Case studies, Methodology

Finding answers in a broader search

Researching someone’s siblings and the witnesses on their birth, death or marriage records is often sufficient. However, in some cases you need to conduct a broader search.

I suggested in my previous post that you need a broader search if:

  • the sources reveal gaps or inconsistencies
  • the sources do not provide the necessary information to answer your research questions, or
  • you have tested your DNA.

One of the best examples I have of the need for a broader search is my five times great grandfather, Captain John Townson.

John Townson was a member of the NSW Corps and arrived in Australia on the Second Fleet in 1790. He had two daughters. I am descended from the second daughter, Sarah Griggs. He was first stationed at Rose Hill (near Parramatta), then on Norfolk Island. He lived for a while on land granted to him in Sydney, in the area now known as Tom Ugly’s Point, and later moved to Tasmania where he received further land grants.

The standard birth, death and marriage records yield little of any use, which is not unusual for such records at that time. Plus, he never married and so far his baptism record has not yet been found. Despite his participation in the early history of Sydney and Norfolk Island – he was Lieutenant Governor there for a few years – there are few sources that refer directly to him. And despite claims of some researchers that he was baptised in Yorkshire or Shropshire, the evidence does not support either.

John’s life story is full of gaps and inconsistencies. To conduct a reasonably exhaustive search and gather sufficient evidence to substantiate the details of events in his life, a broader search is required. Fortunately, John has a ton of family, friends, associates and neighbours.

Research goals, questions and hypotheses are important for all family history research, but they are particularly essential when you research beyond the direct line because you need to place some limit on the research and give yourself something to focus upon, or else your search becomes endless. In this case, my research goals for John are (i) to find evidence of the date and location of his birth, and (ii) to better understand his role in the early history of Sydney and Norfolk Island, and his potential involvement in the event that is usually referred to as the Rum Rebellion.

Missing birth information

Missing information about the birth of an individual is a good example of when you need to extend your search beyond your direct line. It is not enough to search for their birth and baptism, nor to research their parents. You need to research the entire family group. Researching siblings provides more information to help confirm whether or not you are searching in the right place and time, and whether you have correctly identified the mother.

A broader search of John’s family has revealed records such as wills, divorce records for his mother from her first husband, a baptism record for his older sister and business records for his father. Collectively these sources provide circumstantial evidence that John was born before May 1760, probably in London or Richmond (in Surrey). I live in hope that one day I will find his baptism record.

Historical events

My research into the historical context of John’s life is ongoing. I have a timeline of his life in an Excel spreadsheet, with columns for his friends, associates and neighbours. This helps me identify shared events or experiences and target sources about those who may provide a useful insight into his life.

Extract from my spreadsheet about John Townson’s FFANs in the NSW Corps

For example, John came to Australia on the Scarborough with John Macarthur, about whom much has been written. They both had strong connections with Parramatta and had many shared friends and associates. One shared associate was Captain John Piper, the man after whom Point Piper in Sydney is named. Townson and Piper were stationed at Norfolk Island at the same time, and Piper was the executor of Townson’s will. The NSW State Library has papers about Macarthur and Piper, waiting to be explored for references to Townson and insights into his life.

Another example is John’s participation in the event known as the Rum Rebellion. In 1808, a group of men, mostly members of the NSW Corps, mutinied and overthrew the Governor of NSW, William Bligh. After the rebellion, Bligh named John Townson as one of the conspirators, but his brother, Robert, was also involved and signed the petition against Bligh. Sources about this event are providing an insight into their motivation, which appears to have been about Bligh failing to honour land grants to them, and also other details of their lives.

My next post about researching beyond your direct line will discuss options for documenting the research.

A few sources:

NSW State Library, ‘From Terra Australis to Australia. The 1808 ‘Rum’ Rebellion’, (, accessed 28 May 2022.

Findmypast & British Library, British Newspaper Archive (, Proclamation by William Bligh, March 1809; Cheltenham Chronicle, Thursday 11 January 1810.

Frederick Watson, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1 – Governors’ despatches to and from England  (N.p.: Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament., 1914), Governor Phillip to the Right Hon. W. W. Grenville. (Despatch No. 9, per store-ship Justinian, via China; acknowledged by Rt. Hon. Henry Dundas, 10th January, 1792.) p.193.

Featured photo: Searle, E. W & Beatties Studio, 1848, Norfolk Island convict settlement at Kingston in 1848, retrieved May 28, 2022, from

Case studies, Methodology

How I lost my Pomeranian

Gottlieb intrigued me. His name itself is exotic, at least it is where I live. I never met a Gottlieb before him, in real life or in family history research. Gottlieb Augustus Edward Malchow. Who was he? What did he look like? What were his life experiences and expectations? Why did he come to Australia and how did he meet his wife?

