How did they get here? An introduction to NSW immigration indexes

There are four ways that our ancestors could have arrived in Australia in the early years of the Colony before Federation. These are:

  1. Convict transportation
  2. Soldiers assigned to the convict colony
  3. Ships’ crew
  4. Immigrants, whether assisted or unassisted

Today we will be concentrating on immigrants – people who chose to leave their homeland to make a new life in the new Colony. These fall into two categories, depending on whether their passage was subsidised by the government (assisted) or they paid their own way (unassisted). This distinction is important for us looking for their arrival because of the differences in the records that were kept at the time.

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Assisted immigrants

Immigrants were assisted in order to more quickly populate the new Colony of New South Wales. Of the estimated 1.4 million free immigrants to Australia in the nineteenth century, about half arrived through government assistance. The first assistance scheme was introduced in 1831 in response to the demand for skilled labour and female domestic and farm servants. The schemes were funded initially from the sale of crown land, and later through more direct government funding and contributions from sponsors – usually employers or family members.

Prospective immigrants had to show themselves to be suitable candidates for assistance. They had to be young, healthy, and “useful” in their work experience. The records kept for assisted immigrants contain the answers to many questions asked of them, and these records are invaluable to genealogists today. At best they contain occupation, religion, education (whether they could read, write, or both), parents’ names and residence, and relatives living in the Colony – the Immigration Board’s Lists.

Assisted immigrant online indexes

The first, best, place to look is the online indexes at State Records NSW. Indexes are available for assisted immigrants to Sydney, Port Phillip (before it became the separate Colony of Victoria), Moreton Bay (before it became Queensland) and Newcastle from 1844 (for Sydney, earlier for other ports) to 1896. Index entries give surname and first name, age, vessel, year, and one or two reel numbers. The reel numbers lead to the Immigration Agents’ Lists and the Immigration Board’s Lists, respectively. The Board’s List has more information but both should be examined if possible in case difficult handwriting or transcript errors give different information.

A new index of some assisted immigrants between 1828 and 1843 has also been made available online. Be aware that this index does not cover all arrivals.

Unassisted immigrants

If we cannot find our ancestor among the assisted immigrants, and we have discounted the possibility of arrival as a convict, soldier or ship’s crew, we must look to unassisted passengers, or free settlers. Very little information was collected for these passengers; they paid their money and got a berth, or a cabin, on a ship. At best there will be a title, first name and surname (eg Mr John Smith); age; occupation; country of origin (eg England, Scotland or Ireland); and family members listed by name and age. Less common names might give a positive identification, especially if family members are also identified.

At worst there will be a name only (eg Mr Smith) “and family”, making a conclusive identification impossible. Before 1854 many passengers were not even listed individually, especially in steerage, but just counted in a total. We will never find records of these in passenger lists but must rely on indirect evidence, such as newspaper reports.

Unassisted immigrant online indexes

Again, the first place to look is the online indexes at State Records NSW. An index of unassisted passengers from 1842-1855 gives Surname and initials, age (not always given), Ship, Status (crew or passenger), date of arrival,  previous port, remarks, and a reel number. Use this reel number to find the record at State Records reading rooms or libraries that have State Records reels. Quite often you will find no more information on the reel than is in the index, making it impossible to determine whether the person is your ancestor.

The next place to look is the indexes available at Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters, an epic undertaking by Mary-Anne Warner and her volunteers to index passenger lists from 1845 to 1892 and eventually 1922. This index is still in progress and more volunteers are always welcome!

Another possibility is the Index of Inward Passenger Lists for British, Foreign and New Zealand Ports, 1852-1923 at the Public Record Office of Victoria website. Ships from the UK often stopped at Melbourne before coming on to Sydney and your passenger may be listed there. You can then look for the film on which the ship arrived in Sydney a few days later to see if your passenger arrived here.

Another possibility, so far only for later arrivals, is to find the departure from Britain. FindMyPast has indexes and digital images of passenger lists for 1890 to 1939 with more to come. The information is sometimes more detailed than the arrival information, including occupation and nationality, and is reproduced in full colour. FindMyPast is pay-per-view or by subscription. In some cases it is possible to find a departure from England, arrival in Melbourne and then in Sydney, and all three can give much more certainty than looking at one passenger list alone that may have the bare minimum of information.

Microfilm indexes

Once you’ve exhausted the online indexes it’s time to look for microfilmed indexes:

The Bounty Index 1828-1842 for assisted immigrants is available on microfilm at State Records NSW reading rooms and many libraries. It has also been produced on CD. It can lead you to the passenger lists for Bounty ships, held on microfilm at State Records NSW and many libraries.

An incomplete index of paying passengers from July 1826 to 1853 is available in State Records NSW reading rooms on Reels 1358-1372.

The Society of Australian Genealogists has produced an Index to Passengers Arriving 1826-37, which is available in the Society library at 379 Kent Street, Sydney, and the State Records NSW reading rooms.

Sources:

Haines, Robin F., Nineteenth Century Government Assisted Immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia: Schemes, Regulations and Arrivals, 1831-1900, and some vital statistics 1834-1860. Adelaide: Flinders University, 1995.

