Some of my family history – the gravestone of John and Priscilla Yeatman
Family history sells. Websites designed to help you track your rellies or discover your Highland origins net millions in revenue each year. New Zealanders have embraced the search for their family’s past. We do the tours of the castles overseas; we walk the little lanes where ‘our settlers’ lived. We’ve got on board the genealogical bandwagon with a vengeance.
A couple of weeks ago I spent my sabbatical uncovering ways the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB) can best carry out birth, death and marriage research for our newest biographies. We’ve discovered that the hardest part is bypassing privacy restrictions on recently living people – and those who fit within our current area of research and interest are people who died in the last decade or so. But online resources, such as the website of the Public Record Office in the United Kingdom, can now make our search easier
Every week we get numerous enquiries from genealogists who want to make use of our biographical database. Researchers compiled the database at the time the first DNZB biographies were written. Today it’s still a great source of background information on about 13,000 New Zealanders.
The National Library of New Zealand runs a family history centre, which gives access to a treasure trove of tools to help you uncover your roots. During my stint there, I was surrounded by other enthusiasts.
Using computerised databases has supplanted spending hours in front of the microfiche reader; but many of the fiche records are still valuable. At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Family History Centre in Hataitai, Wellington, I put the fiche to a test. I knew my great-great-great grandfather James Spence had got off a ship from Glasgow at Port Chalmers, Otago, in 1868. Scottish Parochial Registers, held on microfiche, quickly put together a picture of James’s parents and grandparents. They conveniently hadn’t moved far from the village outside Glasgow that they and their antecedents had lived in for about the previous 300 years. Archives New Zealand also holds a wealth of material for those who want to track the ships their Anglo rellies arrived on. I could now see why family historians get addicted.
You’ll often hear older Pākehā New Zealanders refer to themselves as Scottish, Irish or French. They are, of course, referring to their family history. I’ve always found this tricky – I consider myself a Kiwi; I was born here and this place is my heritage. I know I’ve got a bunch of long-dead relatives who were born in Glasgow and Stoke Wake and Hull and Jersey and Swansea, but I don’t feel one bit Scottish, Welsh or English.
Though recently I found that two of my English relatives, John and Priscilla Yeatman – who arrived here in 1875 under the Vogel scheme for assisted immigrants – are buried at Greendale Public Cemetery near Darfield in mid-Canterbury. I was in Christchurch last weekend, and my Kiwiness didn’t stop me making a little visit to pay my respects.