Coat of arms / ‘family crest’

Some interesting comments in my last blog post (‘You only have to look’) made me wish I’d replied into a separate blog post, so at least the comments related to the topic.

Someone said in a comment: Those “accept anything they find without question” folks must be the ones who patronize those generic “family crest” suppliers where you get a crest of somebody, somewhere, who happens to share your surname.

I disagreed because I think you can hang anything on your wall that takes your interest, but to say “my great grandfather was …” without sufficient cross-checking to ensure you have the ancestor who belongs to you – well it might be a very interesting family tree, but it’s not yours. And I guess that’s the same point the commenter made about how many people think of a ‘family’ coat of arms.

To be entitled to use a coat of arms you must have either been granted it yourself or be descended in the male line from the original grantee.

My point was that I might know that, and not actually use the arms, but still be interested in them as a curiosity.

However the mention of a ‘family crest’ touched a particular irritation with me. There’s no such thing as a ‘family crest’.

The term ‘coat of arms’ (or ‘armorial bearings’ or just ‘arms’) descends from the days when knights in battles or tournaments wanted to be identifiable, and with the visor of their helmets down, clad in armour, it was difficult to tell friend from foe, so they started to paint the symbols that identified the knight onto a sleeveless linen surcoat, worn over the armour.

Different parts of the armour had different names, and some of those names continue in the words used to describe ‘armorial bearings’ (what we think of as ‘coats of arms’).

The only essential part of the armour was the shield (which could be different shapes & sizes). The crest was ornamentation that might have been worn on top of the helmet and usually was chosen as a bird or beast that the knight thought reflected his martial qualities.

So a crest was optional, but you cannot have a crest without arms. So please – refer to a ‘coat of arms’ not to a ‘family crest’!

Fraser of Lovat

Coat of arms

10 January, 2011 at 6:17 pm 1 comment

You only have to look

I am irritated every time I hear the ad that says “you don’t need to know what you’re looking for, you only have to look”. Advice like that encourages some people researching their family history to accept anything they find without question, especially when it is the only name that seems to match when searching an index.

The internet is littered with family trees wrongly patched together by people who did not look for corroborating evidence before adopting an ancestor.

Some of my “problem” ancestors took a great deal of hunting, through every available source I could access, before I finally found some record or some descendant or something that provided a clue to a mystery. Then lots of cross-checking was required before I could have some confidence in my conclusion. For example, it took nearly 10 years of  very focussed research before I found the necessary evidence for one ancestor, Samuel ETHERINGTON. (I did also research other ancestors in those intervening years!)

I do believe that any research needs to be focussed and directed. Be systematic in the way you check all the sources you can. Lucky dip research occasionally brings unexpected finds, but without careful cross-checking of details, you won’t know whether that find belongs in your tree or not.

Having said all that, new indexes and newly digitised records are recently being released at such a rate that it is difficult to keep up. Because I was so obsessed with one particular ancestor, I once could be fairly confident that I had checked most of the available sources of information about him. But with more ancestors in my tree and more sources to check (and less time – but don’t get me started on that) – anyway there are bound to be people in your tree that you have not yet sought in unlikely places as well as the more obvious.

Because I’m writing some new courses, I was looking for examples of some lesser used sources. Today I was checking online indexes on the website of the State Records Authority of New South Wales, the archives of the NSW government.

You can’t browse shelves in a government archives (as you might in a library), but you can browse online indexes. Not every sort of record is indexed and not all indexes are online, but a lot of them are.

Today I was checking indexes I don’t usually bother with and was quite surprised at how much I found. I did not know before that John McNEILL was a 1st class porter at Darling Harbour Goods Yard in 1910. Or that two James ETHERINGTONs (father and son) held Publican’s Licenses for the Nell Gwynne Hotel (York Street Sydney) in the 1850s. I found more bankrupt ancestors (and bankruptcy files can contain a wealth of details about daily life).

Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps I did know what I was looking for, but I was still surprised with what I found. And I am so glad that I looked!

7 January, 2011 at 6:42 pm 8 comments

Testing genealogy knowledge

This week I prepared my first exam, for the ‘Australian Births, Deaths and Marriages’ course for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. I actually found it surprisingly difficult, partly because I remember sitting many exams in the past & finding fault with multiple choice questions where answers could be argued.

