C is for Certificates, Collateral Research & Census Data


Depending on where you live, and the timeframe in which you’re searching, certificates can be both critical and extremely useful.

Australian certificates are so excellent that almost anyone else’s, except the Scots’, (from my own experience) pale into insignificance. Fully completed, our certificates can launch your family tree on to new levels. The downside is that with so many immigrant families, the person completing the details on a death certificate may never have met their grandparents and get the facts completely incorrect.

This is why marriage certificates can be so helpful – the information comes from each person in the couple. There may be anomalies if they want to fudge their age (if one is older/younger) or if they just put the area they come from (Mary O’Brien from Co Clare, Ireland, God bless her!).

As with all genealogical research you are looking for as many sources as available to provide the information and cross-compare for validity. It’s also why Collateral Research can be so important.


Are your ancestors hiding behind their FANs?



What exactly is Collateral Research?

Alternatively called cluster genealogy or FANs (Friends, Associates or Neighbours) – a concept articulated by American expert Elizabeth Shawn Mills, though used by others without naming it. Collateral research encourages you to look at your ancestor’s siblings in particular to perhaps knock down a research brick wall. Just as we are part of a wider community so were our ancestral families who, as new immigrants, truly relied on friends and neighbours in lieu of traditional family networks.

You can read a couple of my stories about how collateral research has helped my research breach those walls:East Clare Research and Trove does it again.

My good friend Sharn has also recently completed a post which highlights how she used collateral research. It’s called Making Mary Mine.

C is for CENSUS

We’ve all done them, and hopefully we’ve completed them accurately and clearly, as they will ultimately provide a glimpse into the past. Australia has traditionally not retained its census data apart from some very early information, though that is currently changing, which will ultimately help our descendants.

In other countries, census records are an essential part of genealogical research. In the absence of extensive and informative certificates, the family structures spelt out in the census forms, helps to clarify that we have the right person/family and follow their movements over time.

Once again, census forms are subject to some limitations eg the householder may be illiterate and have an accent which the census taker doesn’t understand so you may find anomalies and some creative searching may be required. It’s also intriguing how often someone will age less than 10 years between decennial censuses. Some census records have been lost over the centuries eg the loss and destruction of early Irish records. However, in many other countries the census forms provide the structure of genealogical research.

D is for …I wonder?



A is for Ancestors and Archives

AWelcome to my A to Z journey through family history. If you’ve ever been curious about your own family’s story perhaps this will tempt you to get started – or frighten you off entirely.


The starting point about doing family history is to learn who our ancestors were, their names and where they came from.

Quite often oral family history breaks down over only a few generations so that some people may not know the names of grandparents who perhaps died young, and few will know the names of their great-grandparents.

Many of us start out wanting to know more about these shadowy figures from whom we descend. As many of us descend from immigrant families, we are often curious about the countries of origin for our immigrant ancestors.

Tree and ladder shutterstock_56502106

Be sure you’re searching in the right tree. Image from shutterstock.com

Contrary to a popular advertisement, you do need to have some sense of what you’re looking for, otherwise you might well have your ancestral ladder propped up against the wrong tree.Traditional genealogy trains us to follow backwards in a line from ourselves to our parents, their parents and their parents in turn, confirming each linkage based on the evidence we discover rather than simply plucking suggested leaves from others’ trees or program suggestions.

Building a genealogy is like building the foundations of a house – get it right and you’ll wind up with a solid ancestral line. However, there’s more to each of us than simply our dates of birth, marriage and death. There are innumerable sources we can investigate to explore the lives of our families: where they lived, what were their social circumstances, how did they earn their daily bread etc. This is what we refer to as putting “flesh on the bones” of your ancestry. I call it exploring your family history.


Genie magic carpet shutterstock_63777541

image from shutterstock.com

These oft-neglected gems are an Aladdin’s cave of riches for family historians. Having moved beyond the basic biographical data, this is where you’re most likely to find all sorts of delights to reveal more of your ancestor’s lives. Don’t let anyone tell you this is all online already – I can’t imagine that ever happening despite the exponential growth of online records in recent years.Nor will a genie appear offering you an instant solution to your search.


Archives can be challenging, mysterious and downright frustrating, but like a lot of our research, there’s nothing like adding some more shading to the family stories. Fortunately they are now more responsive to family historians and often have guides, flow charts and other handy tools as well as the google of archives –  the archivists themselves.

Come along on the journey with me for the next month as we explore how we track down our ancestors and their stories. Feel free to ask questions as we go along, either in general or in relation to a specific topic.

If you’re interested in taking on this ancestral journey it comes with two warnings:

  1. You never know what you’ll discover so be prepared to be tolerant of what you discover
  2. This hobby obsession is addictive – many of us start on the journey little realising that years later we’ll still be sleuthing away looking to solve one more mystery or find one more detail.