This is Week 28 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is Places in the Archives and Petitions. Please do join in and write comments or posts on your experiences with archives.
As family historians we tend to be focused on the personal in our research strategies. Unfortunately aren’t all that interested in our ancestors per se, and as mentioned last week, you will do better to consider the organisations and records where your ancestor’s names may appear. Another way to tease out information is to search by place: the geographic region or town. This is likely to turn up an array of information, some of it referenced by personal names, but much of it more general. Some of these have been mentioned previously in this series and some will be addressed in future posts. Examples include:
- Local government records including rate books
- School admission records
- School administration records
- Benevolent asylums or hospital records
- Police files: administration, police stations, personnel
- Court records and Gaol records
- Old maps (some including the names of original settlers)
- Cemetery records
- Original electoral rolls
If I search the Queensland State Archives (QSA) catalogue for Ipswich or Townsville, it turns up 1000 items each. The small town of Murphys Creek generates 41 but there are another 100 provided if I use the now defunct spelling of the name Murphy’s Creek. Alternatively you may choose to search by Series in the first instance. It’s easy to see there are many opportunities for learning about your ancestors’ environment.
While I’ve chosen to use Queensland as an example the same principle will apply whether you’re looking for Urana in New South Wales, Leith in Scotland, Tynemouth in Northumberland or Sandon in Hertfordshire.
You should also check to see if the archive has a card index, topic guides, or a location guide as part of its researcher support. QSA has an excellent series of booklets for various towns around Queensland which provide an invaluable entry-point of discovery for your research.
One of the benefits of searching Australian archives for the earlier days of white settlement, is that you may find that your ancestor signed various petitions to government on a range of topics. With small communities you have a better chance of finding your ancestor’s name and possibly his signature. Once again this gives you the opportunity to understand how your ancestor saw his/her world and the extent of his/her involvement in community concerns and possibly learn some formerly unknown fact about them. As usual you are more likely to find male ancestors than female in these documents.
Using the place books and card catalogue in the old days before a digital catalogue, I found my George Kunkel’s signature on a number of petitions relation to Ipswich where he and his wife Mary first lived in the 1850s and 1860s. Perhaps the most interesting one was his objection to the appointment of the famous Continental Immigration Agent, Johann Christian Heussler and nominating Adolphus Hasenkamp in his stead. Nearly 300 Germans signed this 1863 petition indicating there was significant grassroots objection to Heussler’s appointment because of his use (of) his office of agent more for his own benefit than for the good of the colony or the immigrants[i]. It made me suspect their objections were perhaps based on personal experience. There were also petitions to government about whether Ipswich should/should not become a municipality.
Does an ancestor’s absence from a petition indicate disagreement with the subject, absence from town or just not being present when the petition was circulated?
Maybe these are not earth-shattering discoveries but each snippet enriches your ancestor’s life story so they’re worth searching for I think and will flesh out that story you’re writing. Lift as many archives “rocks” as you can in order to unearth that little titbit about your family.
Have you made any interesting discoveries about your ancestors using place searches or looking at petitions?
[i] Queensland State Archives: COL/A41; 63/1480; 7 July 1863. SRS5253- 1- 42; Item 846771 Microfilm Z5667