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