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

Know your place

Researching the places your ancestors lived is essential for effective family history research. Sources of information vary by location, so it is logical that knowing more about each location will help you find more sources and help you identify which sources are likely to give the best information.


The top half of a hand tinted map of Jamaica and Barbados by John Speed dated 1676. Printed by Thomas Basset and Richard Chiswell, London England. Public domain.

Take civil registration, for example. Civil registration records were created by the government. (1) If you are researching a period after civil registration commenced you can obtain birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates. If you are researching a period before that time you have to rely on church records of baptisms, marriages and burials. You need to know this date so that you know what type of sources you are looking for. The date that civil registration commenced is different depending on the location. In England, civil registration began in 1837 but was not compulsory until 1875. In New South Wales, Australia, where I live, it began on 1 March 1856. In Tasmania, Australia, it commenced on 1 December 1838. And so, on… you get the idea.

Another good reason for learning about places is to help distinguish between people of the same name and to help decide whether your conclusions about a family are correct. Let me give you an example. I was researching a couple who lived in Tumut. The civil registration records showed children being born every 18 months or so in Tumut to parents with the same names as this couple. There was also a child listed with the same parent names, but in a different location – Morpeth. Do I accept this child as theirs? In Google I searched “map Tumut to Morpeth”. This gave me a map showing both locations and the distance between them – 566 kilometres! In the 1850s, this was a very long way to travel.


Knowing the distance between these two places was not sufficient evidence that the child did not belong, but it was sufficient to indicate that I needed to research this child in detail before deciding whether she belonged. And, if you are interested, I discovered evidence of another couple of the same name in Morpeth and concluded that she did not belong in the Tumut family.

How do I get to know the places my families lived?

If you are doing a lot of research in a place, you will probably want to read local histories, gazetteers and so on. However, the two places I begin are Wikipedia and the FamilySearch Wiki.

How to find them: A quick way to find a place page in Wikipedia is to type ‘Wikipedia placename’ into a search engine – for example, ‘Wikipedia Nottinghamshire’. For FamilySearch, go to, select the Search Tab, and select the drop down option ‘Wiki’. You will get a search page in the Wiki, where you can either select a place on the map or type the place name into the search box.

Both websites provide a general location map, which is useful if you are do not know where a place is. (2) Wikipedia entries about a place have a useful box on the right hand side listing information such as the country, region, county names, the flag, official languages, ethnic groups, religions, government and area. For countries such as England where county names and borders have changed, the box also provides information about these changes.

Wikipedia also provides information about the history and landscape of a place. It is pretty general and may not be 100% accurate, but it is a good starting point to get a feel for a place. If you are lucky, the entry may also have photographs of the church of your ancestors or historic landmarks that they may have known. Wikipedia photographs are usually not subject to copyright restrictions, which makes them a good source for family history. If you click on a photograph it will take you to a new screen which contains information about any restrictions on using the photograph.

The FamilySearch Wiki is a fantastic place to start researching a place. It is also good to come back to if you ever run out of ideas for sources. The Wiki is a tool for finding information about records that may have been generated about your ancestors and the places in which the records might be found. The Wiki has information from 244 countries, territories and islands. (3)

For each place, the Wiki provides general research strategies and research guides based on record types. For example, the section on Church Records describes the years covered by available records and how complete (or incomplete) the surviving record sets are. It suggests which record groups to look at and provides information on the availability of finding aids such as indexes. The Wiki also provides information about major repositories of records, such as archives offices and libraries.

The record types listed in each wiki page are standardised, but the information varies considerably by location. As with all wikis, it is written by the community. However, it is well managed and I have found that the information is of very high quality.

The FamilySearch Wiki is massive and it is hard to do it justice in a single blog post. However, I hope that I have tempted you to exploring it.


(1) This discussion of civil registration applies to countries such as Australia and England. The process will be different in some areas, such as Asia.

(2) For more detailed location maps, I start with Google maps or I use the inbuilt mapping feature in my family history software.

