Digging up the Family Plot



IT is no surprise that the two most popular topics on the internet are sex and family history. Procreation lies at the heart of both. In fact, if the former were somehow to fall out of fashion there would be little call for the latter.

There’s no risk of either, according to Brad Argent, content manager for genealogy website Ancestry.com.au, who says that the world is in the grip of a genealogical boom. The family history site has almost nine million registered users and Australians are a fast-growing component.  

Never before has it been so easy to research your family tree, with masses of personal historical data now digitised and available from search engines. What took years of digging and international travel to find is now available at a key stroke. Birth, death and marriage certificates from around the world, military, church and immigration records, passenger lists, electoral rolls and convict transport records are all coming online. New material is available with every passing month.  

It’s completely addictive. Far from being an academic labour, family history addresses a powerful need in people to find personal identity in a fast-moving age. The journey often leads to one individual from the past whose struggles and/or successes seem to explain a family’s fortunes, Argent says.

For friends of mine such as James Elliott, it’s a great-great-great uncle shipwrecked off Africa before being sold into slavery in Zanzibar, where he met a princess in the sheik’s harem and fled with her to Egypt.

Howard Kramer’s great-grandfather was a Russian rabbi in Latvia. One of his grandfathers shot himself when his ox wagon broke a wheel while crossing a flooded river.

Actor and comedian Tania Lacey tells me her great-great grandmother was a full-blooded Aborigine.

“And we never knew until we saw a photo that had been hidden away in someone’s photo box. Apparently, when my great-great-granddad married her the rest of the family had nothing to do with them.”

While not everyone will find an illustrious past, you never know what will be revealed.
My special ancestor was great-great-grandfather John Shand, a Scottish stonemason who came to Sydney in 1853. He became a police magistrate, founding a legal dynasty, and lived out his days on a farm at Eastern Creek in NSW.

My father Dr John Shand and me at the grave of John Shand and Mary Barclay located in the Old Presbyterian section of Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney. December 2010

My father Dr John Shand and me at the grave of John Shand and Mary Barclay located in the Old Presbyterian section of Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney. December 2010

In 2010, my father and I found the dilapidated grave of John and his wife, Mary, long forgotten by the family. That night I found a document online showing the NSW government had compulsorily acquired a sizeable chunk of John’s old farm in 2006 without paying the family compensation. In securing a payout for all of John’s heirs and successors, we found a legion of new relatives, not to mention a deeper bond between us.

For family researchers such as Sandra Barker, the focus is turning towards the living.

Barker was adopted at birth under the closed-adoption system. Through the Department of Family Services, Barker learned the names of her birth parents and then did a “hatch, dispatch and match” (Births Deaths and Marriages) search through Ancestry. The death certificates of her parents revealed the stunning news she had a dozen siblings. Using her parents’ names, she began a family tree, posting it on Ancestry for others to see, which yielded yet another surprise. Another sister, artist Christina Frost Clayton, who had also been adopted out, got in contact. They had matching limbs on the family tree.

Genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com use a social media-style approach of connecting people from across the globe who have already researched branches of their family trees. Once they compare notes, they often find they can fill in blanks in each other’s research.

This collaboration is driving family research, says Argent. Barker and Frost Clayton are the ultimate living proof.

“We emailed each other childhood photos and saw we must definitely have been sisters. We’ve been exploring together ever since.” From being the eldest of two in her adoptive family, Barker is now number 13 of 14 in her birth family.

“The other siblings didn’t know about us, either. They thought we died at birth,” she says. To complicate matters, her birth mother was married twice, the second time to a World War II soldier who went missing in the fall of Singapore. Two half-siblings have proved elusive, but the search has also yielded “an uncle in Perth in his 80s and a heap of cousins”.

Once the basic tree is established, family historians seek to place their ancestors within the events of their times. In this regard, Australians are blessed to have a unique, world-class resource in Trove, the National Library’s online newspaper collection, which provides vital information on the day-to-day lives of Australians. When personal data is coupled with contemporaneous sources such as newspapers, family historians are able to build a rounded picture of their ancestors, cross-referencing family myths and legends with newspaper clippings about the actual events to capture and preserve the narratives.

The next frontier of family history, says Argent, is DNA testing. In the US, Ancestry offers a service where for $US99 ($109) members can find their ethnic and geographic origins. They can then match their DNA to other members and are provided with a list of surnames they potentially share. Until he had his DNA tested, Argent had always believed his family was mainly English with a little French via some marauding Normans in the 11th century. The DNA came back 39 per cent Irish with a little Scandinavian and western European and only a smear of English in the mix.

“Knowing that I am more Irish than anything else will make St Patrick’s Day so much more special,” he says. So far the DNA service is available in the US only, but it is expected to be offered in Australia within 12 months.

Argent says the average age of family historians has dropped from 62 years in 2007 to 55.

“What’s really heartening is the number of younger people – 18 to 24-year-olds – that are playing around the edges of family history. They have an affinity with technology and this is a way of bridging generation gaps with grandparents.

“A history renaissance is under way and people are interested in their personal connection to the past. It’s really saving history from the scrap heap.”

3 thoughts on “Digging up the Family Plot

  1. Great story, Adam. Exactly as expected. Thank you for sharing. Hope many others have as much pleasure in finding their family history as those of us who are doing it.

  2. great suff i too love our family tree and our ancestory one thing that occurred too me while reading this was that by using these sites and providing all the missing caps for big brother on our entire families we could be profiling ourselves unknowingly and then providing all our dan as well thats probably not real smart as much as it makes us all warm and fussy

    • Thanks Sandy, thanks for sharing your story with me, I love a happy ending!
      And yes Mark it probably does give the evil Big Bro types a chance to snoop on us, as if they haven’t got enough avenues for that already! On the flip side a society that knows its roots and has respect for the past has a stronger sense of identity which may give it a chance to resist some of the attempts to manipulate it. Anyway, I’m an absolute tragic for this stuff.

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