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


How do you research beyond your direct line?

If just researching your direct line is the wrong approach to family history research, then how far beyond that line do you need to go and how do you decide who to research?

FFANs principle

Applying the ‘FANs principle’ involves researching the Friends, Associates and Neighbours of our ancestors. A variant of this principle adds an extra F for Family (the ‘FFANs principle’) to remind us to include the extended family. The FFANs principle is sometimes referred to as ‘cluster research’.

The basis of this principle is that sources about people associated with our family or a particular individual may contain additional relevant information that helps our research. This is because FFANs and our research subject may:

  • both have a relationship with the same person or person(s)
  • have participated in the same events, or
  • have a shared history or characteristic.

Shared relationship example: Siblings share the same parents. If the birth certificate of one child does not list the mother’s maiden name this information might be found on the birth certificate of one of their siblings.

Shared events example: Immigrants may arrive on the same ship. A diary by one of the passengers on a ship might provide information about the journey and their experiences, which can be extrapolated in a general sense to the research subject.

Shared history or characteristic example: If the research subject was a midwife, researching other midwives in the same place and time period might provide insights into their life and work.

Collateral research

‘Collateral research’ is similar to the FFANs principle, but it focuses only on researching the extended family. Specifically, people who are also descended from your distant ancestors – second cousins, fourth cousins once removed and so on.

Collateral research is fundamental to research that involves DNA evidence, as it helps to identify how DNA matches are related to the DNA test subject through a common ancestor. Once the relationship has been confirmed, the DNA test subject can then utilise the research of the DNA match (if available) to supplement their own research. For example, the DNA match may have photographs of the common ancestor that the DNA test subject did not have.

Family reconstitution

‘Family reconstitution’ goes beyond biological relationships and reconstructs all family units within a specific location. It has its origins in demographic research, but can be a useful tool in family history if you have difficulty identifying which person or family from that place are your ancestors, or if you need to clarify the relationships between different families. This method relies mostly on parish records, but can also be applied to census records and other sets of records that are spatially specific.

One-name studies

‘One-name studies’ examine all occurrences of a surname, even if the people are not biologically related. The objectives of these studies are to identify the origin of the name, relative frequency, distribution in place and time, patterns of immigration and name variants. Reconstructing families and the family history of all lines is not required but such information may be gathered during the study.  

More information: Guild of One-Name Studies.

Which technique and how far should you research?

The FFANs principle is often recommended as a strategy for ‘brick wall’ research, but I suggest that it should be a fundamental element of all research as it provides more information and increases the likelihood that the family history will be accurate. Collateral research is a subset of that approach and may be sufficient in some circumstances. Family reconstitution and One-name studies may also be appropriate approaches in specific situations.

However, you do not need to research every family member, friend, associate and neighbour. Nor do you need to research them to the same level of detail.

How far do you need to extend your research? As far as necessary to:

  • conduct a reasonably exhaustive search, and
  • answer your research questions.

Any source can contain errors, gaps and inconsistencies, so you need to gather sufficient sources to resolve these problems. In addition, different source types provide different types of information. Sources for a family member may not be sufficient to answer your research questions.

As a minimum, best practice involves researching entire family groups on your direct lines (i.e. the parents and all their children), not just direct ancestors. But how much research should you do on the family? Since the key to an accurate family history is the identification of the correct people and the relationships between them, start by examining the key vital records for each – i.e. birth death and marriage records. This may provide additional information, or it should at least provide corroboration of identities and family relationships.

You will need to go beyond these key vital records and research families in more detail 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.
It helps to think of FFANs in terms of their degree of connectedness to your direct ancestors

Extending your research beyond the family will be necessary if the sources about the family do not provide the information you need. For example, if you want to know more about the military career of your ancestor and none of the family shared that experience, then you need to research their military associates.

The key to identifying the relevant FFANs to research lies in your research questions and an analysis about the type of information that research into them might provide. Stay tuned for my next post where I examine this in relation to a specific ancestor of mine.

Photo: Squair family, from the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists

Advice, Methodology

Three alternatives to publishing a family history book

There are many ways to compile and share your family history.


If you use family history software to document your research, you can easily compile your family history by using the reporting and charting tools in the software. The basic reports can be generated in a matter of moments, provided you have entered sufficient information to your family tree, such as source citations. With a bit more time, you can customise the basic reports and add extra content such as stories, maps and photo galleries. Through customisation, a report can be converted into a publishable family history book, if that is what you want, or you can keep it as an unpublished PDF document.

