Web help for weaving a family tree

Ever wondered if one of your great grandparents came to Australia on a convict transport? Or witnessed the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I? Or became involved in a scandalous liaison and was ostracised by the family clan?

Genealogy, or the study of family history, has often been labelled a hobby for enthusiasts, involving tedious amounts of searching through old newspapers or documents in dusty library archives. While finding out about our ancestors can be fascinating, many of us are happy to listen to romantic tales at family gatherings but leave researching the family tree to the experts.

With the increasing amount of genealogy information online, though, tracing the family roots is fast becoming a pursuit for anyone with a connection to the Web and some free time.

Finding the right relations

Despite the hordes of documents, genealogy-specific sites, official databases and indexes on the Internet, unearthing the correct facts on your family lineage (rather than accurate facts for somebody else’s) is harder than it seems. Not only is it difficult to figure out where to start, but if (like me) you have a common last name (Cameron), proving you’ve found the right William or John 100 years back quickly becomes a daunting task.

Nicole Manktelow, Australian technology journalist and author of the book The Australian Guide to Online Genealogy, says one of the biggest mistakes people make when beginning to research their family tree online is believing all of the information they need will appear with the click of their mouse.

“People get excited about the Internet as there’s a lot of promise,” she said. “Often it can give you information, or put you in touch with people, but it might not work out how you imagine, particularly for new users.”

In addition, there are lots of online services promising plug-ins to find your family’s details that can mislead users into believing all the information about their ancestry is available from the one place.

“There’s a lot of groundwork for new users to put in before going online,” she said.

Baby steps

Just as you would gather genealogy information offline, Manktelow says the best way to approach finding your family history online is to start small. Instead of typing your last name into a search engine like Google or AltaVista and ploughing through thousands of results, jot down everything you know about your family first — and then narrow your search down to specific facts.

“The greatest tip is asking yourself, ‘What do I want to find?’,” she said. “Have a plan of action.”

Manktelow recommends identifying five or so key words to search with. For example, if you’re looking for details about your great grandmother, write down all of the information you have so far and identify what you need to know next. Is it her birth date that you’re trying to establish? Or perhaps you know your great grandmother’s place of birth and the date, but want to find her mother’s maiden name, or nationality.

Your next question could even be which school your grandmother attended, or who her brother married. Once you’ve got your query, you can then move on to finding the site with the right answers.

Australian genealogist Cora Num, who has self-published the books Web sites for Genealogists and How to Find Shipping and Immigration Records in Australia, recommends the first place to begin research should be a quality gateway site or genealogy-specific directory service. Examples of these include US-based Cyndi’s List (www.cyndislist.com) or the UK and Ireland Genealogy site (www.genuki.com). Num’s site (www.coraweb.com.au) also features a considerable list of local and international sites grouped under topics, such as shipping and immigration, census records and adoption.

According to Num, various genealogical societies and organisations worldwide have taken to the Web to help fellow genealogists with their research.

One such organisation is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The group’s belief in the importance of family links has led to the creation of one of the most extensive collections of online family records worldwide, called Family Search (www.familysearch.org). Information on the site ranges from religious documents to census data, and is free for all users to access.

As well as Family Search, Manktelow says a good way to start searching is by locating and verifying family information through official channels with documents such as a birth or marriage certificate. Various government and national sites now offer online search facilities for these types of records in Australia, many of which can be found though the Archives of Australia Gateway Web site (www.archivenet.gov.au).

Each Australian State usually has a nominated government agency that maintains citizen records, such as the NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages Index (www.bdm.nsw.gov.au), or the Victorian Justice Department (www.justice.vic.gov.au). The National Archives of Australia (www.naa.gov.au) also houses a stack of official records relating to Australian citizens, although most are not available to access from the Web site.

Abroad, the UK and US both have large organisations that keep family-related records. The UK Public Records Office (www.pro.gov.uk) has information online on the records they maintain, as does the US Vital Records office (http://vitalrec.com/index.html). Again, however, most are not free to access from the Web.

Another good way of finding information is to scour indexes for government records departments, libraries, church denomination organisations or shipping archives, and determine which types of information these institutions have and if it will be useful to your research.

On the trail

Once you’ve established some key facts through traditional methods, there are plenty of alternative and more interesting sites full of family information to rummage through.

Cemeteries can be a good (albeit morbid) way of locating information about ancestors. If you know where a relative is buried, check out an online listing such as the Cemetery Transcription Library (www.interment.net) to see whether information on that cemetery is available. A good Australian example is the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park Cemetery, located near Botany, NSW (www.esmp.nsw.gov.au).

Likewise, knowing where your ancestors were born or the county or town they grew up in can help you learn more about their lives. Various genealogy sites, including Genuki, have divided links into counties, making it easier to narrow down the pool of information. Many also include information about the history and culture of the county, providing you with valuable clues as to which religion your ancestors might have held, the parish they were married in, or their social status.

On the local front, those who suspect their ancestors were convicts can head to Convict Trail (www.convicttrail.org), which includes prisoner names as well as maps of roads built by convicts, or the Convict Australia Web site (www.convictcentral.com) maintained by Perth Dead Persons Society. This site features names of convicts and transports, as well as information on convicts transferred from NSW to other Australian states.

