Tracing Ancestry – where do you begin?

How to trace ancestry

Welcome to the second in a series of articles on the study of family ancestry (also called ‘genealogy’). If you’re considering launching into this fascinating area of learning, there are formal avenues you can follow. But as our Grownups columnist found, you can also ‘test the water’ by simply checking out the net!

Tracing Ancestry – where do you begin?

Lockdown may not be your cup of tea, but there’s no denying it’s an enforced period of time at home – which for many of us means an opportunity to clean out the garage, the cupboards, the filing cabinet, and those boxes of old photos! I started with the photos, including a paper bag full of them from the home of a recently deceased relative. What I found, sparked my interest into just who my forebears were, where they came from, and what they were like as people. But what could I hope to find out while confined to home? As it happens, without having to so much as register, sign in, join a group or part with a cent – quite a lot!

Begin with what you know

I was most interested in the maternal side of my family, so I wrote down the name of my grandmother. I didn’t know the name of her husband, my grandfather, who had died before I was born, but a quick click on the Wellington Cemeteries search site (there is a similar site for each part of the country) quickly solved this problem. Not only did it take me to a listing for my grandmother, Helen, but it also gave details of where she was buried, and the name of her husband, who was buried with her.

I could remember my grandmother’s house well, but when my grandfather died, he and my grandmother were living at a different address. When I did a Google Street search, I found it – and it was still there. What’s more, the building looked as if it had once been a shop. Had they been shopkeepers? It was a question that would have to wait because, when I selected a photo from the paper bag, I discovered a scribble on the back of it.

Paper’s Past

The photo was of a reservoir surrounded by felled native forest. The faded scribble said ‘Horace Martin with Helen, aged 3’. I could barely contain my excitement. A general ‘Family History New Zealand’ Google search led me to the New Zealand National Library site, and a wealth of immediately available and free resources. I decided to start first with Papers Past, and suddenly, a whole world of exploration opened up. Papers Past is a digital history of text from newspapers, magazines and journals, letters and diaries, and parliamentary papers.

I dived into the newspapers first, and was astonished when a search among them, for ‘Horace Martin’, brought up 4 different references, one of which was his death notice. In that death notice, among a list of his surviving children, was Helen – my grandmother! What’s more, in a newspaper of around the same time, I discovered that Horace had been the caretaker of a local reservoir.  Memories of stories my grandmother had told me, of she and one of her twelve siblings almost drowning when they went out on a reservoir as children, began to surface.

Family secrets

Now that I had the names of my grandmother’s siblings – I was off! But not everything I discovered was sweetness and light. A search of names in National Libraries ‘Magazine and Journals’ archives (I clicked on the ‘photos’ section), led to the discovery that one of my great uncles was wanted by police for bigamy, while another had been involved in a break-in to a branch line railway station.

Where to next

While my family history search may have been unorthodox, it certainly entertained me for the best part of a day of lockdown, and I am now determined to press on with it. This time, however, I’ll take a more formal approach. I will contact the NZ Society of Genealogists and take advantage of the many services they offer. I think I’ll start first with Getting it Right!