(3) FamilySearch Wiki: About Us

Baptised before birth and other silly claims

There are some basic rules in life that cannot be broken. Following these rules will instantly make you a better genealogist.

  1. You cannot be baptised or christened before you were born. There may be some cultures out there that do not follow this rule, but for most of us this rule applies.baptism1
  2. You cannot be buried before you die. Well, you could but it would be illegal and downright scary. This rule of course does not apply to vampires or zombies.
  3. You cannot be in two places at once. Unless you are an undeclared identical twin trying to fool people.
  4. If the ‘father’ was in gaol when the baby was conceived, he is not the father. Unless it was a very accommodating gaol.
  5. Similarly, if the ‘father’ died more than 9 months before the birth, he is not the father. Except of course, if science was involved.baptism2
  6. Sharing a surname does not mean two people are biologically related. If it did, the Smith family would be one very enormous family tree!
  7. Women rarely give birth before they are 12 or after they turn 50. If there are children beyond those ages send them back to their rightful homes! There are variations based on nutrition and time period, and trends are changing but its still a useful guide.
  8. Events close in time tend to occur in the same country. A man is unlikely to be buried in Pennsylvania USA if he died in Paddington NSW Australia.baptism3

Now go out and slay those online family tree myths!


Broaden your research with FANs

One of the traps to fall into with family history research is narrowing the target too much. Many researchers focus on just their direct ancestral line – parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is a desire to forge back into the past as quickly as possible, or to make the research task manageable. Or it may be an attempt to focus on the people who are thought to be the most important.

The danger of this approach is that it can result in information gaps, errors or a ‘brick wall’.

Research is the process of collecting information, which is used as evidence to support conclusions. A narrow research approach reduces the amount of information collected. This will mean that the stories you compile about your ancestors are pretty sketchy, but more importantly it means that you will have less evidence. With less evidence, inconsistencies are not apparent and the wrong conclusions can be made. Having more information increases the likelihood of reaching correct conclusions and the likelihood of having a comprehensive and accurate family history.

Information is collected from sources. Increasing the number of sources has the potential to increase the amount of information. It is not as straightforward as that, as the type and quality of the sources is also a factor, but that is a topic for another time.


To increase the information you need to gather as many research leads as possible. One way to do this is to expand beyond your direct ancestral line and research your ancestor’s FAN club. FAN stands for friends, associates and neighbours. The technique is also referred to as ‘collateral research’, but I like the term FAN because it presents an image of something opening up which is what this technique is all about.

Your ancestor interacted with a lot of people during their lifetime. By researching some of those people, you can gather more information about your ancestor. Some of this information will be direct – such as a record of an event that specifically mentions your ancestor and their FAN. Other information will be indirect – such as a story about disastrous floods that affected a FAN who lived near your ancestor.

Researching your ancestor’s FANS also increases the likelihood that you will obtain information from sources that are independent of the sources about your ancestor. Think of it like getting a second opinion. If two sources were created by different people for different purposes contain the same information, it increases the chance that the information is accurate.

How do you find your ancestor’s FANS?

Start by looking at people who were the closest to your ancestor. Within a family there may be siblings, aunts and uncles, half- and step-siblings, multiple wives and husbands, and more. Next, look at the people mentioned in the sources about your ancestor – the witnesses to a marriage, the minister who married them, the informant on a death certificate, the people who appear in the census with them and so on.

Researching your ancestors’ FAN club takes a lot of time, so it’s best to have a research question in mind. You should select the FANS who are most likely to provide information relevant to your research question. However, if you are just interested in collecting as much information as you can about a family, you could broaden your search to the locality in which they lived – who taught at the local school, who attended the same church, who owned the land next to them and so on. Then finally, you could examine groups who were potentially affected by the same broad forces or events that affected your ancestor –  for example, the convict period, the First World War, an occupational group.

What do you do with all the information?

There is not a lot of point in gathering all this extra information if you cannot make good use of it. You will need tools and techniques to analyse the information, see patterns and inconsistencies, and draw conclusions. I’ll be writing more about such tools and techniques in other posts.