Are the big genealogy sites making us lazy?

Don’t get me wrong – I love the big genealogy sites. Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Findmypast – just to name a few. These sites have given us easy access to an enormous volume of sources. Their collections are invaluable and they are constantly expanding their collections and introducing tools to help us use the collections. However, this ease of access and tools can also work against us as good genealogists.

Photo by Tomas Ryant from

Take source citations, for example. To save us time and help us out, the big sites provide suggested source citations. If we have an online tree on that site, we copy the information across and a source citation is automatically added without us having to do anything much at all. If we prefer to store the information on our own computer, we either type the information into our family tree or download an extract of the source (or both). We can then cut and paste the suggested source citation and add that to the information on our computer.

It is great that they help us in this way, because it reduces the likelihood of family trees without source citations. However, the problem is that this assistance can stop us from examining the sources for ourselves. When we create a source citation, we have to take time and think about what the source really is, who created it and when, and consider the features which help us determine the reliability of the source.

Sources on the big sites are gathered into collections and given a generic name, without all the subtle details of information that tells us more about the features of the source which affect their reliability. Some of us may read the explanatory notes, or use the information provided to track down and examine the original sources. But I suspect that many don’t.

So … slow down and resist the urge to let websites do all your research for you.

Start from a solid foundation

The question that everyone has when researching family history, regardless of whether they are just starting or have been doing it for many years, is – where do I start? For new researchers, the question arises because they are unfamiliar with the process of family history research. For more experienced researchers it is because they have come to realise that there is so much research to do that it becomes overwhelming.

The standard advice given to people who are new to family history research is that you should always start with yourself. Sound advice, because if you start anywhere else you cannot be sure you are researching people who are actually related to you. However, that advice is not helpful past that point, so each time we sit down to do some research we are faced by the same question – where do I start?

The answer is research planning.

Research planning provides you with focus, in the form of research goals, questions or hypotheses; and direction, in the form of a list of tasks, sources and repositories. If you spend time on planning your research, then each time you sit down to do some research you have options for where you can start this time, and a process to keep track of what you have done and what you intend to do next. However, I am not just talking about producing a research plan based on a template, although such a plan is a very useful tool. The research planning process can be anything that helps to make your research more systematic.

A fundamental principle in research planning is that you must always start from the known and move into the unknown, or, as I like to describe it – start from a solid foundation. This means you can start your research from any person in your family history, provided you are sure that the information you have and the conclusions you have reached about that person are sound. This is the principle that underlies the instruction to start with yourself when you are just beginning.

The challenge then becomes identifying and documenting the solid foundation points in your family history so that you can use them as stepping stones for further research.

One method is to choose the person you want to start with (for any reason at all!) and verify that they are a solid foundation. To do this, you need to review all the information you already have and the sources you have already examined, and analyse whether the conclusions you have reached are sufficiently supported by the evidence. Be honest and critical – is the evidence strong, or are there doubts or inconsistencies? If the evidence is weak, then that becomes your first research task – to investigate further. Once you verify that this person is a solid foundation, then you can start moving outwards to research other people. Your first priority should be to move in the direction towards yourself, verifying that each person between your starting person and yourself is also a solid foundation. This confirms how your starting person is related to you.

Another method is to have a document or system that records where the solid foundations occur within your family tree. Each time you feel like researching, you just choose a point from that document or system. You could achieve this using family history software or research plans (and I will discuss these in later posts), but I like to use this simple tool which I call a Tree Health Assessment.

A Tree Health Assessment can be documented quite simply using a family tree chart. To use this method you must start with yourself, regardless of how long you have been researching your family history. As you assess the evidence for each person and their relationship to the previous generation you colour the line or box for that person based on your assessment. Green means the evidence is strong that you have identified the correct person and their relationship to the previous generation (e.g. father and daughter). Yellow means you have some evidence but it needs further research – for example, the evidence may be indirect or circumstantial. Red means that there are issues of concern, such as no sources, information from unreliable sources, inconsistencies or doubts about the conclusions. The solid foundations in your tree are any parts which are coloured green. Your research should always start at a point where the green person links to a yellow or red line or box (shown as a blue X in the example below). However, take care not to leap into researching a red coloured person if there are yellow ones between them and yourself, as the answers may lie in turning the yellow into a solid foundation first.

Documenting your family history

Documenting your family history is not just about creating a family tree and citing your sources. Documentation is an essential element in all aspects of family history.

The first step when you begin your family history is to look at what you already know and talk to immediate family to find out what they know. Obviously, you have to document that in some way so that you can use it to move forward. What’s the best way to do that? Perhaps start drawing a family tree, showing how people are related to each other and the key facts such as birth, marriage and death dates. But family stories may provide a lot more information than can be recorded in a tree. You could use oral history techniques, record their stories and then transcribe them. Or make your own notes and add your own observations.

