Family history mysteries

Family history mysteries
Librarians take to Facebook to offer expert advice
4 September 2015

Last month, librarians from the Reader Services team here at the Library decided to trial a family history focused Question and Answer (Q&A) hour on the Library’s Facebook page in honour of Family History month.

We advertised the appropriately named Family History Hour across Twitter and Facebook and were preparing for an hour full of family history questions. We received our first question early and eagerly worked on the answer. After that the questions kept coming, keeping us busy for a little longer than an hour. We’d like to share some of the questions we received, and their answers.

Image of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove

John Allcot (1888–1973) The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788, Sydney  1937, nla.obj-135776002

“Where can I access information on the convicts and crew of the First Fleet?”

You can find information about First Fleet convicts via our eResources, in a database called First Fleet Database. It’s a freely available resource, so you don’t need a library card to access this one.  

As for First Fleet crew, there are several places you can look. There are some eResources to look at as well as some resources that are only available here in the Library to use. Have a look at our convicts research guide to get started.

“My great-grandfather came from Greece in about 1863–64. Who would hold shipping records? His death certificate in 1895 states he was in NSW for about 36 years.”

Again, we have a number of online sites available through our eResources that you can start your search with. If there is a little blue globe icon this means it’s a freely available resource, while the yellow key icon means you need to log in with your National Library readers card to view the resource. It’s very easy to get a Library card and it’s a service available to all Australian residents. We also have an immigration and shipping research guide that can point you in the right direction for starting your research.

black and white photograph of men on a wharf

People standing on a wharf at the arrival of the passenger ship S.S. Orontes, New South Wales,  ca.1930, nla.pic-vn6301061

“How can I find out when an ancestor arrived in Australia, and find evidence of them anglicising their name? We think we know his original surname but we're not sure.”

In this instance it’s important to have an idea of when your ancestor arrived to Australia and to which state or territory. In this case, they arrived to New South Wales so we directed the person who asked the question to the Naturalisations Index held by the State Records of NSW. There is also a list of indexes for other states available online. The naturalisation record could show whether the person was using their anglicised name when they arrived in Australia. Another place to look would be the death certificate of your ancestor, as it might state on the certificate how long they had lived in the state they had died in. You can find links to all the Births, deaths and marriages registries online also.

“Can you help me find a photo of my ancestor?”

The first, and dare we say the best, place to start looking would be in Trove. There may have been a photo printed in a newspaper or an image held in a library or museum somewhere. In this instance we weren’t able to find a photo of this person’s ancestor, but we did direct them to a number of other institutions that might have had a photo based on other information that we were given. When searching for a person’s name in Trove it pays to play around with your search terms. In the earlier days a person might have been referred to in the newspapers as Mr J Smith, not John Smith, so you need to adjust your search terms to try and get the best search results. You can find tips on searching for names in Trove newspapers in their help service. 

Image of Ask a Librarian

Family History Hour image 

We hope that everyone who joined us for Family History Hour enjoyed it as much as we did and received some helpful family history tips. For those of you who watched at home, maybe you had a question but didn’t get a chance to ask it in time. If that’s the case you can always Ask a Librarian and we’ll be all too happy to help you. We’d love to hear if there’s a subject of interest that we can focus our Facebook Q&A session on for next time, so leave a comment below. 

Thanks for participating in National Family History Month. You can also advertise your event in the Online category of events in the NFHM web calendar on our website. Not everyone follows Twitter or Facebook but it sounds like you were kept busy anyway. NFHM will be back again next August and we hope you participate again.
Oh, thank you for letting us know. We will keep it in mind for next year!
My great x4 grandfather and grandmother were among 13 families first granted land in the colony of NSW - on Prospect Hill in 1791. As these families were First Fleeters, their lives have been well documented by family historians. But there appears to be very little documentary evidence of the traditional owners who lived in that area before white settlement. Can you suggest sources I might investigate?
Hi Bronwyn, thanks for your question. You might find these websites useful for your research: Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal history (, Aboriginal Heritage ( and Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney - Australian Museum ( There’s also a number of books published on the subject of Aboriginal communities around the Sydney area, you can find a list of these on Trove: