Family History 101

“Rabbit holes are my specialty. I live and breathe in them.”

Kara McDowell, One Way or Another

Interested in Family History? You had better start liking rabbit holes because you will spend a lot of time falling into them, fossicking around in them, and trying to climb out of them.

Let’s dissect that a bit.

Family Trees consist of thousands of branches and each branch validates our current knowledge, or takes us on a new journey. To find the information we need for each branch we spend hours delving into websites, newspapers and recording oral history from our families. And this is where the rabbit holes emerge… we can start a search for a particular ancestor on our mother’s side only to find ourselves, several hours later, engulfed in the ancestors from our father’s side. Or you might start looking for a great-great-grandparent and end up finding an interesting story about the spouse of a fifth cousin, four times removed (if that’s even possible?), on a different side of the family. The information can be mesmerising but have little to do with the search you originally started with. Welcome to rabbit-holes.

I’ve been down lots of rabbit-holes so I know how hard it is to break free of them, but they can also provide valuable information so don’t underestimate them. Every bit of information is important, especially if you’ve had your DNA tested.

Where to start…

To begin your journey into Family History, you need two or three pieces of vital information:

  • your name and date of birth
  • the name and date of birth of at least one of your parents, preferably both
  • names and dates of birth of grandparents, if known

There are a lot of genealogy websites you can build your family tree on but the most popular one is Ancestry. Yes it is a subscription site, but you can and should start with their free account. You can always update later if you need to, but there are ways around it if you don’t want a paid subscription. Local libraries usually have Ancestry membership so you can spend a few hours in your library and take advantage of their subscription. The difference between free and paid subscriptions is mostly around the hints you can access to build your tree further.

Building Your Tree.

Open an account on Ancestry (or your preferred genealogy site) and start with You, then add as much information as you can about your parents and grandparents. I reckon this is like putting two Tupperware lids in a dark cupboard – you come back a week later and they’ve multiplied and are spilling out all over the place.

Next, check your privacy settings. You can keep the tree private or make it public. Mine is Public because I need all the help I can get; others can message me with information, or let me know that something isn’t right. Having said that, I have a few trees on my Ancestry account for friends, and most are Private. It all depends on how you want to proceed and who you want to see your information.

Keeping Accurate Data

Is it true or did you read it in ???

I’ll add a tab called Genealogy Resources to this website and start listing the sites I’ve found to validate information on my family tree. Get into the habit of validating and then labelling each ancestor accordingly. In Ancestry there is a means of adding a Validated tab so you don’t have to double up on your research, which leads me to another rabbit hole.

I’m sure you are much more organised than I will ever be, and will start off by keeping a log of where you have found information on your ancestry search. I didn’t, and so research became one of the biggest rabbit holes on my journey. I could remember finding information, but not where I found it, simply because I didn’t write it down, which meant I had to search for it again.


Research Notes

Find a way that works for you to record where you find information. A journal divided into sections with a section for each ancestor or family, might be a good place to start. Write down links to every website or newspaper you find information on for that person/family, making sure the reference will be easy to find in the future.

Don’t trust everything you find through any genealogy site. Delve deep to see if you can prove your ancestor’s date of birth, or where they were born. Luckily there are lots of sites to help with this.

The key word in Genealogy is VALIDATE!


Not all documents are worth the paper they’re written on. Birth and Death Certificates contain the information that was provided by a reliable (or not…) source at the time of the event. One of my great-grandmother’s went to her grave thinking she was taking a family secret with her. Her son-in-law, my grandfather, obviously knew the secret and had it recorded on her death certificate. Luckily I had stumbled upon the secret a few years ago in a newspaper article or I would have wondered about the accuracy of the information. The death certificate validated what I had already found.

And on the subject of documents…

There are ways of obtaining the information on a certificate without having to buy the actual certificate from a government agency. In New South Wales we have transcription services that transcribes the information from the certificate, without the big price. A full certificate is about $35 from New South Wales Births, Deaths, and Marriages. I usually go for the Happy Hour specials on the transcription service and pay around $18 for a pdf version, emailed to me. I would only order a full certificate if I wanted one for framing or inclusion in a book. As far as I know, the transcript service is only available in NSW, but hopefully other states will come on board at some stage.

What’s in your DNA?

DNA is the best way to seriously look into your ancestry. There are heaps of companies that have DNA testing, but once again, Ancestry is the best option. Ancestry DNA data can be uploaded to other sites, but DNA data from other sites is generally restricted to their site only. It seems like a big expense, but if you want to find out who you are related to, a DNA test is worth every cent. Wait for Ancestry’s special price around Christmas and other special days throughout the year when the price is usually about $90 plus postage.

DNA Does Not Lie! What you see is what you are…


Thinking of taking a DNA test?

Take a look at the 2020 Insight program on SBS On Demand to see some of the surprises of DNA revelations (you might have to sign up for an account to access this). Perhaps you could say DNA testing is not for the feint-hearted? I didn’t think there were any skeletons in my family closet, but my DNA test proved otherwise.

Summary of Family History 101

  1. Open an account on your preferred genealogy website and build a Family Tree
  2. Start with what you know and include dates of birth (if possible):
    1. You
    2. Your parents
    3. Your grandparents
  3. Set privacy settings to Public or Private
  4. Find a way to record links to where you found information, especially websites and newspapers
  5. Search the Internet, genealogy sites and/or newspapers for information
  6. Don’t believe all you find; validate, validate, validate
  7. Use government and transcript sites to order information if needed
  8. Watch out for rabbit holes, but don’t underestimate them
  9. Consider DNA testing, but beware of consequences

Have Fun!!!

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