How do you measure somebody’s skills at using births, deaths and marriages indexes, and interpreting certificates? I didn’t want all answers to be found in the notes. (Although knowing “What year did civil registration start in NSW?” – 1856 – might be useful, because there is usually more information on a civil birth certificate than the early church records baptism certificate.)

I believe that effectively using BDM indexes is more about your searching skills and being able to analyse and look for clues in the results found. Such skills improve over time – perhaps because after falling into a trap you are less likely to do so next time.

In this exam I tested skills like recognising the possibility of spelling variations, where you won’t find the birth if you search for the name exactly as it appeared in the death index (using a wildcard helps). Or linking that bride named Annie with the birth of a daughter named Ann.

I think these are the real skills of researching family history. Not jumping to conclusions when you stumble on one person who happens to have the right name and is born in the right place, before looking to see if they might have died as an infant and so could not possibly be the groom in a marriage 25 years later.  Alternatively if you look and don’t find, then thinking  about how else to search.

Researchers need to be aware that just because the marriage certificate said they married at age 20, doesn’t mean it’s true. I always start searching a range of dates and increase or decrease the range if necessary. One couple in my family had 5 children and then were married. (The bride was previously married and could not remarry until after the death of her first husband.) I would not have found the marriage if I only looked before the birth of their first child.

One skill that improves over time that I did not test in this exam, is handwriting recognition. (Ironically someone in my family has dreadful handwriting and he is fantastic at helping me interpret old hard-to-read handwriting.)

What do you think of this? (I remember how hard I found this at first, but now it seems not bad.)

Recognising handwriting in a will

10 December, 2010 at 5:38 pm 1 comment

DNA journey

I started down the DNA learning path several years ago. My Dad’s father was adopted, & when I eventually found his birth certificate it contained no information about his father. An unusual middle name and circumstantial evidence suggested someone, but with no documentary evidence, DNA seemed a way to test my theory.

I found a grandson of this possible ancestor – son of a son, so a good candidate for y-chromosome DNA comparison with my father. I asked – if I paid for it, would he be willing to have his DNA tested to compare with my father’s DNA? He said yes, but unfortunately the test proved that he and my father were not related. (DNA is often better at disproving rather than proving relationships.)

I used the company Family Tree DNA, which has the largest database for testing and comparison, and now that I am registered, I am advised when others match my Dad’s DNA. I hope that one day I will find someone with the right DNA,who had an ancestor in the right place and at the right time.

Some time later, I had the opportunity to speak to Megan Smolenyak about my problem & confirm my method. I asked Megan for her advice about which company should I use to test my Mum’s DNA.

Females don’t have y-chromosomes so cannot have the y-DNA tests done. However humans have other DNA outside the cell nucleus, called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Mothers pass mtDNA to all their children, but only their daughters pass it on. I wanted my Mum’s DNA to be tested now and also stored for the future, for as-yet-undeveloped tests. Forensic scientists use mitochondrial DNA now, but for genealogists mtDNA is mostly only used for deep ancestry testing, not for finding ‘recent’ ancestors (those in a genealogical timeframe).

Megan suggested that I have my mother’s DNA tested with the company 23andMe, as they were developing new tests and could offer more information about female ancestors. 23andMe tests give information about genetic health issues, in addition to genealogical ancestry matching – so I took that advice.

These 2 companies that I had used (23andMe & FamilyTreeDNA) offer very different information in their test results. Results from the FamilyTreeDNA tests are tables of numbers, indicating the DNA at specific genetic marker points. There is also a YSearch database for comparing results, and even people who have had their DNA tested with other companies can search this freely – you manually enter the numbers (alleles) at various marker locations and see if the results match anyone in the YSearch database.

The results from 23andMe gave information about genetic health risks and tendencies and general DNA groupings – it required a bit more delving to actually find the numbers that correspond to the (mitochondrial) DNA markers.

Around a year ago, both these companies announced new tests involving autosomal DNA. 23andMe call this ‘Relative Finder’ – FamilyTreeDNA call it ‘Family Finder’. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in every cell nucleus – 22 pairs of autosomes and also another pair, the ‘sex chromosomes’ (XX for females, XY for males). The autosomes contain bits of DNA inherited from all your ancestors, not just from all-male or all-female lines. You share larger pieces of DNA in common with close relatives, and smaller bits of  autosomal DNA with relatives less closely related.

