The art of genealogy, or tracing a persons ancestry as far back as possible, doesn’t really sound like it would make for interesting TV, and yet viewers of the show Who Do You Think You Are? know that genealogy, with its mixture of research and detective work can make for a truly fascinating, and even moving viewing experience. The show originated on the UK’s BBC One and featured well-known personalities such as JK Rowling, Annie Lennox and Jeremy Irons exploring their previously unknown family histories. The US version of the show had Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Susan Sarandon and others all exploring a personalized piece of history, and the 15 (and counting) other versions of the show in various countries all had their own local celebrities examining their often surprising roots. The show is credited with sparking a large-scale interest in genealogy, with many viewers feeling encouraged to do a similar kind of sleuthing into their own family background, although all without a television crew or the help of some top notch genealogy experts. Some of us undertake a small-scale genealogy project quite a bit earlier in life, when we have to draw a family tree in school. This family tree is usually quite limited, and when we get older, our research skills are usually more sophisticated and the rewards are greater. So how do you grow that family tree and uncover your family history?
The Family Tree of Childhood
For those of us who had to draw a family tree in school, the tree usually had few branches. Sure, we know our immediate family and even a few distant relatives dotted around the world, but to truly go back in history, we had to rely on the sometimes foggy memories of our grandparents about their own parents and grandparents, and that was where the project came to an end.
Expanding the Family Tree
To truly delve into family history, a somewhat more structured approach is required, and this is something that many of us delight in doing. It’s possible to uncover many lost pieces of family history if you know where to look. Australia’s National Archives holds many detailed records that can be valuable when you need to find people in Australia, or at least people who used to be there and have made their mark on the country in some way.
Into the Records
Any kind of national archive is really only of benefit when researching family members who served in the military or who immigrated to or emigrated from the country. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and these records allow you to complete small sections of the puzzle. Records of births, deaths and marriages allow you to fill in larger sections, and with a little digging, you’ll be surprised at how far you can go back.
But How Far can you Go Back?
Australia, New Zealand and the United States are relatively young in terms of European settlement, and you might find your investigation hitting a wall when you realize that your family tree just extends back for a few generations, and before that, it lays almost entirely in your ancestor’s country of origin. This is when you need to make the decision about how far back you want to go- you can make remote enquiries with archives and departments of records in other countries, but don’t expect a speedy reply.
While there’s a sense of accomplishment in tracing your ancestry, it can be more successful as a group effort- perhaps get a few like minded members of your family together to research different branches of your family history, and the job gets done a lot more quickly. It’s certainly more rewarding than tracking down distant cousins on Facebook.
This is a guest post by Lilly Sheperd, a freelance writer who shares her thoughts on various blogs.