Getting on board with family history

Some of my family history

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.

6 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Getting on board with family history | The Time Machine || August 2nd, 2009

    […] Read more from Emma Dewson of Signposts – a blog about the encyclopedia of New Zealand […]

  2. Comment made by Kerryn || August 3rd, 2009

    Genealogical research seems to largely be an activity done post-retirement (based on my highly scientific observation of the heads at the National Library computers) – I guess that’s when you’ve got the time to do it – but I wonder whether the increasing availability of the primary sources online will make it more popular with a wider age group.

  3. Comment made by Sarndra || September 30th, 2009

    Hi Kerryn

    I’ve been researching my family trees since i found a couple of things out when i was aged 14 [1976]….that was 33 years ago and i’ve never stopped hunting. It’s extended to many different lines not just direct lineage but the lines leading off my direct ancestors. My how much easier it is now to contact people and have some terrific resources compared to back then!

    Hopefully youngsters will be encouraged to find the stories out within their own family via school projects and this will foster taking a sense of pride in who they are as individuals, that even the ordinary person has a story to tell.

    History is awesome but moreso knowing the history of who you are and those that are a part of you 🙂

  4. Comment made by Sarndra || September 30th, 2009

    Great work Emma!

    I envy the job you have, fantastic fun! Nothing more satisfying than solving a mystery. We all know family research leads to more mysteries every time one seems to solve something! Nature of the beast 🙂

    One of the best websites i’ve been using the past few years is “Paperspast” [digitised NZ newspapers accessible from the NZ National Library website]. All those bits and pieces, some mundane some controversial for the times and others tragic, flesh out the individuals lives and i’ve found so many bits and pieces that i just don’t know how i would have found otherwise.

    Keep up the good work!
    Best wishes
    [Blog: ]

  5. Comment made by Kia || December 20th, 2011

    I know this post is a couple of years old but I have come upon it via some of the many searches and databases you refer to, not to mention £6.50 for 60 hits from a ‘find your past’ website., Then there was also a wonderful story ‘Born at sea’. The irony being my Great great great grand father was Arthur Dewson from Whanganui x

  6. Comment made by Gayle || October 23rd, 2015

    I am researching the children who went through the Industrial School system and came across the Dewson family. Your great blog ‘Born at Sea’ was a great help and I’ve added you to my citations. I found out what happened to Hindalena who died a miserably death at age 40. If you haven’t got that information I can share by contacting me or by looking at the website I’ve included which is still a work in progress and will be for some time to come.

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