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Finding Your Migrant Ancestor
By Jeremy Palmer, Dip. Gen.


Immigration to Australia
Speak to your relatives
Surname clues
The use of Death Certificates
Passenger lists
Next steps

Australia is very much of a country of migrants and the majority of people living there today will have some form of migration story in their family history. Discovering details of the migrant, and where in the world he or she originated, will open up new research opportunities in the home country.

Immigration to Australia
Nearly 1.7 million emigrants arrived in Australia between 1788 and 1900, and of course many millions more have migrated there in the last 100 years. The 1981 census of Australia showed that only 78.2% of people who lived there were born in Australia. Of the remainder the biggest group originated in the United Kingdom but most other European countries were also represented. Immigration from Asia has of course increased dramatically in the recent time period also.

Speak to your relatives
As with many aspects of family history research, the best first step is to talk to your relatives regarding what they know about the family history. If the family migrated to Australia in the last two or three generations then they will undoubtedly be able to give you some very useful details about the ancestor who made the journey to Australia, when it took place and where he or she was from. Family stories may still be fresh in the memory of older relatives who may have kept in touch with other family members back in the home country. If the migration took place at an earlier date, there may still be rumours and stories which might point you in the right direction – ‘Great granddad was originally born in Ireland and came here as a small boy’ for example.

Surname clues
The surname of the family in question may also provide some useful clues in regard to the country of origin. Names such as Wood, Smith and Brown are obviously British in origin. If you have Kelly ancestors, the chances are that they came from Ireland. Similarly, Vespuccis are likely to have originated in Italy and Hofmeisters from Germany. Whilst there are no absolute rules in regard to surname origins, the meaning and history of the name can be an important factor in determining the country of origin of the migrant ancestor, and sometimes even a particular region within that country.

The use of Death Certificates
Documentary sources proving the ancestor came from a particular place in a particular country are of course the records we must aim to find. One of the best sources for this type of information is the death certificate. Each Australian state and territory started recording deaths at slightly different dates – most began in the middle of the 19th century - and in each area slightly different information was requested. However, it is common to find that the death certificates will include information regarding how long the person in question had been living in Australia. This of course will give the researcher a clue as to when the migration will have taken place. Other information on the death certificate relates to the place of birth of the deceased. This will tell us from where the ancestor originated. Of course, it should be remembered that the information found on any given death certificate is only as accurate as the knowledge of the person who provided those facts. The deceased was in no position to give the information! It is therefore important to seek the death certificates of all of your ancestors where possible as they provide some very useful information regarding the origins of the people in question.

Death certificates can be acquired from the Registry of Birth, Death and Marriages in each State.

Passenger Lists
Once you have some idea as to when and where your migrant ancestor arrived in Australia, you can move on to seek him or her in passenger lists. There are two main types of lists you will encounter – those for assisted immigrants and those for unassisted immigrants. Assisted immigrants were people who had all or part of their passage paid on their behalf, either by a government or private migration scheme, whilst unassisted immigrants paid their own way to Australia. Unfortunately, there is no one complete index to this sort of material. Each state archive will hold details of ships arriving in its various ports and you will have to check to see whether there are any indexes to this material available there. For example, the Queensland State Archives has an index to assisted immigrants for the period 1848 – 1912 whilst the State Records of New South Wales has an index to assisted immigrants covering the period 1828 – 1896 and an index to unassisted immigrants for the period 1842 – 1855. In general terms, you are likely to find more information regarding assisted immigrants in comparison to those who came as unassisted immigrants. Unassisted passengers may only be recorded as Mr and Mrs Kelly, 3 sons and 2 daughters, whilst the records of assisted immigrants may detail their age, birthplace, parentage, occupation and literacy skills.

Next steps
By discovering the birthplace of your migrant ancestor you will then be in a position to undertake further research in his or her country of origin. Of course, the records available to you will vary from country to country. For example, many researchers will have ancestry from the United Kingdom, and once the place of birth of the migrant ancestor is known, it is possible to then move on to appropriate birth, marriage and death certificates, census records and parish register material of baptism, marriage and burial. The records available to you will also depend upon the time period in which your ancestor was living there. Many of these records, or indexes to them, can be found via the Search page.

It is the goal of many researchers to determine exactly where their ancestors originated and how they made their way to Australia. It is possible to discover these facts and by doing so, you will learn a great deal about your family history and the lives and achievements of your migrant ancestors.

Jeremy Palmer has been a full time professional genealogist since 1992. He was the Registrar at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury, England for many years before emigrating to Australia where he now runs his own research business which specialises in tracing the British origins of families in Australia and New Zealand. He also lectures on a wide variety of family history topics for the Society of Australian Genealogists.

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