Table of contents for a family history report on Ivy Elizabeth Rusten listing ten generations.
Contents page for a standard report from family history software
Customise your report in your family history software to create a book

A lot of people use Ancestry to document their family history and the good news is that you can also generate reports and charts from that site. The LifeStory and Facts screens of individual profiles both have a print option, from which you can create a PDF document for an individual. The LifeStory is in the format of a timeline and it includes any photographs you have added to the Gallery for that individual. You can customise the LifeStory by editing text or by adding a biography. The Facts report includes any source citations you have attached to the information. From the tree view in Ancestry, the print option takes you to an external site, MyCanvas, which allows you to create a family history book based on your Ancestry family tree (for a fee).

The advantages of the report format of a compiled family history are that:

  • it is easy to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • it follows formats which are recognisable by other genealogists.

In my first article about compiling your family history I emphasised that there are different purposes for writing up your family history and different audiences. The report format is great for sharing your research with other researchers and for helping you analyse the research that you have done so that you can generate new research leads. Generally, report formats are not great for sharing your research with family, although the customisation options do go some way to addressing this limitation.


By comparison, a scrapbook is a great format for sharing your family history with family or non-genealogists. I use the term ‘scrapbook’ loosely to mean a document that is built primarily from visual elements, such as photos and illustrations.

You could, for example, include the following in a family history scrapbook:

  • a simplified family tree
  • photographs
  • maps
  • extracts from official sources
  • lists of children and family members
  • images of family letters, signatures, and other family mementos.
Example digital scrapbook page

Scrapbooks are more aesthetically pleasing than reports and convey information in smaller chunks, which means family are more likely to engage with them.

You can create a scrapbook in the traditional way, using an album and adhesives. However, I prefer to create digital scrapbooks.

The advantages of this format are that:

  • it is fun to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • production of a digital scrapbook is cheap, you can customise it for different family members and you can make additional copies when needed.

Source citations are optional in a scrapbook, if the audience is family.


Creating a family history website is another fun way to compile your research and share it with others. Blogging platforms such as WordPress enable you to create a free (or low cost) website to share your research.

Your website can be anything you want it to be. A compilation of stories, photo galleries, family tree charts, surname lists and a way to communicate with family and other researchers.

The advantages of this format are that:

  • it is fun to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • one website can contain elements for different audiences (both researchers and family).

Using a website to compile your family history does present a few challenges:

  • not all platforms allow family tree plugins
  • a website does not preserve your family history in the way that a published book or depositing with an archive does
  • information on a website cannot be printed unless you specifically include the means to do so.

Coming soon: More about the use of websites to share your family history.

Advice, Methodology

Writing for other researchers

When you write, it is important to think carefully about your purpose and your audience. Other researchers are a very different audience to family members, so you need to compile different products for each.

What is your purpose?

A compiled family history has many benefits for other researchers. Think about which of these you want to achieve, as they will influence the format, content and structure of your product.

Potential purposes:

  • help other researchers determine whether they are related to you
  • provide information that will help progress the research of others
  • provide context for documents and objects associated with the family history, such as photographs, certificates and heirlooms
  • synthesise your research and demonstrate a considered argument for your conclusions
  • present a different perspective or contrary view
  • demonstrate your genealogical research skills and knowledge, including the ability to analyse sources and evidence, and the ability to create family tree charts.

Audience needs

Based on the purpose(s) that you select, next you have to consider what other researchers will need so that purpose is achieved.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that other researchers will not be as familiar with your family or your research as you are. You will need to include details and explanations to help them understand your research and become familiar with the family structure.

What should be included?

The specific content of your compiled family history will depend on the results of your research and your purpose(s). However, here are some general tips.

A synopsis and/or introduction provides an overview of the family history and a concise statement of the purpose of your document. It introduces the family to the reader and explains how the document is structured. It describes the scope of the work, and the sources and methods of research used so that the reader can decide whether the document is likely to be useful to them.

Family tree charts contribute to most of the purposes listed above, because they provide summaries of key information and illustrate the relationships between people. They provide a recognisable structure for a family history and help contextualise the information provided.

Sources citations are essential, because other researchers will want to know where you got your information and may wish to consult the sources that you used. Citations allow others to confirm whether or not they agree with your conclusions, and they also allow you to acknowledge the work of others. Footnotes are the preferred method of citing sources in family history and a bibliography should be included at the end of the document.