Both males and females have this autosomal DNA, so now you can find relationships with anyone sharing any common ancestor, not just the all-paternal or all-maternal lines. This new autosomal DNA test has thrown up some new possibilities and new candidates in the search for my father’s father’s heritage. (We already have found a close relative with interesting possibilities.)

However, back to the initial subject. The company 23andMe is offering a special price for the next few days, and some Facebook friends decided to take advantage of it. I agonised whether I should join them, given that I already have tested my father’s DNA as well as my mother’s mitochondrial DNA.

In terms of autosomal DNA, although the test is new, I suspect that the company FamilyTreeDNA is likely to have a bigger database for comparisons. (For me the main value of DNA tests is looking to match with others, and so larger databases are better.)

But 23andMe gives other information – about genetic related diseases – in addition to the study of ancestry. I have decided that both companies’ tests are of interest to me. So now I too have taken advantage of the current special price, and will get my own DNA tested.

Of course there are many other testing companies, and websites with information about DNA. I give talks about ‘DNA for Genealogists’ (my handout can be found on my website). The handout contains information about various testing companies and their information pages, as well as other sites with DNA tutorials, mailing lists and even a DNA Wiki.

For now though, I have joined the ranks of those waiting for a test tube to be posted to me, so I can take the next step in this DNA journey.

27 November, 2010 at 10:48 pm 2 comments

Australian BDM certificates & saving money

Australians refer to Births, Deaths and Marriages (or BDM) – in alphabetical order. In UK these are described as BMD (in chronological order) while most Northern Americans refer to Vital Statistics.

I’ve been writing a course on Australian Births, Deaths and Marriages for the National Institute of Genealogical Studies. In Australia births, deaths and marriages are managed separately by each state or territory. While these have some common history there are also differences in the records and indexes available. (Links to the various BDM Registries can be found here.)

The following are some tips for saving money, while searching Australian BDM:

  1. Check whether a family member already has a copy of the certificate you want.
  2. Most states’ and territories’ Registry BDM indexes online are free to search, although Victoria’s cost & some regions don’t have online indexes.
  3. Most states and territories have BDM indexes on CDROMs that can be searched freely at libraries and genealogical societies.
  4. is available to use freely at many libraries, genealogical societies & Family History Centers, so you do not need a personal subscription to check the combined ‘Australian Birth, Marriage and Death Index’.
  5. Cross-check details as much as possible before ordering, to minimise wrongly ordered certificates.
  6. Check holdings of genealogical societies – someone else might have deposited a copy of the certificate you want.
  7. Check the Australasia Births, Deaths & Marriages Exchange in case someone else has the certificate you want.
  8. Certificates are often cheaper if you can provide the name, year and registration numbers (and sometimes registration districts) – so check an index first and write down ALL the details.
  9. For New South Wales (NSW) and Tasmania, many 19th century church records are microfilmed & you may be able to see them at a genealogical society or library and write down the details yourself.
  10. For NSW transcriptions are cheaper than full certificates. Obtain these from Marilyn Rowan, Joy Murrin or Laurie Turtle. Early Church Records transcriptions are cheaper than civil certificate transcriptions.
  11. In South Australia transcriptions can sometimes be obtained free from the public libraries that hold District Registers. Note that each library can only provide transcriptions of one district, not others. Some libraries charge for this service and some offer it free. (eg Unley Library holds Adelaide District Register ONLY and will copy for researchers who live too far from the library to visit.)
  12. South Australian Genealogy & Heraldry Society (SAGHS) offers transcriptions of all districts of historic South Australian certificates.
  13. For Victoria, historical images of certificates (downloaded immediately as PDF files) are cheaper than certified printed copies of certificates (posted to you).
  14. Search Queensland BDM indexes online for free and order online the historical image of a certificate more cheaply than a certified historical certificate here.

14 November, 2010 at 12:54 pm 12 comments

Australian Population Statistics

Years ago I studied number theory, and I still find patterns of numbers fascinating, especially when they suggest underlying explanations.

On first glance the Australian Historical Population Statistics on the website of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Table 1, ‘Population by sex, states and territories, 31 December 1788, onwards’) – well maybe it didn’t look fascinating at first glance. In fact all those numbers look a bit intimidating.

However I am writing a course on Australian Family History (for the National Institute of Genealogical Studies – NIGS) and I started looking more closely at the population numbers, considering them within regions and then within decades. And then patterns began to emerge as the population trends reflected what was happening at the time.