When you want to start gathering information from other sources you will need to think about how you are going to document that too. Not the information – not yet. First you need to document your research plan. What information are you looking for and why? Which family story do you want to investigate, or which person in the family do you want to know more about? Then, when you start gathering the information you need to document that too. Again, you could use the family tree and create more notes. Or you might try recording the information using family history software. The software takes a lot of the hard work out of documentation, by providing templates, citation guidance and standard charts and reports to print out.

Finally, when you have gathered the information and answered your research questions, how are you going to share that information with other people? What if your research does not agree with the research of someone else – how will you convince them that your research findings are sound?

The skill of documentation is an essential one for family history. I will be lecturing on this topic at the Society of Australian Genealogists this Saturday, 12 December, as Part 3 of the Family History Fundamentals online course. Further lectures will be held in 2021 on documentation, analysis and research planning. Visit to book.

Three types of primary sources to enrich your family history

Birth death and marriage records can only reveal so much. Last Saturday I gave a lecture at the Society of Australian Genealogists about primary sources for early Sydney, where I explored some alternative sources to enrich your family history.

hunters journal

The idea for the lecture topic came my experiences researching my 5x great grandfather Captain John Townson. He came to Australia on the Second Fleet and was Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island for a while, and yet the official records about him are pretty scarce. Probably because he did not leave a mansion behind to become a historic building! So I am digging deeper into a wider variety of sources to find out more about him and his life.

For the purposes of my lecture, I used the definition of ‘primary sources’ as those which contain first-hand or contemporary information. This information could be in an original source or a secondary source, provided the information has not been significantly altered. All sources can contain inaccurate information, but the value of primary sources is that they contain information from people who may have participated in the event. That makes them special because they provide an insight that other sources do not.

Take the journal of Lachlan Macquarie for example (for those of my readers who are not Australian, he was a Governor of New South Wales). I’ll never be privileged to view the original journal, but I have a copy of it which was published in 1979 by the Library of Australian History. It contains transcripts from the original manuscripts and images of paintings, both held by the NSW State Library. It may have been published well after the events, but the information is presented as transcripts so it can be treated as a primary source.

Within Macquarie’s diary I was fortunate to find a record of his visit to John Townson’s house:

‘Thursday 13th December 1810…I set out this morning at 7 o’clock in the morning from Parramatta with Mrs. Macquarie in the carriage accompanied by the gentlemen of our family and the Surveyor… after a very pleasant drive through thick forest, arrived at Capt. Townson’s farm house on Botany Bay at half past 9 o’clock.

We found the Captain at home in his very pretty neat clean little cottage, where he received us with hospitality and in a gentlemanlike manner… His garden we found in excellent order and producing the largest and best strawberries I have yet seen or eat in this Colony. After breakfast we embarked on the water in Capt. Townson’s boat, in order to see his own and his brother Doctor Townson’s farm, which join each other at this place.’

This amazing image is something you would not find in the standard family history sources.


And speaking of amazing images, paintings can also provide great contextual information for your family history. Paintings of early Sydney show the streets John Townson walked down, buildings he probably visited and people that he knew (including a portrait of his brother, Robert).

Artwork needs to be used with caution when seeking historical information. Some of the paintings of early Sydney were actually painted well after the event. The image below, for example, entitled ‘The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788’ is widely used but the catalogue entry in the NSW State Library reveals that it was an historical recreation painted in 1937. Similarly, some paintings of early Sydney were painted in England by people who had never been there. It is important to verify that the source you are using is actually a primary source. Always check the date, as well as the birth and death dates of the painter and whether they had first-hand knowledge of the subject.



The final primary source I want to mention here – just because it is a more unusual source for most family historians – is archaeology.

The mother of Captain Townson’s daughter (both mother and daughter were named Sarah Griggs) lived for a time in The Rocks, which is a part of Sydney down near the harbour. By viewing archaeological excavations in The Rocks and the objects found in them I can get a feel for the size and character of the house that Sarah would have lived in. The archaeological remains are a primary source and anyone can use them at that level. However, their true value is revealed when they are interpreted by reputable archaeologists and historians, in their reports and publications and in exhibitions contained in museums such as the Susannah Place Museum and The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre.


These are just a few types of primary sources out there. I will explore more in future posts.

Patrick Dwyer – ‘a man of somewhat eccentric character’

Genealogy is more than dates and places, it’s about finding the stories that turn an ancestor into a real person. Here is a story about Patrick Dwyer, of Tipperary and Tumut.


On 1 February 1858, at the age of 50, Patrick Dwyer, ‘a man of somewhat eccentric character, and withal having rather more than an average of the ready mother wit of his countrymen – dropped dead. The excitement of our election and the consequent hilarity on such occasions no doubt had something to do with his unexpected and sudden end. Paddy’s sayings and doings will be long remembered among the inhabitants of the district.’ [Empire, 16th Feb 1858]

Ever since I discovered my fourth great grandfather Patrick, he seemed to be begging me to find and tell his story. Perhaps it was the parallel between his death and the unexpected death of my own father at the same age. My father was a bit eccentric too, with his banjo playing and his Spike Milligan impersonations. Or maybe it is just the strength of Patrick’s personality refusing to fade away.

