a near male relative to be tested – a brother, father, or uncle. I have ordered tests for my father and also my mother’s brother in order to examine my nearest male lines. For Y-chromosome tests, I recommend using the company FamilyTreeDNA and testing at least 37 markers.

Test 2: Mitochondrial tests, for anyone to test DNA inherited from their mother’s mothers

Useful DNA tests are no longer limited to males. We all have a different type of DNA (called mitochondria) that we inherited from our mother’s mother’s mother. Previously mitochondrial DNA could only tell us about ancient ancestors and their migratory patterns, but now it is possible to obtain much more recent information. Family Tree DNA offers a full sequence test of all our mitochondria, allowing us to identify people who share an ancestor with us on our maternal line within about 100-400 years. That test is also currently available for under US$200.

Test 3: Autosomal tests, to test the DNA inherited half from each of our parents

We are not restricted to testing only the DNA of our father’s fathers or our mother’s mothers. It is also possible to test our remaining DNA, inherited equally from both of our parents – this DNA is called ‘autosomal’. These tests compare the DNA of our ancestors regardless of gender, because we inherit half our autosomal DNA from each of our parents (and via them, from their ancestors). However as we inherit one quarter of our DNA from each of our grandparents (and so one eighth from each of our great grandparents) eventually the inherited material from any particular ancestor becomes so small as to be difficult to identify.

Consequently, when comparing this autosomal DNA with someone else, our best conclusions are when the shared ancestor lived no more than about five generations ago.

Commercial autosomal tests also report on our likely population origins or admixture, for example, ‘60% British, 20% Scandinavian and 20% Jewish’. The sample databases used for comparison are very small and currently most of these predictions are considered unreliable.

Family Tree DNA calls their autosomal test ‘Family Finder’, while 23andMe calls a similar test ‘DNA Relatives’. Both tests cost under US$100 – plus postage. (23andMe’s postage and handling charges to Australia  adds another three quarters to the price of their kit!) The AncestryDNA test costs Australians under US$150 (plus postage) but if you do not have an subscription there is an annual cost for accessing your results.

For any genetic relatives identified in their autosomal tests, Family Tree DNA and 23andMe also report on shared segments of the X-chromosome. Females have two X-chromosomes (inherited one from each parent) while males have one (inherited from their mother). When trying to work out which ancestral branch might have passed down the X-DNA we share with some match in the database, genealogists can look at pedigree charts and eliminate any father-to-son branches, as fathers do not pass any X-chromosomes to their sons.

Use the tests in conjunction

The tests can also be used in conjunction. The autosomal ‘Family Finder’ test through Family Tree DNA identifies matches with my DNA and calculates a likely relationship.

One of my matches (described as a possible 3rd to 5th cousin) seemed to have very similar Y-chromosome (father’s father’s) DNA to my mother’s brother. I made contact and by swapping names of grandparents and their parents we soon identified that he was the son of a 3rd cousin to me (and so indeed within the range of 3rd to 5th cousins).

DNA cousins tested

DNA cousins tested

Autosomal testing can be used to check your constructed family tree.

Comparing the autosomal DNA of the three female cousins (Fay, Ann and Maureen) at the bottom of this diagram confirmed my constructed family tree of their relationships back to their shared ancestors.


(Spouses omitted after the first generation to simplify the diagram.)





It is not necessary to understand how a car works in order to drive it, but it is necessary to know the functions of driving. In the same way it is unnecessary to understand much about the science of DNA – but it is necessary to understand what sorts of questions can be answered by the different DNA tests so you can use them as tools to aid your family history research.

The most recent DNA tests available to genealogists offer useful information which can supplement traditional genealogical methods. Family trees are still needed to identify ancestors and draw conclusions about relationships. DNA tests can supplement this genealogical research, filling in gaps in the paper trails. With such tools we can test our conclusions and assumptions in constructed family trees by confirming or disproving reputed relationships. As more people are tested and databases grow, commercial DNA tests are even more likely to help us find relatives that we might not have found by traditional methods.

18 June, 2015 at 9:54 am 1 comment

Australian & NZ births, deaths & marriages

The earliest records available in the new colonies were the church records of baptisms, marriages and burials. Many people are missing from these registers – not all records have survived and not everybody had a church ceremony (especially in those places where initially only the Anglican Church was recognised).

In due time, governments needed better records of the people in the colony, so they introduced government-administered registration of births, deaths and marriages – or civil registration. District registrars were appointed and information was reported to them. In an age where many people were illiterate, registrars had to guess how to spell the names. (Remember this when searching for names in indexes – often the reason for not finding someone is because of spelling variations.)

Church ceremonies continued to take place, so it may be possible to obtain a copy of the information collected by the church, as well as the corresponding civil certificate.

As a general rule, the government asked for more information on civil certificates than was contained in the corresponding church record – but sometimes the opposite is true. For example, NSW marriage certificates (especially in the 1860s and 1870s) may not include information such as parents’ names and occupations, even though such information might be found in the corresponding church record.