If you’re looking for more recent official files, Num also suggests visiting the war records kept by the Australian War memorial (www.awm.gov.au) or National Archives of Australia. The National Archives has extended its online information of war records to include World War II nominal rolls, which list the age, service and rank, enlistment locality and service record for every war veteran.

Check the facts

Although the Internet is a great way to find extensive information for tracing family ancestry, Num and Manktelow warn against relying on information found on the Web alone.

Both say it is important to check whatever details you find with those you have already collected, to ensure that the person you have found is indeed your relation. Just because the information is written down, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily reliable or authentic, Manktelow said. Consequently, budding genealogists are advised to keep a thorough log of each site they visited — even if the search was unsuccessful.

Manktelow suggests a good way of doing this is to copy and paste the URLs into a word document once you’ve visited the site.

“It sounds tedious, but it’s thorough — and may save you time later down the track,” she said.

In addition, a significant proportion of information on the Web is from secondary rather than primary sources. In several cases, content online has been entered into a database manually by volunteers, which means the possibility of human error.

In these cases, Manktelow urges all researchers to verify each piece of information they collect from a Web site with an official document, such as a birth, death or marriage certificate.

Getting help

For those who are still lost on the best way to tackle their family research, or have hit a dead end, Manktelow recommends looking at what other assistance is available on the sites.

“FAQs are very good, particularly with genealogy: they can help you tackle that brick wall and get around it by presenting you with another way of thinking,” she said.

As well as online fact sheets, Num said those who aren’t familiar with how family information record and group data are collated should find a tutorial on researching ancestral history. State libraries, as well as genealogy societies such as the Society of Australian Genealogists (www.sag.org.au), also offer useful tips and tricks to help budding genealogists learn basic research principles.

Alternatively, you could approach a genealogy society or club and see whether they can help you to further research your family lineage.

“You can’t beat the value of experience,” Manktelow said.

To see a list of family history clubs now operating in Australia (as well as links to other Australian search facilities), check out the Internet Family History Association of Australia Web site at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~ifhaa/ifhaa/.

Next of kin

Before you rush to start your search online, however, the best place to start researching your family tree is through your living relatives.

Both Num and Manktelow recommend establishing a basic family tree beginning with yourself, and using information you already know. There are hundreds of software programs available for coordinating your facts, several of which are free from genealogy sites.

Some of the popular free software programs include the Standard edtion of Legacy 4.0 Family Tree (www.legacyfamilytree.com), and the personal ancestral file from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (www.familysearch.org).

There are also plenty of shareware programs online, such as Cumberland Family Tree (www.cf-software.com) which is offered as a free 45-day trial, with full versions starting from $US45, and Family matters (www.matterware.com), available for a registration fee of $US35.

Programs you can buy include The Master Genealogist (www.whollygenes.com) and Family Tree Maker (www.familytreemaker.com). You can expect to pay between $50 and $200.

For more software listings, check out some of the big genealogy sites, such as Cyndi’s List or the Alberta Family Histories Society (www.afhs.ab.ca/aids/software.html).

- Nicole Manktelow’s "The Australian Guide to Online Genealogy" is now available through Prentice Hall ($29.95 ISBN 1740097629). Cora Num’s titles are available to purchase from her Web site (www.coraweb.com.au).



Net just part of the family tree picture

The Internet is a great tool for family research but don’t expect to find concrete facts online, says genealogy enthusiast John Price. Price’s interest in genealogy took off when his wife became curious about investigating her family background. Through the course of their research, the couple found that despite the importance of the Internet in establishing contacts and information, they could not verify the family’s ancestry just using online services.

“The Internet was a valuable research tool, but most of the information that helped us came from personal contact,” he said.

Price said they were initially lucky finding information because his wife has an unusual last name.

“We started out by doing an e-mail search, came up with some names, and e-mailed all of them,” he said.

They also stumbled upon The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Web site, Family Search.

“This was by far the best site — especially from an Australia-based user’s point of view,” he said. “They have an International Genealogy Index (IGI), which has a phenomenal number of entries.”

Most other genealogy research sites were US-based and therefore US-centric, he added. These proved unhelpful, as his wife’s family was from the UK.

Using Family Search, the couple retrieved UK census records. From there, they located villages where descendants had lived and began chasing local clubs and historical societies using Internet sites and topic boards. Each fact was then validated using historical artefacts, such as marriage and birth records, newspaper articles, service records and wills. At one point, the couple even used 70-year-old phone book listings posted online to locate family members.

Price said it took about six months to “break the ice”. Once a family link had been established in the mid-1800s, things progressed quickly and they were able to trace the family roots back to 1578.

“You tend to find other people who are searching for the same record, and [the research] will then go by leaps and bounds. “We went from us to 20 to 30 people in the UK, Canada, Australia and the Bahamas,” he said.

To help manage the information being retrieved and coordinate the growing network of people worldwide, Price said they created their own free-of-charge online mailing list from Topica (www.topica.com). When anyone registered on the mailing list had new information to contribute, they’d post it to the list, which then sent e-mails to everyone else.

Price said his advice to others trying to research their family history is to authenticate everything. And rethink your plan with your ISP.

“You can quickly run up hundreds of dollars in bills,” he said. “It’s addictive.”

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