Story: Genealogy and family history

Page 3. Researching genealogy

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Family sources

Genealogical handbooks generally advise working from ‘the known’ to ‘the unknown’. So older family members are the place to begin. Family photograph albums may trigger useful memories; sometimes objects handed down may embody a story.

But family stories may be partial and error-prone. They are shaped by personal perspectives, and affected by the understandings and prejudices of past societies. They may be affected, for example, by attitudes to moral issues such as illegitimacy or by political judgements, or people can reinvent their past. Stories of hard-working pioneer settlers and Māori princesses in Pākehā family histories sit alongside stories of injustice and loss of land in Māori memories of the same places and times.

Letters and diaries

Ancestors who could read and write often wrote letters to kinsfolk and kept diaries, and these ‘time capsules’ may have survived to the present. They can tell much about arduous voyages to the new colony, pioneering struggles, romance and bereavement, and about everyday life. Diaries may be found in archives but many letters are handed down in families.

Official documents

Personal documents are supplemented by official documents such as birth, death and marriage certificates and military and migration records. In the 2000s these are widely available online. Although official, such records are not necessarily accurate. The details in the registers were based on what the informants knew or believed – or wanted recorded or omitted. Transcriptions and indexes have been shown to increase inaccuracies.

As the genealogy (family tree) is collated, the family history can be researched, the stories discovered and told. Local and social histories can also provide a wider context of place and time for particular family stories.

Software aids

There are many computer programs which facilitate the recording of genealogical and family history information, and yield a rich variety of charts, documents and maps. The best accommodate different family events and situations and record the sources of each item of information, which is so vital for evaluating contradictions and sharing data with others.

In addition to the lineage-linked and event-based database programs there are add-ons that can map births, marriages and deaths (and other events) and show concentrations in particular localities in particular periods. These show, for example, whether ancestors lived among kinsfolk or alone in distant locations. There are programs that construct individuals’ timelines (and can include historical events), or show the dynamics of family life. Families did not necessarily all live together as a group, but through time (and especially when infant and child mortality was high) families expanded and contracted.

There are other programs that assemble text reports from the database and answer such queries as whether large families stopped growing after a series of children of one sex was followed by the first child of the other sex.

Many families, many books

The Bibliography of New Zealand family histories lists published family histories (including some published in very limited numbers). The titles are indexed by author, title, keyword and family names; many are also indexed by founder names; country, county and town of origin; ship on which the family arrived in New Zealand; year of arrival; and region and place of main settlement in New Zealand.

Connections among genealogists

Genealogists and family historians have always been generous in helping others and sharing their data, but networking websites make it easier to connect with other researchers whose genealogical interests overlap. Replacing printed directories of genealogical research interests, these sites allow users to upload their datasets or family trees. These are then compared automatically, and where matches or overlaps occur, the relevant researchers are notified and offered the opportunity to make contact. The quality of research varies, so exchanges of data require verification from the best available sources.

It is also possible for family members to share the addition (and correction) of data in an online family tree to which they all have access. These online trees can also include photographs and documents that enrich the stories they tell.

How to cite this page:

David Swain, 'Genealogy and family history - Researching genealogy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/genealogy-and-family-history/page-3 (accessed 22 March 2019)

Story by David Swain, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018