How to start your family tree part 2 – civil registrations of births, deaths and marriages

Collecting evidence

Once you have talked to your parents and other relatives and found out as much as you can from them it’s time for the expensive part of the exercise. There is no getting away from it, you have to start paying for certificates.

What you are trying to do is find documentary evidence for what you have been told. Even your father’s date of birth is just hearsay until you see it in writing on an official document, and the same with the names of your grandparents’ parents. If you don’t do this you may find you are running blindly down the wrong track, and tracing someone elses’ family tree, and there is nothing more frustrating than when you finally discover that you’ve been doing this.

Civil Registration Indexes

We usually begin by collecting birth, death, and marriage certificates for our ancestors. These will usually lead us backwards to the previous generation. In New South Wales you can start with online indexes. The NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages has an excellent online index. The search for births and deaths is here:

http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=births

and the search for marriages is here:

http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=marriages

You can get from one to the other by clicking on the button on the right hand side of the screen.

NSW BDM indexes are more useful than those of England and Wales…. Civil registration began in 1856 in NSW, a year after it was introduced in Scotland. It was modelled on the Scottish system, and even though Scotland backed down and reduced the number of questions asked, New South Wales did not. Civil registrations contain a wealth of information…

The indexes, therefore, are also more helpful than those of England and some other Australian States. The given names of both parents are listed and searchable for births and deaths, so that not only can you see that the John Smith you’ve found is more likely to be yours because the parents names are correct, but you can search for other children born to the same parents and find all the siblings of your John Smith. The location of the registration is also very helpful, although it is not necessarily the location of the birth but rather the district where the birth was registered. You can therefore discount the John Smiths born in Sydney and other parts of the State if you know your Smiths lived in Wollongong.

Certificates

NSW birth certificate

When you have found the entry in the index that you think is your ancestor you must order the certificate. This is the most expensive part of the exercise and I’m sorry, there is no avoiding it. The extra information that appears on the certificate that is not available on the index might be the only clue you have to the next part of the puzzle.

The NSW Registry currently charges $26 for a certificate, which is certified by the Registry and can be used as proof of ancestry. Usually the certificate contains the actual handwritten columns of information from the original register. An example is given on the right, with thanks to the NSW rEgistry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

The NSW Registry has accredited Transcription Agents to transcribe birth, death and marriage registrations which are much cheaper than the full certificates. You can order full transcripts or partial transcripts that only contain the details you want. You can see the list at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/familyHistory/howToSearch.htm#TranscriptionAgent

Before 1856

Before civil registration began in 1856 records of births, deaths and marriages were kept by the churches where the christenings, burials and marriages took place. Most of this information was collected by the Registry after civil registration was introduced and hand-written into large bound volumes. Most of these are included in the NSW Registry indexes, where they are called “Early Church Records”, but the information available on the actual certificate is less.

Baptisms show the dates of birth and baptism and parent’s names, sometimes including the mother’s maiden surname but not always. The occupation of the father and the abode is also recorded. Very early records, from 1787 to 1820 or so, have much less information even than this.

Marriages have the names, marital status and parish of both parties. If either was under age or a convict then the consent of parents or the Governor is recorded. Witnesses are recorded, and may include family members. Very early records may just list the marriage date, names of the parties and location.

Deaths show the name, dates of death and burial, age, and occupation. Children may be recorded as “the son of” or “the daughter of”. Parents names are otherwise never recorded, which makes them much less useful than later death registrations. Early records may show even less information than this.

Most of these records have been microfilmed and are available at some libraries and family history societies, where they can be examined and transcribed but not copied. It is important to realise that what you are seeing on the microfilm has been transcribed – it is very rarely the actual record which your ancestors signed (or made their mark). You will notice that all the handwriting is the same, and if you are lucky it will be easy to read. Not all handwriting is readily decipherable without practice.

Sources:

Vine Hall, N. Tracing Your Family in New South Wales, 5th Edition, Adelaide: Gould Genealogy, 2006.

New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Family History, website at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/familyHistory/, retrieved 25 Feb 2008.

How to start your family tree

dreamstimefree_5017179_320x240Over the next few posts I will be going back to basics. I will be explaining how to build your family tree from the beginning. My focus will be on New South Wales records but the principles can be applied anywhere.

What is it for?

