Saturday, June 23, 2012


Family ties - how to unlock the secrets of your ancestry

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Caitlin Gow, 21 years, who is an ancestry research fan. Picture: Campbell Scott Source: The Courier-Mail

Time-rich Baby Boomers aren't alone in turning sleuth to unravel family mysteries and uncover amazing tales about where and who they are. With a revival of interest in ancestry, Michael Lund tells how to discover yours - but be careful what you find.

CAITLIN Gow achieved a unique century when researching her family history.


The day she discovered long-lost great-great-aunt Jeannie was exactly 100 years to the date that the relative had died in 1912.

"I was just amazed because no one knew what had happened to her," Gow says.

"Everyone else was so amazed because I had solved this 100-year mystery."

The discovery was made when Gow was searching through documents that were only released this year.

They showed Jeannie died in a poorhouse in Scotland.

The family already knew Jeannie had one daughter, but the records also showed she had two, possibly three, illegitimate children.

That is all Gow knows about Jeannie at the moment, but the discovery is helping her write the latest chapter in her family history.

It's a passion that started when she was 18 and she's spent the past three years trying to piece together what she can.

Gow's mother's side of the family goes back to Texas and through other US states and to Scotland.

Her father's family got as far as NSW and, in one of those unique twists of history, his family also has its roots in Scotland.

Gow lives in the Brisbane suburb of St Lucia and is in her first year of a criminology and criminal justice degree at Griffith University, which allows her to practise her investigative skills in study and for her hobby.

"For me it's not just about the result. I also love the searching and the detective work," she says.

"A lot of it's online which, for me because I'm Gen Y is a big help, but I would love to be able to go to Scotland one day, and to Texas and the other US states, and to go to the births, deaths and marriages record places to trawl through those records and microfiche."

Much of her investigation has been done through the subscription website but her greatest resource was a couple of grandparents.

Nancy, who died 10 years before Gow was born, was adopted and had done as much as she could to research her family history.

Her other grandmother, Eunice, died only a few weeks ago, aged 96, but Gow spent years quizzing her for as much information as she could remember.

"When I started she was 93 and her memory was still reasonably good and no one had done the family history on her side, so that was one of the things I wanted to do straight away," Gow says.

"She was just a wealth of information to me and I was just so glad that I was able to ask her things."

So far, Gow's searching has found no dark family secrets, unlike Diane McAllister who uncovered her dad's double life.

McAllister, 63, had always wondered why she knew nothing of her relatives on her dad Edward's side. No grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins.

When she quizzed him he told her he was born in New Zealand but orphaned at an early age and that his sisters, Dorothy and Winifred, were adopted in the US.

"Any time I brought this up he would become very angry and tell me to go away and mind my own business," she says.

"As you grow up you don't answer your father back. You obey and you learn not to ask."

McAllister travelled to New Zealand as a teenager, but before leaving, her mother asked that she find her father's birth certificate.

She could find no record of him. She met and married husband Jock and questions over her dad's past were put to one side.

Many years later, after her dad had died and the couple were living near Samford, in Brisbane's outer north, the issue of Edward's mysterious past was raised with neighbours over morning tea.

One neighbour encouraged McAllister to give a go. She did and was amazed by what she discovered.

After searching variations of names she found her dad's missing sister Dorothy living in Tasmania.

"And on her Ancestry page there's a whole load of photographs and up scrolled a photograph of my father and that made me realise we were on the right track," McAllister says.

She discovered her dad had led a double life he had been married before and had a son, Barry, in 1936.

"When you look at the dates, she was only 17 and he was 24. I think by the look of it she had to get married, so that marriage was probably a disaster," McAllister says.

In 1940, Edward joined the army, never to return to his first wife and family.

In 1943 he married again and the couple had Diane, her brother John and sister Jeanette.

McAllister says her mother now dead knew nothing of her husband's double life, despite suspicions.

The newly extended family recently held a reunion on the Gold Coast and Barry came along to meet a family and a half-sister he never knew existed.

The search for family history is now big business, with many groups, organisations and businesses set up to help.

Some of the information is free and easily accessed. Some of it is not so easy and needs an expert hand to help, such as Shauna Hicks, who'll be in Brisbane next week to speak at the Unlock the Past expo (more details below).

"I started 35 years ago before computers and any of these modern resources," Hicks says.

"It was difficult because you had to write letters and research archives and libraries, so many people didn't have time to do that. Today it's so much easier."

The tips and tricks of researching will be the focus of many talks and presentations during the three-day expo.

Hicks says it's great to be able to tap into any expert knowledge.

"It can be quite addictive once you get started, but it's a great way to learn about your history," she says.



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