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.


Sources and resources

Know your place

Researching the places your ancestor 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 in New South Wales (Australia). 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 decided 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 that 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.

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.

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 fifty. 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.

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.


Family history software helps your research

Some people do not use family history software and manage well without it, but there are a lot of benefits in using such software. Family history software provides a structure for storing your data and for recording the links between people, places, events and sources. In doing so, it helps you analyse the data and see patterns, gaps or inconsistencies.

The examples provided here are from the software which I use – Legacy Family Tree.

There are general patterns in families and Legacy notifies you if those patterns are broken. Here, for example, the red exclamation mark alerts me to the fact that there were five years separating the birth of two children, where the usual pattern is less than two years. I need to confirm whether there was another child or look for an alternative explanation.


Legacy has a standard list of potential problems and this can be handy for identifying where wrong conclusions may have been reached. My great great grandmother, for example, is reported on her 1931 death certificate as having been 101 years old. However, her last child was born in 1880 when the death certificate suggests she would have been aged 50. Although it is not unheard of to have a child at that age, it is enough evidence to make me suspect her supposed birth date.


The Chronology view generates timelines which are another useful analytical tool.


Changes in the location of events may highlight an error in your research or, in this case, indicate that a family moved around looking for coal mining and gold mining work. In another family, a discrepancy in the location of the births of children led me to conclude that one child had been included in that family by mistake.

These are just two of the many features of family history software that can help your research. I’ve only ever used one family history software program, so I cannot provide an opinion on which is best. From discussions with other genealogists I have come to the conclusion that they all do a great job. However, one thing that is great about Legacy Family Tree is that you can download a free version to try before you decide whether to buy it. It is for that reason that I usually recommend it to people who are just starting family history. The free version is completely functional, it just doesn’t have the fancier features activated.

If you haven’t tried using family history software yet, I would recommend that you do. If you already use it, learn more about the analytical tools it provides and you will not regret it.