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.

1788painting

 

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.

thebigdig

These are just a few types of primary sources out there. I will explore more in future posts.

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Cite your sources

I have a photograph of my great great grandparents that I found on Facebook. At least, I have been told that it is a photograph of them but it was posted without a citation so I do not know where it came from, when it was taken, who took it – all those details that would convince me that it really is them. I keep the photograph because it is the only one I have, but it bothers me that they may not actually be my family at all.

generationsgenealogy_willCiting your sources is important if you want to share your family history with others, so that they can trust what you have found and so that they can take a look at the records themselves. It is important for your own research for the same reasons. A source citation also makes it easier for you to take a second (or third) look at a source because, let’s face it, we rarely understand a source fully the first time we look at it. How many times have you copied a page from a source, then realised you needed the page before or after it? How many times have you transcribed a handwritten document or taken notes from a source, then gone back to your notes later and found that they no longer make sense?

If you do not cite your sources because you do not know how or it takes too much effort, then here are my tips:

  • If you use family history software, learn to use the source citation features.
  • Unless you are writing for a publication, do not worry too much about whether it complies with APA, Chicago, Harvard or other formatting styles – you just need a citation that you and others can understand!
  • The general rule is that a citation has four main elements – Who, What, Where and When. Analyse each source with these questions and note down your answers. The order doesn’t matter very much, but the author usually goes first and the date usually goes last.

Who wrote it or created it? Who published it? What is the title? What format is it (a book, a certificate, a microfiche etc)? Where was it published? Where is it stored? When was it written? When was it published?

  • Include as much information in the citation as you would need if you wanted to find it again. More is better….
  • Many online repositories and websites, such as Ancestry and NSW State Archives, provide suggested citations or guidelines on how to cite their sources.
  • If it is a source that is often found in libraries, consult a library catalogue and copy their citation.
  • If you want a handy guide with examples of the main types of sources, try Noeline Kyle’s Citing Historical Sources: A Manual for Family Historians (available for purchase at sag.org.au).