I mean – look at Victoria. It didn’t become a separate colony until 1851 (before that the area was known as the ‘Port Phillip District of NSW’) so there are no statistics for the Victorian colony until 1851. However the new Victorian colony in 1851 had a population of 97,000. A year later this had grown to 168,000 and 2 years later to nearly 284,000. The reason of course was the gold rush, but those numbers echo the stories we read of ships deserted in Port Phillip Bay, when passengers and crew rushed off to the goldfields, often before immigration officials could record who had arrived.

The Swan River settlement in Western Australia was founded in 1829, and at the end of that year, the population was 1,003. Numbers crept up over the next 20 years, including a slight boost in the 1850s and 1860s when the western colony requested convicts for labour (at a time when the eastern colonies rejected convicts because of their gold rush immigration boom).

By 1881 there were still only 30,000 in Western Australia. The numbers continued to grow slowly, boosted by gold discoveries in the Kimberley region in 1885 (although the population actually dropped between 1887 and 1888). Huge finds at Coolgardie in 1892 sparked a major gold rush: in 1892 the WA population was 58,000; in 1894 the population jumped to 81,000 and a year later it passed 100,000.

The Goldfields Pipleline brought water to Kalgoorlie in 1903 and contributed to significant population increase in the new state of Western Australia, especially in the years leading up to World War 1.

South Australia had a population of 546 in 1836, but increased by over 15,000 in its first 5 years.

Northern Territory was called the ‘Northern Territory of South Australia’ from 1863 until 1911, so separate numbers for the NT do not exist before 1911, when it is described as having 3,000 residents. Those numbers creep up until it appears that the population approximately doubled in 1961, from 24,000 the year before to 45,000 in 1961. In fact the explanation is that 1961 was the first year that ‘estimates of indigenous populations’ were included into the totals.

Tasmania’s numbers are interesting in that the population actually dropped each year from 1914 to 1916, and then again in the years 1924 to 1926. The population dropped again in 1941, as well as in each of the years between 1997 and 2000.

Mark Twain attributed to Disraeli the comment about there being “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. We could interpret these population statistics to imply many things. However to me some trends seem to have obvious explanations, while others make me think “I must find out why…”

4 November, 2010 at 2:56 pm Leave a comment

Busy times – and handouts

I’ve been very busy lately, writing and teaching, but without time to write new blog entries.

At the recent History and Genealogy Expo, run by Unlock The Past,  I gave talks entitled ‘Which Genealogy Program?’ and ‘DNA for Genealogists’.

Which Genealogy Program?‘ is the title of the book I wrote with Rosemary Kopittke, and it is available through Gould Genealogy & Heraldry. Actually today I finished the revisions for an updated edition 2 of the book, which will be launched next week at the History and Genealogy Roadshow. Edition 2 of the book includes reviews of the latest versions of Ezitree Plus, Family Tree Maker 2011 and MacFamily Tree.

A second talk I gave at the Expo was ‘DNA for Genealogists’, and a short excerpt from my talk can be seen in this clip. (Having seen it, I realise that I really must learn to trust the remote controls for changing slides, so I don’t need to keep looking down at the computer in order to step through the slides of my presentations!)

I have also attended the ‘Lost in the Internet’ seminar at the State Library of NSW, conducted by the Society of Australian Genealogists (SAG). My topic to speak on there was ‘How Pay-to-view Websites can be Good Value’. A photo from that day can be seen here.

Today Louise St Denis, the Managing Director of the National Institute of Genealogical Studies (NIGS) released some information that will also be announced next week at the Roadshow – I am to be the Director of Australian Studies for an Australian Certificate course run through NIGS. Her announcement can be seen here. The various courses will be released over 2011.

Anyway all that is why I haven’t had time to write about anything in particular, although I have actually been doing a lot of genealogical writing. With all these talks, I decided to make available on my website the handouts from some of the talks I have given in the last few years. (Bear in mind that some of these handouts were prepared some years ago – each shows the date indicating when it was prepared.)

I retain the copyright, but hopefully at least some of the information contained might be useful for others. Handouts include: Arrivals (Immigration); Australian births, deaths & marriages; Australian government archives; DNA for genealogists; Pay-to-view websites; New Zealand research; Publishing personal research to the Internet; Scottish research; Victorian Goldrush; Western Australian genealogy.

2 November, 2010 at 8:04 pm 2 comments

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