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Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Family History: Getting started

This guide has been written to assist Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander family historians locate sources available to them at James Cook University, as well as some suggestions for resources located elsewhere.

Start with yourself, work backwards, be thorough

Begin with yourself and your immediate family.  Follow each line backwards one generation at a time and make sure you have the following information:

  • Date of Birth
  • Place of Birth
  • Date of Death
  • Place of Death
  • Names of Parents and siblings, (and the names of the siblings’ parents, should they have a different mother or father), and their dates of birth/death.

Make a note of any other details you find along the way, even if you don’t think you’re going to use them in the end.  Such details could become useful:

  • Occupations
  • Education (primary, secondary and further training)
  • Church affiliations
  • Military service
  • Places where they were known to live
  • Previous marriages

Talk to your family

Ask everyone you know, everything they know.  Someone might have already done some research which you can use or someone will be able to give you information about that distant uncle who was in the Navy during the World War One. Find out who your oldest living relatives are and visit them, being prepared to ask many questions and here many stories. A lot of family history is carried orally in the family, but will point you towards the most likely official paper records. Be prepared to photograph or scan their photos and records, as they might not be willing to lend you the originals.  Wherever possible, find the names of the towns where your family members lived, as many useful records (such as census data) are based on address, rather than names. It will also point you in the right direction for parish registers, cattle stations and the like.

Think beyond birth certificates and death certificates

These are a relatively recent phenomenon, and most Australians whether Aboriginal or not would never have had them. Others may have lost theirs as a result of some circumstance, such as a war, flood or a fire.  There are other records that can be found instead, such as family bibles, parish registers, postal directories, almanacs, cattle station records and the like. Some of these will be online; others might only exist in microfilm or microfiche in a state library or national archives.

Tips for researching Australian Aboriginal,Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander ancestors

Try to have a broad understanding of the history of the period including the industries Indigenous Australians and non-Europeans were commonly employed in, any relevant law and legislation (usually by state) and if possible the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture and broader society of the time that person may have been raised in.

For example:

In many early station records you will find reference to female domestic staff and male station hands by only their first name or a racial definition (usually an offensive term). If you are have some family knowledge of your ancestors whereabouts, you can sometimes back up oral history with a rough correlation in a document. For example one researcher knew her ancestor had worked on a station at a certain time along with another Aboriginal female relative and this is how the two families had justified their relationship for three generations as cousins. When the researcher checked the station records there was only a reference to a male Aboriginal station hand but no name, but the female was named and was the ancestor of their cousins. This then raised a second talking point about whether  the two families were blood cousins or through traditional cultural skin systems.

There are excellent resources online that might give you more ideas around researching your ancestors, see below.


Source: hotblack

Online guides for researching Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family history

We acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of the nation and acknowledge Traditional Owners of the lands where our staff and students, live, learn and work.Acknowledgement of Country