Genealogies are ‘family trees’, graphical or text representations of ancestors and their family relationships.
Pākehā genealogies share similar structural forms to Māori whakapapa. But there are significant differences.
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 and periods.
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 all 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, Pacific Island and Asian ancestors (not all of whom are remotely deceased).
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 can identify their kinship relationship to others at the reunion. Family histories are also often collected for events such as 80th birthdays.
Discoveries about ancestors give wider knowledge of ancestral links to different countries and ethnic groups, and lives different from our own, with high childhood mortality, often recorded by poignant gravestones. Family ancestors may have experienced poverty or criminal convictions, and displayed courage and determination in adverse circumstances, such as sailing ship journeys to the new colony, or family breakdown due to death, desertion or disease.
Family histories are generally seen as either individual stories or raw materials for social histories. However a mathematician has calculated that for somebody with English ancestry on both sides and no cousin marriages, 86% of the population of England in 1066 would be their direct ancestors! The further back we go, the more ‘representative’ of whole populations are the ancestors in family histories.
Individual genealogies and family histories make up thousands of published New Zealand works that collectively tell the story of British emigration and its New Zealand strand. Migration changes both source and destination societies. The earlier chapters of these published histories collectively tell the story of these changes.
Among the British and European elite, family trees were important since they legitimised the succession of property and titles. There was less interest among working people. Migrants to New Zealand often lost contact with their relatives at home and some forgot the family stories.
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 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, and the Māori emphasis on whakapapa was a model.
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.
The spread of genealogy was also assisted by the greater availability of genealogical sources. Libraries began to collect in one place material of use to genealogists such as street directories and electoral rolls. A number of guides to family history in New Zealand and genealogical magazines 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 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 overlapped.
These resources made it possible for genealogists to do much research from a computer without having to visit libraries and archives.
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 some of the people whom we thought were ancestors are not our biological kinsfolk, and can also identify previously unknown kinship connections.
Genetic data has revealed some interesting findings about historical people. It has suggested that Queen Victoria was not the child of her mother’s husband at the time of her conception. 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.
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. However 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 compared with 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 deliberate omission of an ex-nuptial birth or divorced ex-spouse from genealogies? Should old prejudices and social sanctions be ignored in the interest of a complete record?
Despite the growth in online genealogical and family history resources, families’ pasts can slip away. Elderly 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 computer hard drives may easily be lost with a hard drive crash or computer 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 access to 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.
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 older format videotapes to removable computer disks.
Bromell, Anne. New Zealand beginner’s guide to family history research. Auckland: Whitcoulls, 2004.
Bromell, Anne. Tracing family history overseas from New Zealand. Auckland: Godwit, 1997.
Huber, Leslie Albrecht. 'Getting Started with Family History (By Starting at the Beginning).' FamilySearch Blog, 12 January 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/started-family-history-starting-beginning/
Rosier-Jones, Joan. Writing your family history: a New Zealand guide. Auckland: Random House, 2005.
Terrington, J. 'How to start doing your family history.' Family Tree 34, no. 7 (2018): 60-63.
Tovey, H. 'Start your family history in 7 easy steps.' Family Tree 33, no. 12 (2017): 28-31.
The Archives New Zealand site provides an introduction to the family history resources available at the archives.
Learn the basics to get started on your own family history research, from drawing up your family tree to exploring the archives.
Auckland city libraries have an excellent family history section on their site.
This site provides information on New Zealand births that occurred at least 100 years ago, marriages at least 80 years ago, and deaths at least 50 years ago.
An international site with more than a quarter of a million genealogical links.
Search more than 120 participating NZ Government and other organisations with resources of interest to family historians.
This not-for-profit trust-managed local website allows members to upload genealogical and family history information (names, events, dates, places, images, video, audio), with access to living persons’ data limited to those people you give access, and links your historical records (deceased individuals) to other FamNet trees with the same people. Your records remain your property, under your control, unlike some worldwide commercial genealogical websites. There is full subscriber-level access to FamNet at LDS Family History Centres.
Free LDS website with a very large set of linked family trees you can search to access data on ancestors which has been entered by others.
Guide to 50 free and subscription websites for genealogy and family history, compiled by a British genealogy and family history magazine.
A list of family history research websites on NZHistory.
This is the New Zealand part of a very large UK site which allows users to find their ancestors in family trees compiled by others.
This website matches the British, Irish, Canadian and US census data you enter for your relatives with others who have entered the same census data in the online family trees – automatically, accurately and confidentially. It has excellent fortnightly newsletters.
This is a searchable index of ships, organisations, subjects and individuals in a set of publications indexed by the New Zealand National Maritime Museum.
This site provides passenger lists for ships which came to New Zealand.
This site provides a rich set of links to relevant New Zealand genealogical databases.
This site introduces the work of the society and provides some suggestions for genealogical research.
Papers Past is a searchable database of more than one million pages of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals 1840 to 1945.