As English and Welsh civil registration began on 1st July 1837, the earliest Australasian colonies to issue civil certificates (of birth, death and marriage) followed the English model:

  • Birth registrations asked for the child’s name, date and place of birth and the names of the parents
  • Marriages registrations asked for the couple’s names, ages, residences and occupations and sometimes details of the fathers
  • Death registrations included questions about the deceased’s name, age and occupation as well as the date, place and cause of death

When the Victorian government began civil registration in 1853, they requested more information on certificates. Other colonies (and Scotland) that introduced civil registration later largely followed the Victorian practice of collecting the additional information, such as:

  • Birth registrations also asked for the parents’ ages, place of birth and marriage details, and details of previous children
  • Marriage registrations asked for the couple’s birthplaces and details of both fathers and mothers
  • Death registrations asked for the deceased’s birthplace, parents’ and spouse’s names, marriage details, children’s names and burial place

Some or all of these additional fields of information on Victorian certificates were added in later years to the certificates of the regions that had earlier followed the English style of certificates.

Colonies that followed the English model were:

  • Tasmania, earlier known as Van Diemen’s Land (from 1 December 1838)
  • Western Australia (from 9 September 1841)
  • South Australia (from 1 July 1842)
  • Northern Territory was administered by South Australia from 1863 to 1911, so their civil BDM certificates (from 24 Aug 1870) follow the South Australian pattern
  • New Zealand (from 1848) – although registration was not compulsory until 1856

The colonies that followed the Victorian model were:

Even when registration was compulsory, not all births, deaths and marriages were registered and some registrations have been lost (especially in the early years). Perhaps the parties had to travel some distance to the District Registrar, and might not have bothered. They might have distrusted the government and been unwilling to supply the information.

Even if you find the certificate, just because a question is asked, does not mean that the informant knew the answer. Under such circumstances a field might be left blank, or the informant might simply have made a guess.

For example, in NSW the parents were required to register a birth, the minister registered marriages, and it was the responsibility of the owner of a house to register a death. If the parents registering a birth were unmarried, unwillingness to admit this might lead to an invented marriage date. Similarly a young couple might lie about their ages in order to marry without their parents’ permission.

Death certificates are notorious for errors and missing information. The informant might not have known the information – the son of an immigrant might never have met their grandparents, and so might not know their names. If the death took place in a hospital or institution, the owner might not know family details. There are death certificates where even the name of the deceased is unknown.

Each state and territory has their own Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. There are microfiche indexes, CD-ROM indexes and sometimes online indexes. Not all indexes contain exactly the same information, and sometimes an item is missing from one index but present in another. So if you can’t find the entry in an online index, try visiting a library or genealogy society that holds microfiche and/or CD-ROM indexes.

For privacy reasons there is restricted public access to ‘recent’ certificates of births, deaths and marriages. Each state or territory determines their own definition of ‘recent’. Generally more restrictions have been put in place for online indexes than existed at the time of the earlier microfiche and CD-ROM indexes. So if you can access these earlier indexes, you may be able to search more recent indexes than are available online.

When searching indexes, always ensure you write down reference numbers for records of interest, as certificates may be cheaper with reference numbers supplied. For NSW and South Australia it is possible to obtain transcriptions more cheaply than certificates. (Such transcriptions are not legal documents, but as they include all the information on the certificates, they may be suitable for genealogical purposes.)

Victorian online indexes cost to search, however it is possible to obtain a copy as an unofficial ‘historic document’ more cheaply than an official certificate. For New Zealand, obtaining a ‘printout’ of the information on a post-1874 document is cheaper than obtaining a standard certificate.

(This article was written for

These days many of the Australian births, deaths and marriages can be searched on and South Australian and Northern Territory BDM indexes are also available on


28 March, 2013 at 10:18 pm Leave a comment

Tracing Jewish ancestors, from London to Amsterdam

I’ve written previously about how I visited the archives and museums in Poznan and Leszno (Poland) looking for further information about my ancestors (Samuel and Isaac SHUTER, sons of Michael) before they migrated to London in 1848.

A recent episode of the TV show ‘Who do you think you are?’ (about actress June Brown) prompted me to look again at ancestors who came to London from Amsterdam – in particular Joseph MYERS. I’d seen books that included hundreds of years of Dutch Jewish records, but at that time I didn’t know how the Anglicized names I was seeing might have appeared in Dutch records.

Harold Lewin’s book (‘Marriage Records of the Great Synagogue London 1791-1885’) has been of great assistance in identifying the marriages of my ancestors in London. For most of the 18th, 19th and even early 20th century, the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place London was the main synagogue for Ashkenazi Jews (those who came from German and Eastern Europe, as opposed to the Sephardic Jews who came from Spain and Portugal). Because of the use of patronymic names, Jewish records contain not only details of the bride and groom, but also their fathers, and often addresses and sometimes ages. Because the Great Synagogue was the main place of worship for so long, families can be traced back over several generations, perhaps eventually identifying the original family member who migrated to London.

