Early Australian documents

To celebrate Australia Day (26 January) Shelley at Twigs of Yore invited us to write about our earliest documentation for an Australian ancestor or relative.

It might not be my earliest Australian document, but this document dates from Perth in 1832, within 3 years of the new Swan River colony in Western Australia. So these ancestors were certainly Australian pioneers.

Thomas Farmer and his wife Ann and their two small sons arrived at the new Swan River colony (Western Australia) in 1829 on HMS Sulphur. Thomas was a Private in the 63rd Regiment, part of the contingent accompanying the first ship of European settlers to the new colony. Ann was reported to be the first white woman ashore in Western Australia. By 1832 Thomas and Ann had 3 sons, and Ann was pregnant again, when Thomas drowned.

After Thomas’ death, with no other means of support, Ann married again before the birth of her 4th son. Ann was to be widowed twice more, and have 9 children in total, before she herself died at age 64.

Anyway, back to that early document. The following is an extract from C.S.O. 20/155 (microfilm), from Battye Library, Colony of Western Australia.

Enquiry into the causes of the death of Thomas Farmer, a private in His Majesty’s 63rd regiment of foot, taken at Perth in the said colony on Friday the twenty fourth day of February 1832. … Edward Barron, Colour Serjeant of His Majesty’s 63rd Regiment of foot being duly sworn saith –

“Yesterday morning about six o’clock I accompanied the deceased along with … two Privates of my regiment to the Flats to bring back a flat boat …

We had gone but a few yards from the bank when the painter broke. The sea breeze was blowing choppy and drifting the flat on shore on which account I called to Steel to pull his small boat round. He tried but I saw he could not pull it round. Upon which I told him to jump out of the boat into the water knowing he was a good swimmer and lay hold of the painter of the small boat and bring it to me in the flat.

Farmer on hearing me say this said there was no necessity for anyone swimming hereunder he could find bottom and at the same instant he jumped out. He was immediately out of his depth and went down below the surface. I called to Steel to lay hold of him and pull him into the boat. Steel did accordingly pull him into the boat. I ordered Farmer not to jump out of the boat again.

Steel again jumped out and got hold of the painter and as soon as Steel jumped out Farmer again jumped out saying he could find bottom. He immediately struck out but I saw then he could not swim and that he was beginning to paddle like a dog on which I called to Steel to lay hold of him and at the same time I undressed myself and jumped into the water after deceased and was making towards him, and had got within about four strokes of him when he went down. He never came up again. Steel swam round the boat while I dived down after deceased but we never saw any trace of him.”

25 January, 2011 at 10:12 pm 4 comments

Ancestor Approved Award

Ancestor Approved

Ancestor Approved Award

I was delighted to be nominated for the Ancestor Approved Award from Pauleen at ‘Family history across the seas‘.

I have been busy preparing for an engagement party, worrying about weather and tidiness – but then came horrifying tales of the floods. How could I worry about rain at the party, when others were struggling with the loss of lives and possessions? Likewise, when I consider the difficulties and personal tragedies faced by some of my ancestors, it puts into perspective my own concerns.

This Award was created by Leslie Ann Ballou at Ancestors Live Here and asks two things of those who receive it:

  1. They should write 10 surprising, humbling, or enlightening aspects of their research
  2. Pass the award on to 10 other researchers whose family history blogs are doing their ancestors proud.

So here are my 10 surprising, humbling or enlightening findings, in no particular order of importance:

  1. I am humbled by the difficulties faced by immigrant ancestors, like David and Jane MOORE and their three small children, who were shipwrecked when the “Sacramento” was wrecked at Point Lonsdale, Victoria, in 1853. They were rescued, but their possessions were lost. Our ancestors faced incredible difficulties leaving their families and settling so far away.
  2. I am humbled by the personal sacrifice of the many young men who ‘did their duty’ and fought in the various wars overseas. Whether they died overseas or returned to deal with their memories of war, they were willing to ‘do their bit’.
  3. I was surprised and enlightened when I found (via the internet) the relative in England who held a letter from 1903, which detailed how the ancestor I’d long been searching for had also lived under another alias.
  4. I was surprised by the number of ancestors who committed bigamy (or else had more than one partner at the same time, with children, and without marrying either partner). It was enlightening to read the detailed report of the Old Bailey Trial of my 4g.grandfather, Thomas MILLS, who married 3 times and was sentenced to transportation for 7 years for bigamy.
  5. I was surprised by the number of my ancestors who went bankrupt, and enlightened by reading the detailed accounts of their debts and possessions.
  6. Searching the births and then the deaths indexes for NSW, I was humbled and saddened to discover that Thomas and Ann ETHERINGTON lost 9 children in 20 years – one daughter reached 18 years, the rest did not survive to double digits. Then Thomas died, and Ann lived another 30 years as a widow.
  7. I am enlightened and fascinated when interviewing elderly relatives, with the details of early lives. For example, an elderly relative spoke of her grandfather’s car and how he would chain a log to the back of his car, to function as a break when he drove down the long slope from Armidale to Tamworth.
  8. I was enlightened by 2 reported desertions from the army of an ancestor, William Joseph ETHERINGTON. Orphaned at aged 7, he travelled with his brother to Victoria and enlisted as a drummer boy. When the regiment was to leave Victoria, he deserted and was recaptured. He deserted again in New Zealand 2 years later, trying to get back to Victoria. Police gazettes gave detailed physical descriptions at the time of each desertion, so now I even know how much he grew in those 2 years.
  9. I was surprised to discover that my ancestor, James BOND (with a son Felix), belonged to the BOND family whose motto was ‘The world is not enough’.
  10. I have been surprised to discover several family members who were not the child of their commonly believed ‘parents’.

Our ancestors are not just names and dates, but were real people, and we understand them better when we consider how we would cope with some of the events in their lives.

And now to nominate 10 other researchers whose blogs are doing their family proud: (I’m sure some of these would have been nominated before.)

  1. Shauna Hicks at  http://www.shaunahicks.com.au/shhe-genie-rambles/ (Someone else has probably already nominated Shauna, as she does so much for family history in Australia)
  2. Australian Genealogy Journeys at http://ausgenjourneys.blogspot.com/
  3. Lyn Dear at http://genealogy-new-zealand.blogspot.com/
  4. Carol Baxter at http://www.carolbaxter.com/blog/
  5. Family History South Australia at http://familyhistorysa.blogspot.com/
  6. Kylie Willison at http://kyliewillison.blogspot.com/
  7. Kirsty Wilkinson at http://professionaldescendant.blogspot.com/
  8. Blair Archival Research at The Passionate Genealogist
  9. London Roots Research at http://londonrootsresearch.blogspot.com/
  10. Amanda Epperson at http://scottishemigration.blogspot.com/

17 January, 2011 at 6:03 pm 5 comments

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. Ancestry.com 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

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