Travelling to track down your ancestors

A dear friend of mine recently started a podcast for family history lovers called Genies Down Under, and since I started listening to it I’ve been getting inspiration to do some travelling to delve into bits of my own family history. In fact, the whole idea is so much fun that I decided to interview Maria, the genie behind Genies Down Under, in the hope that I might inspire some of my fellow travellers to include a spot of genealogical travel in their itinerary.

Maria from Genies Down Under on tour … in Orange, NSW

If I’m planning a trip to a place where I know my ancestors lived, what kind of research should I do ahead of time?

Talk to your relatives first. No one will know your family better than your family members. Ask them what they know about the places you’re planning to visit (e.g., Aunty Jude visited Uncle Bob’s grave every day until the day she died). You never know, your relatives may even have some old photographs or postcards from the places you intend to visit.

Your local libraries. You’ll be looking at the places you’re visiting from an historical viewpoint. So, before you go, don’t forget to check out old and new books in your local libraries that include historical information about the places you plan to visit. Books often include valuable information, maps and photographs that cannot be found anywhere else (not even on the internet). If possible, take these books with you on your trip. It may be worth phoning a few weeks ahead to the librarian of the place you’re intending to visit.
Old photographs. Get hold of as many old photographs as possible of the places you plan to visit – even if these photographs don’t feature your ancestors. Have a look in your own family collection of photographs and the collections of your relatives. Check old library books and search on the net (especially centralised collections such as the National Archives of Australia). Check Ebay for old postcards. Take printed copies of these photos with you as they can help you find particular buildings or locations.

Addresses. Record addresses of key sites in written and electronic formats – as printed notes, as text on your mobile device, scribbled marks on printed maps and, if possible, GPS data which can take you directly to the sites. Record the street addresses of where your ancestors lived, places they visited, their church, the local library, the local museum, the local gallery and the cemetery. You don’t want to waste time driving around cities and towns that are unfamiliar to you.

When I visit one of these special (to me!) towns or cities, what are your three tips for the most interesting or useful places to visit?

Local library. Go here first. It is highly possible that the local librarian will hold information about how you can quickly and effectively get your hands on relevant material in the library and elsewhere. Not all libraries have their catalogue online and some libraries even have books for sale about the history the place that aren’t available elsewhere. On my recent trip to Bourke the librarian showed me a huge folder of letters that she had been collecting for years from all sorts of people who had written to her requesting information about family history research. I also found a copy of a handwritten book written by an elderly resident of Bourke which documented her memories of Bourke in the 1890s when my great-grandparents lived there (picture below). Priceless! I would never have known of the existence of this book without making a personal visit to the library and fossicking through the shelves.
Old memories of Bourke, outback Australia
The church. If your ancestors were church-going folk, find out which church they visited. In many communities, the church was the central place for baptisms, marriages, regular weekly visits and burials. Most churches have cemeteries nearby or within the churchyard. Some ancestors are memorialised inside churches in plaques, windows or even statues. You could be pretty sure you were walking in your ancestors’ footsteps if you walk down the aisles of their local church.
The pub. The local pub was often a hub of activity in small towns and city suburbs. Even today, a visit to the local pub for a drink or a meal will put you in a good place for talking to locals who might know information about the town that no one else knows. Just a word of warning … if you drop your ancestors’ surnames to the locals, just be prepared for varied reactions – ranging from blank stares, scowls or smiles of delight – depending on your ancestors’ antics. 

And finally, one of your podcasts gave me the best tip ever – you don’t have to research your entire family tree, you can just pick a few “favourite ancestors” to investigate. If I want to do this (without spending hours and hours researching every distant relative), where do you suggest I start?

Choose one ancestor and talk to old relatives about this person. Your elderly relatives will be your ancestors one day so take the opportunity to talk to them now. When you talk to your relatives, supplement the questions that spring to your mind naturally with this list of questions from Try to have a conversation rather than an interview with your relatives and ALWAYS get permission to record the conversation (either in text, audio or video format). A good way to start the conversation is to ask the relative to give some commentary on a few old photographs or a photograph album, or just have a 5-10 minute phone conversation that starts with something like … “Tell me about old Uncle Richard”.

Start with what you know and work towards what you don’t know. Let the search for filling in the gaps for “what you don’t know” be driven by a few key questions (e.g., Why did my great-grandparents migrate to Australia? or How many children did one particular family have?). Record this information, even if it’s just a few sentences in one of the following formats. Don’t expect to find out absolutely everything about your ancestors – just focus on one or two important aspects of their lives. Ask yourself: “If my dead ancestor could speak to me now, what aspect of their life would they want me to record?”
Mobile phone as a research tool. If you don’t have hours and hours for family history research, use your mobile phone as a research tool to create records in image, audio, video and text formats. I like to collect and create records in all of these formats. Text is listed last in the list because it’s so obvious and we tend to record information in text most of the time but don’t forget the rich and exciting formats of images (e.g., pics of ancestors, maps of where they lived), audio (record an interview, record your own memories, record what you know about a couple of your favourite ancestors), video (record 10 seconds of video of the ancestor’s home and surrounding street) or text (type a paragraph which records a story about your ancestor).
Thanks so much for all this great information, Maria – hopefully it will help some aspiring family history researchers get the most out of some genealogical travels. Where would you like to travel to find your family roots? – Let me know in the comments!


  1. Brilliant! I’m going to link to this from the library’s facebook and twitter accounts.

    • Fabulous! Maria aka Genies Down Under is a very clever lady (and I’m not saying that just because she’s a friend of mine) – she really knows her stuff!

  2. Agree! this post is brilliant! I feel re-charged ready to get back into my research. I know so much about my Dad’s family here in Australia, but we struggle to make the link back to Scotland as my Great, Great Grandfather ran away from home (apparently), jumped on a ship and somehow ended up on the east coast of Australia. Perhaps it is more exciting than that and I should be checking convict records… 🙂 !! thanks xx

    • Glad you enjoyed it Rach – lots of great info, hey? I love the story of your great, great grandfather – it would be exciting to find out the full story (and wouldn’t it be great if he was a convict!). Definitely check out Maria’s podcasts, I think you’d enjoy them.

  3. All the best with your research, Rachel. Here are a few links to get you going with some info about convict records:
    -Maria from Genies Down Under

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