All these questions, and more, drove my research for many years and he became one of those special ancestors that drag you back to them all the time. I cannot explain my interest in him. Perhaps it was the place he came from – Pomerania. I had heard of Pomerania before but I knew next to nothing about it, so I read and gathered maps and photos to learn more. Perhaps it was also because the records said very little about him.

Gottlieb was my great great great grandfather, on my mother’s side. He married my great great great grandmother Maria Elizabeth Kiesecker in Mudgee, New South Wales Australia, on 1 September 1862. They had five children – Christina, Elizabeth, Charles, Ferdinand and John. Christina was my great great grandmother.

I have never found Gottlieb’s death certificate or Christina’s birth or baptism records. These are important documents for establishing relationships. My relationship to Christina has been confirmed through a combination of DNA evidence and other documentary records. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Gottlieb.

Even before I had my DNA tested, there were hints that something was wrong. The first was my failure to find Christina’s birth or baptism records, when the records for all her siblings were available. The second was the knowledge that Gottlieb and Maria married in September and Christina was supposedly born the same year. I now believe that her mother was either already pregnant when she married or that Christina was born before the marriage.

My DNA test results revealed a group of people who were related to me and also to each other. I had no clues to how we were related until one of my DNA matches contacted me and supplied me with information about their family tree and their matches. Sarah (not her real name) and I shared 47 centimorgans.

The ‘unknown’ group of DNA matches, with Sarah in the top left corner of 6
Predicted relationships for 47cM, from Blaine Bettinger’s shared cM tool on DNA Painter website

Sarah also had matches with other descendants of Christina, but not with descendants of Christina’s maternal cousins. From this information we concluded that Christina’s father was the link, not her mother. Comparing our ages helped us narrow down the possibilities, as we were a generation apart. After further analysis, we developed the hypothesis that Christina’s biological father was either Sarah’s great grandfather Edward Webb (1837-1923) or his father, also called Edward Webb (1812-1899). Sarah’s research indicated that both were in Mudgee around the time of Christina’s birth.

Ironically, I still do not know what Gottlieb looked like but I do have this photo of Edward Webb jnr, which was kindly uploaded to an Ancestry tree by David Fayle

I now have eleven DNA matches who are descended from Edward Webb jnr, through three of his children; and five DNA matches who are descended from his siblings. The size of the matches are too small to be definitive, but they are all within the ranges you would expect if he were Christina’s biological father and their relationships with each other have been established. Unfortunately, I have not been able to trace any descendants of Gottlieb’s other children to compare their DNA to mine, which could confirm or refute the hypothesis.

The evidence that Edward Webb was Christina’s biological father is still circumstantial, but it is enough for me to agree that I have lost my Pomeranian. It is important in family history to accept that new evidence can change your conclusions and to understand that DNA evidence can contradict documentary evidence. Gottlieb is still part of the family, as he did raise Christina as his daughter, but I still feel a sense of loss.

Read my article about how DNA research is essential in family history.

Need help with your DNA research? I am available for DNA consults.

More of my family history stories are available on my other website.

Case studies, Methodology

Is DNA essential evidence for family historians?

Tonight I am participating in a panel discussion for the Society of Australian Genealogists about whether DNA is the 21st century tool for all family historians. I have been invited partly because of my experience using DNA in family history and partly because I specialise in the research process. I run the Society’s Family History Fundamentals course and I also lecture on a range of methodological topics such as research planning, proving your family history and source citations.

DNA is used by a lot of family historians. The question posed to me is, from a methodological viewpoint, should it be used by all family historians?

I first had my DNA tested with Family Tree DNA in 2017. At that time I was not fully aware of the potential that DNA had for my research, but I did have a question that I hoped it might answer. I had been researching my family history for over a decade but had still not been able to figure out who my paternal grandfather’s father was. His parents were unmarried and his father was not listed on his birth certificate. So I hoped that the results of DNA testing might provide some clues. When I received my results I realised that the process was not that simple. I had to learn how to analyse the results and incorporate them into my research. I also had to maximise the potential evidence from my DNA, so I tested with Ancestry DNA, uploaded to Gedmatch and MyHeritage, built up a large family tree on Ancestry and tested available family members.