[For those unable to see Harold Lewin’s book, Angela Shire also compiled a book ‘Great Synagogue Marriage Registers 1791-1850’ which might be more readily available and is also available through Shire’s book has a little less information per entry but additional cross-indexing, when compared to Lewin’s book.]

My 4xgreat.grandfather Joseph MYERS married Rebecca COHEN at the Great Synagogue in London in 1819. From the UK census of 1851, I learned that he was born in Amsterdam, probably around 1792. Harold Lewin’s book provided his patronymic name of Yosef Yozpa b. Shmuel Halevi – Joseph Juzpa, son of Samuel the Levite. Joseph’s sister Anna was enumerated with him in the 1851 and 1871 censuses – records show that she had been born about 1795 in Amsterdam. [In Shire’s book he is given as Joseph Yozefa s. of Shmuel HaLevi.]

That was as much as I knew for many years, until recently I decided to have another look for Joseph in the Dutch Jewish records – and hopefully online.

I found the wonderful website called Dutch Jewry and within that the Ashkenazi Marriage database and the ‘Ashkenazi in Amsterdam’ database.

The Amsterdam Municipal Archives possess a complete set of registers of intended marriages from 1578 to 1811, the year when the present Civil Registry was started. Between 1598 and 1811, 15238 Jewish couples were entered in these books. (

The compilers of the online Ashkenazi in Amsterdam database have gathered together records of circumcisions, marriages, cemetery records and more, grouped into families – allowing researchers like me easy access to information held in a place I cannot easily visit and written in a language I could not read. I still might not have found my ancestor, except that I sent an email to the owners of the site, giving the information I had and asking for advice. I received a very helpful reply identifying that my Joseph Juzpa MYERS, son of Samuel, was likely to be the same person as Joseph Juzpe Kapper, son of Samuel Meyer Kapper – who previously had the family name of Levie-Drukker (Levie referring to ‘of the Levite tribe’ and ‘Drukker’ meaning ‘printer’). When the family had been naturalized in 1811, they adopted the surname Kapper (meaning ‘barber’).

According to those Dutch records, Joseph Juzpe was born 26 January 1793, of parents Samuel Meyer (Kapper) and Mariana Gans. The Dutch records confirmed that his sister Anna was born in 1795 in Amsterdam, and he also had brothers Joseph (probably deceased young), Simon, Meyer, Mozes and Nathan. So far I have followed the Dutch records back on some lines to my 9xgreat.grandparents. It’s not all just ‘names and dates’ either – there are fascinating detailed glimpses of  family members in other records.

Zeeburg Cemetery

Zeeburg Cemetery, Amsterdam

I haven’t yet finished following my ancestors through all the available  information, but apparently at least one of the families came originally from Hamburg to Amsterdam and another from Frankfurt, so there are clear directions about where to look next for earlier generations.

14 October, 2012 at 7:28 pm 14 comments

World War 1 centenary projects

Recently I’ve spoken to a number of people involved in projects researching those who enlisted for World War 1. As the centenary of WW1 approaches, the many commemoration projects seem to be running largely in isolation.

Some projects are run in conjunction with local libraries, with volunteer researchers adding information to local studies collections. Other projects aim to produce CDs or books to be sold.

The lack of coordination between the various projects could lead to overlapping of people of interest. Someone might have been born in Mosman, but lived in Ryde at the time of enlisting – and so both areas’ projects might flag the individual as someone to be researched. Indeed that individual may even appear on the war memorial in yet another location, if a family member contributed the soldier’s name to their local war memorial.

When research resources are scarce, it makes sense for there to be some coordination between the projects to identify which individuals are being researched and in which resources. How best to do this? Local studies librarians’ networks allow sharing information about their projects, but what about projects not coordinated by libraries?

One possibility might be adding a small notice onto the Mapping our Anzacs website, which allows submissions of scrapbook entries. Obviously anyone can contribute photos or research about the lives of family members, but it would also be possible to add a scrapbook post that says something like ‘This individual is being researched by the Mosman 1914-18 project – further information can be found at …’

Thus whether the information gathered in research is intended to be freely available at a library or website, or even sold in a commercial publication, anyone interested in that WW1 participant would be directed to further information. Also the various project coordinators could make informed decisions about whether or not to proceed with researching an individual already being considered as part of another project.

War memorials in NSW’ includes a spreadsheet of summary information about names on particular memorials. The various projects could consider adding information to those spreadsheets, and also add details of additional memorials to those already included on the site.

Those involved in the various projects should also be aware of the Australian Government Anzac Centenary funding grants and publicity.

What other projects are you aware of?

(My handout for researching World War 1 participants can be found here.)

20 September, 2012 at 11:41 am 1 comment

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Discoveries and musings of a family history researcher and instructor - including tips and hints.

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