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Genealogy and family history

by David Swain

It has never been easier to research family trees, and more and more New Zealanders are doing so – sometimes with surprising results. Uncovering family secrets can cause some dismay. But most family histories foster a sense of belonging and identity.

What is genealogy?

Genealogy and whakapapa

Genealogies are ‘family trees’, graphical or textual representations of ancestors and their family relationships.

Pākehā genealogies share similar structural forms to Māori whakapapa. But there are significant differences.

  • Whakapapa are the basis of the traditional Māori world view. The human genealogy in whakapapa may be embedded in a broader context, including plants and animals, as well as human family relationships.
  • Whakapapa have traditionally been passed down through the generations orally, though many are now documented.
  • Pākehā genealogies are usually recorded on paper (written as charts or in family Bibles) or on computers in databases, though they may also include oral history.

Family histories

Genealogies are often accompanied by family histories – stories about the ancestors and their kinsfolk. The stories may be of migration or long settlement in a particular locality, of education and employment, of political and religious affiliations, of domestic life or involvement in dramatic historical events.

Importance of genealogies

The values and attitudes of earlier generations, often embodied in their stories and their property and heirlooms, are typically passed down to their descendants. They can help shape the descendants’ identities and lives, and how people make sense of them.

Genealogies give opportunities to construct identity. This may be as simple as recognising family likenesses, or as complex as adopting or rejecting a parent’s personal attributes. People use genealogies and family histories to locate themselves in the history of their country and in particular geographical regions. Stories about what their ancestors did, their religious faith and their travels across great distances can make people feel differently about themselves. New Zealand genealogies and family histories, like whakapapa, often begin with the great overlapping migrations of Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika and Asian ancestors.

Uses of genealogies

An important use of genealogies is for family reunions. The research identifies people to invite and provides a focus for reunion participants, so they can see where they fit in and identify their kinship relationship to others at the reunion. Family histories are often collected for events such as 80th birthdays.

Wider knowledge

Discoveries about ancestors give wider knowledge of ancestral links to different countries and ethnic groups, and of lives different from our own, with high childhood mortality, often recorded by poignant gravestones. Ancestors may have experienced poverty or criminal convictions, and displayed courage and determination in adverse circumstances, such as arduous voyages to a new colony, or family breakdown due to death, desertion or disease.

Two degrees of separation


Family histories are generally seen as either individual stories or raw materials for social histories. However a mathematician has calculated that someone with English ancestry on both sides and no cousin marriages can trace their ancestry to 86% of the population of England in 1066. The further back we go, the more ‘representative’ of whole populations are the ancestors in family histories.


Mega-family history

Individual genealogies and family histories have been published in thousands of books that collectively tell the story of British emigration and its New Zealand strand. Migration changes both source and destination societies. The early chapters of these books collectively tell the story of these changes.

Growing interest in genealogy

Among the British and European elite, family trees were important since they legitimised the succession of property and titles. There was less interest in them among working people. Migrants to New Zealand often lost contact with their relatives at home and some forgot the family stories.

New interest

Those who remembered family history were usually older. As the number of older people in the population increased, and as people lived longer in good health after retirement, there were more people likely to be interested in family history.

Social change made people feel more remote from their ancestors’ lives and hence more curious about them. The increasing attention to Māori culture made Pākehā more interested in their own identity, with the Māori emphasis on whakapapa as a model.

New Zealand Society of Genealogists

The growing interest in genealogy among Pākehā New Zealanders was reflected in the founding of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists in 1967. In 2016 there were 89 branches and area contacts and almost 6,000 members. Many were older women – women are often the keepers of the family record.

New resources

The spread of genealogy was also assisted by the greater availability of genealogical sources. Libraries began to collect material of use to genealogists, such as street directories and electoral rolls. Genealogical magazines and guides to researching family history in New Zealand appeared.

Most important was the extraordinary increase in the availability of genealogical sources on the internet – birth, death and marriage records, shipping records, land records and historical newspapers. The content of archives and official registers was increasingly digitised and made available online or through data CDs, free or on a user-pays basis. The internet made it possible to make contact with previously unknown distant relatives whose family research interests overlapped with one’s own.

These resources made it possible for genealogists to do much research from a computer without having to visit libraries and archives.

DNA and ancestry

DNA-testing services emerged to identify genetic groupings (‘haplotypes’) and their association with particular surnames (for males’ Y-chromosome DNA) or remote ancestors many thousands of years ago in Europe and even earlier in Africa (for females’ mitochondrial DNA).

DNA testing can tell us that people who we thought were ancestors are not our biological kinsfolk, and can also identify previously unknown kinship connections.

Surprises in the family tree


Genetic data has revealed some interesting findings about historical people. It has suggested that Queen Victoria’s biological father was not her mother’s husband. DNA testing also suggested that the US President Thomas Jefferson may have fathered children by his black slave Sally Hemings, who may also have been the half-sister of the president’s wife.


Genealogy and history

In the past academic and professional historians used to disparage genealogists as ‘granny hunters’ who clogged the reading rooms of archives. Genealogists were critical of historians as only interested in the grand sweep of political history. As historians have become interested in the social history of ordinary people, they have recognised the competence of many genealogists and drawn on their work. Genealogists in turn have drawn on the work of historians to enrich their understanding of their ancestors’ lives.

Researching genealogy

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 everyday life. Diaries may be found in archives, but many letters are handed down within 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 may contain further 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 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, material 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 reveal, 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, and (especially when infant and child mortality was high) they expanded and contracted.

Other programs 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 a 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.

Issues in genealogy

Issues of ethics and privacy

Comprehensive and accurate genealogies and family histories will often include events that at the time evoked emotions such as embarrassment, dismay and shame – and may still do so. Contemporary New Zealand society has very different attitudes to ex-nuptial birth, de facto relationships, divorce, termination of pregnancy and homosexuality than those that were customary several generations ago.

Issues of privacy and censorship may arise in genealogical and family history research. Codes of research ethics speak of avoiding harm to research subjects. Does this extend to the deceased? Is it right to respect privacy and acknowledge sensitivities by the deliberate omission of an ex-nuptial birth or a divorced ex-spouse from genealogies? Or should old prejudices and social sanctions be ignored in the interest of an accurate record?

Loss of resources

Despite the growth in online genealogical and family history resources, families’ pasts can slip away. Key informants may die before their memories have been captured. Papers, photograph albums, documents and even meaningful heirlooms (albeit of little intrinsic value) in deceased estates may end up in second-hand shops or rubbish dumps. Photographs and emails held on computers may be lost with a hard-drive crash or an upgrade.

Another issue is easy and affordable access to the official records that underpin many genealogies and inform many family histories. Legislation and official policies around issues of privacy and threats of identity theft result in restrictions on access to heritage data. User-pays policies can put data out of reach. The dubious quality of cheap digitisation is also a serious problem. Data on specific local resources may exist on CD, but are sometimes difficult to locate.

Resources under threat

There is also a threat for future genealogists and family historians in the ephemeral nature of contemporary materials that will one day be heritage data. 19th-century photographs printed on acid-free paper and stored in acid-free albums survive in the 21st century, but colour photographs from the late 20th century in plastic-paged albums disappear before our eyes. Letters and diaries from colonial New Zealand survive and are of enormous value; emails and online blogs (not to mention photographs located only on computer hard drives) can be lost when websites close or hard drives crash.

The media used for digital storage are regularly superseded and discarded, from videotapes to removable computer disks.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: David Swain, 'Genealogy and family history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

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