State Records New South Wales, Archives in Brief Nos. 1, 24. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2004-5.

Websites:

FindMyPast

Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters

Public Record Office of Victoria

Society of Australian Genealogists

State Records NSW

Evidence Explained, with thanks to Elizabeth Shown Mills

Genealogy, at the very least, should show sources. I am sure that we have all found wonderful stuff on the web about our own family tree with no idea of where it came from or how reliable it is. If you can’t tell where a piece of data came from you can’t tell whether you can trust it.

I recently acquired a copy of Evidence Explained by respected genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills. The book is 885 pages long and was published in the USA. I am in Australia and was hesitant to pay almost as much for shipping as I was paying for the book, so I didn’t rush my order in as soon as it became available. No-one in Australia was then selling the book*. I then found an electronic version for sale** for half the price of the book and no postage so I bought it and spent the rest of the afternoon printing the parts of it that I thought would be useful to me. So far I’ve filled up a 200 page A4 ringbinder.

I have owned Elizabeth’s previous book Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian, a slim volume which explains genealogical standards for citation and analysis of source materials, so I was really looking forward to the updated version. I wasn’t disappointed. Two chapters on the fundamentals of Evidence Analysis and of Citation are followed by detailed chapters on the types of records we are likely to come across as sources: Archives; Business and Institutional records; Cemetery records; Census records; Church records; Court and Governance records; Licenses, Registrations, Rolls and Vital Records; Property and Probate; National Government Records; Books, CDs, Naps, Leaflets and Videos; Legal Works and Government Books; and Periodicals, Broadcasts and Web Miscellanea. Each of these chapters have pages of “QuickCheck Models” for each type of source, with general explanations. Examples from countries other than the USA are given, although they are rare. The principles, though, are the same whichever country you need.

So why should you buy it? You know all about source citations, right? You just stick them in your family tree program when it asks you. In truth, the more you know, the more there is to learn. I will let Elizabeth explain it:

“Evidence Explained is a guidebook for all who explore history and seek to piece together its surviving bits and shards. As a guide, it is built on one basic thought:

We cannot judge the reliability of any information unless we know

  • Exactly where the information came from; and
  • the strengths and weaknesses of that source.”

 She goes on to list the reasons for identifying sources:

  1. to provide “proof” of what we write
  2. to enable others to find what we have used
  3. (most importantly) we identify sources, and their strengths and weaknesses, to reach the most reliable conclusions

This identification of the strengths and weaknesses of a source is where the analysis comes in. It is not enough to record your sources – we have to analyse them thoroughly. Accuracy in analysis comes with experience but the will has to be there from the beginning, to question every assumption and conclusion made.

As an example from my own family tree, I was sent a digital image of a photocopy of a New Zealand death registration by a distant cousin of mine in Canada, who had probably never seen a NZ BDM registration before. In the accompanying family tree file he had an exact birth date for the deceased, even though none of us had ever found one before. When questioned, he said he got it from the death registration.

New Zealand BDM registrations are copied directly as a single entry. The page headings are not included. In the death registration, the column for the age at death was followed by the column for the cause of death, duration of illness, name of attendant and date last seen. My cousin had run the two columns together and given the age at death as 79 years 14 days. The mistake was understandable, perhaps, given that the headings for the columns were not shown, but perhaps there was some wishful thinking there as well.

The source for the birthdate, then was the death certificate, usually a reliable source, but because it had been read incorrectly it was not reliable in this case. The most that could be said for the birthdate was circa 1804, rather than 6 August 1804, using this source.

So the analysis may continue as you find more information. It is never finished. There is no “preponderance of evidence” that leads to a verdict once and for all, as in a legal court. A new document, perhaps a will, may come into your hands that changes your evaluation of all the evidence you had previously. You can’t just discard new information that disagrees with your conclusions; you have to look at your conclusions, and all the information you had based these conclusions on, again, and perhaps come up with different conclusions.

For the family tree you have spent years working on to be any use at all to future generations it must be done properly. With the help of Elizabeth’s new book, there is now no excuse.

* Gould Genealogy in Adelaide is now selling it.

** I bought it from www.footnote.com. I have been searching the site to see where I bought it and I can’t find it. I eventually found this link from Dick Eastman’s genealogy blog, although I’d already bought it by the time he wrote about it. I must have found it through Google. Footnote is a great site for finding images of American historical documents, but not so good for shopping for other items.

Source:

Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007.

Note: The family tree that I, personally, have put on the web here is a long way from the standard I aspire to, and it raises a common question for genealogists – Now that I know how I should have done it, should I go back and redo all the citations I did years ago? For me, the answer is Yes, and so it becomes a question of time. I am slowly working my way through them, starting with my direct ancestors and working outwards, and it will take a lot of time until I am happy with it. I argued with myself for a long time about whether to hold off putting it on the web until I was happy with it, and I finally decided that if I leave it too long the people who can give me more information will have died. So I’ve put it up there, incomplete citations and all.

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