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Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Family History: Record keeping & family trees

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.

What do you want to record?

Have an idea of what you want to produce before you start working.  You can always change your mind, but it would help you focus your efforts.

Do you want to trace a particular ancestor, or do you want to trace all your ancestors through every line?

Use the examples on this page to work out what kind of searching you want to do and how you would like to record what you find.

TIP: Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family history researchers indicate they would like to include their extended family whilst others would like only to trace their immediate family back to their apical ancestors. Apical ancestor is usually the earliest documented ancestor and usually used for Native Title inclusion in a clan, nation or tribe.

Record keeping language explained

Index cards

Create a personal index card for each ancestor and family member

  • Add their date and place of birth, parents (biological, foster, step parents as well), children they had, and their marriages or common law partnerships
  • Add any other information you think will be helpful like copies of photos, traditional names, nicknames and alias or different spelling
  • TIP for recording Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestors: Traditional cultural values and post- 1788 Australian society generates many pieces of information that may not fit neatly into many index card templates as these have evolved from European family and culture models. You can alter or create templates to include Clan, Tribe, Nation identity including the father's and mother's, moiety/skin group names, language names and it is up to you to decide if it is culturally appropriate for your family to document and make all details accessible.

Genealogical software and online family history programs

You can generate family trees and index cards using computer software and also place information online in family history software.


  • it makes information more retrievable and easier to share with family
  • if you can afford it adding a portable scanner helps you scan those most precious items other relatives may not want to loan out
  • online software allows mutliple family member in different parts of the world work on the same tree even as long as they can access the internet
  • online software family trees may link or direct you to family trees created by your extended family


  • Software and computers can cost money
  • Free software and online software may disappear or go out of date
  • Free online software often states in its sign up that the information you provide is owned by the company
  • Communal online software often means you do not have the final say over what information is placed up or deleted

Genealogical and Family History groups

There are many organisations both voluntary and business managed for family history researchers to join.

  • Some are online and some are physical.
  • A listing is located on this LibGuide of North Queensland groups for you to look at.


Keep records of everything

Whether you use genealogy software, have everything on your computer in a spreadsheet, or on index cards in a box, make sure you take notes about each family member you discover, and update them with any new information you come across.  Keep these in an order that is not only easy for you to search, but also easy for someone else to make sense of in case another family member wants to held out, start their own or take over the project.

A. Family Tree

A.  Do you want to produce a "Family Tree", following a line of ancestors back through time? These will show the spouses and siblings of the ancestors, but largely ignore the "cousins". It is the most common and easiest form of a family tree.

The easiest and most effective way to do this is to follow the male line (father, grandfather, great grandfather, etc).  Even if you're following your maternal line, you will still find better records for the males in the family (maternal grandfather, etc).

Tracing Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and South Sea Islander descendent records beyond 1900 may require using oral histories or family stories to track ancestors to specific employment on stations and farms.


B. Extended Family Tree

B.  Do you want to produce an "Extended Family Tree", showing all of the descendants of a particular ancestor?  This will branch out to show all of the children, grandchildren, etc of a single person, and will extend to many different cousins.  This will involve many branches, and might be more easily undertaken using genealogy software or some other computer program.

This type of family tree is popular with many Indigenous Australian and South Sea Islander family historians as maintaining extended family ties is still very common. It also helps visualise how and where relatives have branched from and is useful for explaining family and country connection to the younger generation. There is also a lot of free online software which allows people in different parts of the country to add and amend details about their branch of the family, including scanning and sharing photos and documents.


C. Ancestry Chart

C.  Do you want to produce an "Ancestry Chart", showing all of your ancestors through every line?  This is like the Extended Family Tree in reverse, where the start point is the descendant, not the ancestor.  Like the Extended Family Tree, it is wide-ranging and may require genealogy software to compile.

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