When we research our family history, we are constructing a view of the past based on information that has been left behind. We obtain that information from sources. We interpret the information and use it as evidence to reach conclusions about the past. Traditional research primarily relies on documentary sources such as birth death and marriage records, but may also incorporate non-documentary sources such as oral history. DNA is another type of non-documentary source. Why might it be considered an essential source?

Our aim in family history is to make it as accurate as possible. If we do not, then we risk creating a family history that is not ours. Accuracy requires that our conclusions be reasonable and defensible. To achieve that we have to use the ‘best sources’ and conduct what is referred to as ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’. Can family history research be considered reasonably exhaustive if it has not utilised DNA evidence? To answer this we need to look at the power of DNA evidence.

Our family trees are based on establishing biological relationships between parents and their children. Documentary sources can provide evidence to support or refute these relationships, but it is rare that the strength of the support or refutation is definitive – usually, there is scope for further evidence to change the conclusion. However, DNA evidence is different. It can often provide definitive support or refutation, or at least something very close to definitive.

I have two examples in my own family history where the DNA evidence totally contradicts all the documentary evidence and in both cases I am convinced that the DNA evidence is correct.

The first is the identification of Gottlieb Malchow as the father of my great great grandmother Christina Malchow. Gottlieb was married to her mother, raised her and was listed as her father on her death certificate. Yet, the DNA evidence definitively refutes that he was her biological father. The DNA evidence also suggests who actually was her biological father. To me, it does not seem possible that there is another explanation for the evidence, so I think that I would argue that the evidence is also definitive about the identity of her biological father (though I am open to additional evidence to the contrary).

The second example where DNA has definitively disproven the documentary evidence is the discovery that my entire paternal line (except for my father) is not biological. Again, the DNA evidence is definitive. I have no DNA matches at all on that line and I do not match my cousin or uncle. It just is not possible for that line to be biological.

DNA evidence is also powerful evidence when the available documentary evidence is either lacking or is only circumstantial. The same great great grandmother I mentioned above, Christina, had six children. She was unmarried and her family were ashamed by her actions and the names of the fathers of her children were deliberately omitted from the records. The evidence that George Bassett was the father of her daughter, my great grandmother, was circumstantial – town rumour and the fact that one of his sisters brought up one of Christina’s other children. However, the DNA evidence is strong. Thirty DNA matches between myself and descendants of George’s siblings definitively support the conclusion that the father was from that family. A further match from a descendant of another child of George, together with the circumstantial evidence means that the conclusion that George was the father, while not definitive, is reasonable and defensible.

Extract of the summary of DNA matches to George’s family

So, DNA evidence can be essential in disproving documentary evidence and it can be essential where documentary evidence is insufficient. The final example of how DNA evidence is essential in family history is where there is no documentary evidence at all.

After discovering that my paternal line was not biological, I managed to identify my father’s biological mother by obtaining his adoption records. His mother was named in the records, but his father was not. It was only by analysing the DNA evidence that I was able to identify his biological father and use that information to build out my biological paternal line. While initially my conclusion about his identity was tentative, further analysis has built up a body of evidence that makes my conclusion reasonable and defensible.

When researching family history we are expected to use the best sources by conducting a reasonably exhaustive search. Without using evidence from DNA testing my family history would contain substantial inaccuracies and I would never have been able to build my paternal biological family tree. DNA evidence is therefore arguably the best source, when used in combination with documentary sources. I do believe DNA evidence is essential evidence for family historians.

Case studies

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.

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.


Case studies

History revealed by an illuminated address

Illuminated addresses are hand-illustrated manuscripts presented to a person to mark an event or to celebrate a person’s achievements. Typically contained in a leather-bound gold-embossed folder faced with red silk, they contain hand-written text surrounded by a wide decorative border, illustrations, a statement of appreciation and signatures of the presenters. The term ‘illuminated’ derives from the use of gilt, but many addresses use gold or bronze paint rather than gilt. Illuminated addresses were popular in Britain and Australia from the 1850s to the 1930s, with a peak in popularity in the 1880s and 1890s.

General consensus appears to be that illuminated addresses were derived from illuminated books and manuscripts in medieval Europe. Australian examples commonly contain native flora and fauna – a trend which was also evident in art and buildings at that time.

Illuminated addresses were presented in a ceremony and were often accompanied by a purse of sovereigns and an announcement in the local newspapers. They had an important symbolic role, creating and reinforcing social links, and generating expectations of reciprocity.

Bean addressThis illuminated address is in the collections of the Society of Australian Genealogists. It was presented to Dr J. W. B. Bean Esq. M. D. of South Kensington by members of the Medical Magazine Club in Waverley New South Wales on 14 May 1914.