Indexes are also essential, as they help researchers identify if your work contains information of relevance to them and they help them locate that information. Consider including a surname index and an index to places.

Other useful inclusions, depending on the nature of your compilation:

  • Tables allow you to present, organise and summarise key bits of information to help readers make sense of the data. For example, if the purpose of your compiled family history is to provide context for documents and objects associated with the family history, you might include a catalogue of photos in table format. Tables should have a clear title and labels on the columns and rows.
  • Figures, such as graphs, drawings and maps also allow you to present and illustrate information in a visual manner to assist in the absorption and understanding of information. Maps, for example, can help the reader conceptualise locations and distances. Like tables, figures should be clearly and appropriately labeled.
  • Photographs may be used to illustrate the text and add to the story, or merely to ensure that they are preserved. Photographs should have both a caption and a source citation, to provide information about the subject, date and location, as well as where the photograph was obtained and the copyright status. If such information is not available, photographs should be placed with associated material or in a broad family context, as this may help other researchers identify them.
  • Including too much detail in the body of the document can reduce the effectiveness of your message. Appendices can be used for helpful, supporting or essential material, such as detailed family tree charts, raw data, copies of source documents, transcriptions and perhaps even maps and tables.
  • To help readers navigate the document and find content relevant to them you could include a table of contents, and lists of tables and figures.


A compiled family history must be organised logically and be presented in a clear and readable manner. Done well, the structure you choose will guide the reader through your family history and make it easy for them to use it.

The most common structure is chronological. You can start in the past and work towards the present, or go in the opposite direction. In a chronological structure, the work is usually organised by generations.

An acceptable alternative is to structure your product based on surnames or family lines, and then apply a chronological format on top. Dividing your family history into four parts, each representing one of your grandparents, is a great way to help other researchers navigate through your work and focus on the people that interest them. If you are compiling your family history to donate it to an archive or library, the grandparent structure is particularly useful in providing context for documents and objects associated with your family history.

However you structure your product, take care to utilise good grammar and spelling, and focus on the accuracy of the information that you present.

Further reading

Five tips to make citing sources easier.

Society of Australian Genealogists, Diploma in Family Historical Studies Guide, 2020,

Australian Copyright Council, Family Histories and Copyright, fact sheet, 2012.

Even though you are writing for other researchers, you should still aim to make your writing enjoyable. Here are a few books on that topic:

Carol Baxter, Writing Interesting Family Histories, revised ed., St Ives, NSW, The Author, 2016.

Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, How to Write History That People Want to Read, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2009.

Hazel Edwards, Writing a Non-Boring Family History, rev. ed., Alexandria, NSW: Hale & Iremonger, 2003.

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and Writing Women into Family History, St Agnes, SA, Unlock the Past, 2013.


Should you write a family history book?

At some point in our family history research you have probably come to the realisation that you should really write it all up. The idea of writing a family history book may sound quite daunting. Fortunately, publishing a book is just one of many options available.

Since I am not just talking about books I am going to use the term that we use in the family history archives where I work – a compiled family history. A compiled family history is a synthesis of research that draws together component parts of a family history. A family history book is a type of compiled family history, but there are many other types and approaches.

Box of old photos and papers
Example of an un-compiled family history – bundles of photos and papers
Cover of a family history book by Betty O'Neill
Example of a compiled family history

Three reasons to compile your family history

Compiling your family history allows you to convert your research into a format that you can share with family. Your family probably can’t interpret a family tree chart or a bundle of probate documents on their own, but they may engage with your findings if you extract bits of information and pictures and synthesise them into summaries and stories.

But there are other reasons too.

Compiling your family history makes it easier to share your research with other researchers, either informally or formally through publication or depositing it with an archive or library. You might share copies of certificates, photos, maps and other records that you discovered, but it is the compilation or synthesis that helps other researchers make sense of these items. When we do this, we help other researchers use our research to progress their own.

Which brings me to the third reason for compiling your family history. We often think about compiling or writing up our research as something that gets done at the end or near the end of the research process. However, the compilation and writing process is also a powerful tool which can help us progress our own research further. When we compile our family history we review what we have found, we structure and organise it, and we write up our conclusions. During this process, it is almost inevitable that new research leads will be revealed – as gaps in our knowledge, inconsistencies or new ideas to explore.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts, in which I will discuss format, structure, content and the process of creating compiled family histories.