• Cameron Daddo appears in Season 11 of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' (SBS)Source: SBS
Genealogy hacks can help you break through brick walls and uncover your family history.
Kimberly Gillan

13 Apr 2018 - 10:51 AM  UPDATED 19 May 2020 - 9:34 AM

Anyone who's attempted some family history research will no doubt have hit a "brick wall" where the records seem to stop and you have no idea where to turn.

But with persistence and some super sleuth tricks from professional genealogists Brad Argent (from ancestry.com) and Heather Garnsey (executive officer of the Society of Australian Genealogists) there's a good chance you'll be able to uncover another layer of family history to give you a clearer insight into where you came from.

1. Talk to your family

Even before you get DNA tests done, Argent says you ought to sit down with your living relatives and pick their brain.

"Ask them questions about where they were born, who were their parents and grandparents and where do family stories come from," he suggests.

"That person might not be there tomorrow so you want to capture that while you can. It's the single biggest regret everyone has who does their family history – that they didn't ask questions when they had the chance."

2. Have a healthy skepticism

When a DNA test turns up something interesting from your ancestors, it's tempting to start building your family tree immediately, but Garnsey says a slow and steady approach is better.

"One of the great advantages and bugbears of modern genealogy is there are millions of family trees and you can do a search for anyone and nearly always find a hit [on someone else's tree]," she says.

"The problem is that they often only started their research last week so their tree is not accurate or complete and people just copy one tree to the next. Once there is false information, it can be quickly disseminated through lots of trees."

3. Gather evidence

Once you've got a rough idea of who some of your ancestors might be, Argent says that you should gather documents that prove their existence.

"Everyone who does their family history will make a mistake at some point so you want to try and detect the error early and establish the facts so you don't waste too much time," Argent says.

"You want things like birth, marriage and death records or electoral records. The vast bulk of Australians [descend from] immigrants, so you might want to look at passenger records too."

Those family chats can also be handy for documentation too.

"Often you can pick up certificates, letters and family bibles that your relatives don't realise would be of interest to you," Garnsey points out.

"People will often have boxes of family photos and when you talk to them they say, 'Oh yeah, Dad said that was Aunt Mary in the back row'. It's often information that isn't written anywhere."

4. Brush up on broader history

Family history research doesn't end up being just about your lineage, in the process you'll need to become abreast of all sorts of historic happenings in order to fill in your family tree gaps.

"The further back you go, the harder it is to find immigration records," Argent points out.

"You have to think about where they might have come from and what was happening in Australia at the time period they arrived. Was it the railroad boom or the gold rush that drew them from China or America? Or if they appeared in the 1850s, could they have been fleeing the potato famine in Ireland?"

Garnsey says studying a community that one of your ancestors lived in can also give clues.

"By looking at the whole village, you get a better context of what that family's social environment was like," she says.

"Were they all agricultural labourers? Did they all work in the local piano-making factory?

5. Use your DNA matches

Your DNA test results give you an "ethnicity estimate" of where your ancestors might have come from in the past 1000 years, but where the real family history clues lie is in finding your living distant relatives to see what knowledge they've got.

"The real breakthrough in DNA is that it matches you against other people who have taken the test," Argent says.

"Everyone gets at least one fourth cousin, which gives you a great, great grandparent in common, but ideally you'll get some third or second cousins because you have a more recent ancestor in common and [talking to them] can really break through brick walls."

6. Read through the records

If you've hit a family history brick wall, Argent suggests revisiting all of the birth, death and marriage certificates, and not just relying on indexes.

"Certificates have a wealth of information in them," he says.

"If you get a marriage certificate, take note of who the witnesses are. Do they have surnames in common with the family? If they are not family, why weren't the family there to witness it? Did the family maybe not approve of the marriage? You also often have [underage] people suggesting they are the full age so that they didn't require parental consent to marry, so that can throw your search out if you are looking for someone born in a particular year."

Similarly with death, Argent says you'll want to look at who the informant was.

"That will give you an idea of where the person was living and you could consider what the connection was between that informant and the person who was deceased," he says.

"Death certificates also often record the number of children a person had and their ages at the time the person died."

7. Make friends with Trove

Trove is the National Library of Australia's online hub of books, images, newspaper articles, maps and archives – AKA a genealogist's heaven.

"Trove have digitised a lot of the very big papers like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age so you can search for your ancestors relatively easily," Argent says.

"Not every paper is there but you might find context for what life was like. Whenever I find a new ancestor and have a birthdate, I always look into the newspaper headlines of that day to get a sense of the world they were born into."

8. Trawl records IRL

As amazing as the internet is for beginning your family history research, Argent says that stepping away from the computer will often score you your biggest brick wall breakthroughs.

"The internet is really just the tip of the iceberg and our libraries and archives play a significant part in preserving information for us," he says.

"If your family comes from the area there may be snippets of their life sitting on a shelf in your local library that you will never see on the internet."

Most local libraries and family history societies have a subscription to online genealogy resources that you can use, which can be a money saver too.

"You can go to your local library and start doing these searches and get a lot of the benefits without having to pay yourself," Garnsey points out.

9. Ask an expert

Family history societies are familiar with brick walls and can be a good sounding board if you feel like you've run out of avenues to pursue.

"If you explain to someone what you are trying to do and where you are stumbling, a second set of experienced eyes can have that wall tumbling down in seconds," Argent says.

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