First, you need to decide what you want to get out of it. What is your goal? There are many reasons for starting research into your family history, such as

  • to find out whether you really are related to Charles Dickens or Mary Queen of Scots
  • to find out whether great-great-grandfather really was a sea-captain
  • to see how far back you can go
  • to build an ancestral chart for your children
  • to find out what your ancestors were like and understand their lives better

What you want to get out of it will determine how you go about it. It will also help you to know when you get there! You may stop when you discover that there is no link between you and Charles Dickens, or you may become inspired to keep going and find out about your own family history – the heroes and villains and interesting characters. The goal may change over time and that’s OK, but it is still important to know what it is.

Start with what you know

Whatever your reasons, and whatever your goals, you must start with what you know. Everyone says this to you, and it sounds very boring, but it’s true. It’s no good tracing the descendants of Charles Dickens hoping that you will eventually find the link to your own family. It never works. You have to start with accurate information and this necessarily means that you must start with your own parents and grandparents and work backwards in time, up the tree.

Talk to your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and find out what they know, or think they know. Record everything, and make sure you record who told you.

Collect all the documents, photographs and other pieces of paper that you can find from your relatives. Old birth, baptism, marriage and death certificates; newspaper cuttings; school reports; old charts and reports from the previous research of relatives; anything and everything may be useful.

You can then start to look at these bits and pieces more thoroughly and decide for yourself which can be trusted and which may just give ideas for further research. A hand-drawn chart with names, dates and places might be very interesting and even disappointing if you think that it’s all been done already, but unless the chart has sources that can be verified then it is just a starting point and not the end result.

Recording information

You will need some sort of method for recording information and keeping track of it. Most of us these days use some sort of computer software, and if you are reading this you are familiar enough with computers to not be daunted by this.

If you don’t already have a family tree program, try one or more of the free ones first. Here are a couple of examples:

Personal Ancestral File is the most commonly used, and possibly the best, of the free programs. Published by the Mormon church.

Brother’s Keeper is shareware for Windows only. Cyndi’s List has many more examples.

Many other programs have a free trial version that you can use for 30 days to see if you like it before you buy it. Some no longer work after the 30 days without entering your registration code, which you will be sent once you’ve paid, and others allow continued use with reduced features. It’s worth looking around for a program that suits you and your goals – you’ll be spending a lot of time with it!

Test each program by entering a few people and compare how easy they are to use and whether you like the way information is displayed. Consider the features you think you will need – there is no point paying extra for them if you won’t use them, and you won’t use them if they look too complicated. Don’t pay for 27 different types of charts in 101 colours if you will only ever print simple ones in black and white.

Sources

Once you find a program you like enter everything you have, and make sure you enter the sources of your information. Sources are incredibly important and often overlooked by new family tree climbers. Eventually you will get conflicting information and you will need to know where each piece of information came from so that you can determine which piece is more reliable. A date that your Aunty Mabel told you may be less (or more!) reliable than the date on a birth certificate, but you won’t know which one to use if you don’t know where each one came from.

You may think now that you’ll remember who told you what and who gave you each photograph and piece of paper but in a few months or a few years you’ll lose track. We all do. Neither will you be able to tell someone who asks where the information came from. Your research will not be convincing to anyone else unless you can show where your information came from.

This will not be the last time I will be talking about sources – they are crucial!

Backing up

Back up your computer. This is another thing that people neglect until it is too late and then it is a catastrophe. Don’t risk all your hard work being lost when your computer dies (and they all do, eventually). Back up your important files and keep the copies physically separate from your computer. You can use a flash drive, rewritable CDs or DVDs or an external hard drive. Online backup systems are becoming more popular and can be very reassuring if you find a good one. I use Mozy, but there are many others, with differing costs.

You can also upload your family tree to a website such as Ancestry or Rootsweb to make it available to other researchers. This has the added advantage of acting as a backup if something catastrophic happens to your files, your computer, or your house as many of these sites allow you to download the whole file back to your computer.

Filing

You will also need some sort of filing system so that you can find that piece of paper again when you need it. Tossing it all into a box is a sure way to frustration and possible disaster. Use ring-binders and sheet protectors, or a filing cabinet, or scan all the documents and keep them filed on your computer. Make sure that you use acid-free mounts and protectors for original photographs and documents so that they do not deteriorate further, and label everything with as much information as you can – who is involved (especially for photographs), where it came from and who gave it to you.

Documents are harder to back up but not impossible. Scanning them means that a digital copy will hopefully be backed up with your family tree. Distributing copies to interested relatives is a good way of ensuring that the documents are backed up. You could also donate a copy of your research to a genealogical society such as The Society of Australian Genealogists.

What’s next?

Most of what we have covered today is preparation for the real work of research. That’s where the fun really is. We will start talking about research in the next post – what to look for and where to find it.