Patrick arrived in Sydney Australia from Ireland on the ship the Andromache on 31 October 1837. He arrived before the ‘great famine’, but just like the other 30,000 Irish who migrated to Australia between 1832 and 1845 he was looking for a better life. Walker and Co, a London firm specialising in importing goods to Australia and wool to England, received a 10 pound bounty for bringing him to Australia.

irish immigrants

Finding Patrick in the immigration records was tricky – Patrick Dwyer is a common Irish name, plus there was the problem of his name being spelled incorrectly – as Dyer in the shipping records and Ayer in the index to shipping records on After systematically ruling out all of the convicts and other immigrants of the same name, he was finally identified because of his habit of getting into trouble with the law. His gaol records provided the name of the ship and the arrival date, his crimes connected him to his friends and family in Tumut, and his physical description in the various gaol records provided further evidence that all these records were referring to the same man.

I’ll get to the gaol story(s) in a moment, but there’s something else you need to know first, so you can see how we figured out that Patrick on the Andromache was my Patrick. On 21 February 1843, Patrick married Johanna Flynn (from Limerick in Ireland) at the Cut Road in Tumut. One of the witnesses to their marriage was Sarah Madden. Sarah Madden married John Ryan on 9 June 1843. And now we get to the incident that put Patrick in gaol for the first time.

Patrick and his mates threw a pre-wedding party for John and Sarah at Dodds’ house, which was operating as a ‘sly grog house’ (that’s an unlicenced pub / hotel). Patrick was in charge of the house at the time and when a group of government road workers became drunk and argumentative he tried to get them to leave. In the ensuing fight Patrick killed Michael Fogerty and was subsequently charged with his murder.

Newspapers latched onto the story. One article described it as ‘a most desperate murder’ and used it to argue for the abolition of sly grog shops. Another emphasised that Patrick Dwyer was ‘an immigrant’ and inaccurately reported him ‘murdering two men’.

A report of the trial presented a different picture to these news reports. Witnesses described the road workers as ‘drunk and quarrelling among themselves’ and told how Patrick was first cut with a knife and then had large stones thrown at him. Another witness told the judges that the fight was unequal, with four men against one, and that he had thought that Patrick’s life was in danger. As a result, the judges decided that he had been provoked and ‘on account of his excellent previous character’ lessened the charge to manslaughter with the ‘lenient punishment of six months imprisonment in Berrima Gaol.’

berrima gaol

Witnesses at the 1843 trial described Patrick as having ‘an excellent character for humanity, quietness, and general good conduct.’ However, he clearly had a bit of a temper and it was not the only time he ended up in gaol. In 1850 he received two months for assault (at another inn) and in 1854 he received eight months for an unspecified crime.

Patrick, Johanna and their children – Ellen, Winifred, Margaret, Patrick and William – lived on Gilmore Creek and Patrick worked as a labourer, finding no use for his previous profession as a baker. He bought three blocks of land in Tumut between 1850 and 1855. Ironically, it was these attempts to build a future for his family that led to their ruin. The loans he took out to fund his purchases remained unpaid when he died young, so his creditor took everything. Johanna and the children were left destitute by his death.

Like most of my ancestors, I have no photograph of Patrick. Not even a photograph of a headstone, although he is reported as having been buried in Tumut Cemetery. However, thanks to his tendency for bar fights, I do have a description of him from his gaol records.

Patrick was six foot one or two, with blue eyes and brown hair. He had marks of scurvy on his right arm and a scar on his forehead. When he married in 1843, he was unable to write his own name. Patrick’s ‘sayings and doings’ were sometimes recorded in the local newspapers. Because of this I know that he almost drowned when Gilmore Creek flooded in August 1851; and his best mates were Michael Quilty and John Ryan, though sometimes he fought with them too. I also know that during the election of a local candidate for the Legislative Assembly this ‘somewhat eccentric character’ got in trouble for flourishing his whip at a campaign meeting and that he decorated himself in ribbons and led a band of music in a parade about the town.

When he died, Patrick’s mate John Ryan presided over his burial. The story of Johanna and her children is for another time.

For more information:

Extracts of various newspapers from 1843-1858

Death certificate, Patrick Dwyer, NSW Registry Births Deaths and Marriages, 5502/1858

Marriage register, Patrick Dwyer and Johanna Flynn, V18431781 92

NSW Assisted immigrant lists 1828-1896,

NSW Gaol description and entrance books, 1818-1930, series 2019, item 6/5430, roll 1873; series 2229, item 6/5430, roll 1875; series 2225, item 6/5425, roll 1874.

NSW Government Gazettes