Australia Bound: Tracing Australian Ancestors

By George G. Morgan Premium

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Whether your Aussie ancestors were transported as convicts or sought a new start in a new land, fantastic online resources can help you retrace their journey.

Tracing Australian Ancestors Records Tips

Australia fascinates us with its unique cultures, wildlife and environment: kangaroos, koala bears, boomerangs, the didgeridoo, Aboriginal people, the Sydney Opera House, the remote Outback and the Great Barrier reef. The island country was similarly awe-inspiring to our English and Irish ancestors who migrated there starting in the late 18th century.

If your ancestor was among the immigrants—whether voluntary or sentenced to transportation on a “convict boat”—you want to know where they settled and how you can find records of their journey. We’ll get you started with tips, online databases and helpful websites for discovering ancestors who immigrated to Australia.

Getting Settled

The earliest maps of Australia show two areas: the eastern coast, which became New South Wales; and the western coast, first called New Holland, then Swan River Colony, and later Western Australia. Capt. James Cook, in 1770, sailed along the eastern coast, mapping it along the way. He named it New South Wales and claimed it for Great Britain. As Australia developed, new states and territories were founded and boundaries frequently changed.

The American Revolution was instrumental in Australian settlement. US victory in 1783 forced an end to Great Britain’s practice of sentencing convicts to exile in America. At the same time, the Crown wanted to solidify its ownership and control of the continent Capt. Cook had claimed. So in a dual solution, Capt. Arthur Phillip was dispatched with a fleet of ships, the “First Fleet,” to establish a penal colony in New South Wales. The offenders, whose crimes ranged from petty theft to treason, served “transportation” sentences of seven years, 14 years or life. Their camp was set up at Botany Bay and the flag raised Jan. 26, 1788, at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson. That date is now Australia’s national day. The Second Fleet arrived in mid-1790 with supplies, more convicts and more military guards. A Third Fleet in late summer and early fall, 1791, facilitated the founding of Sydney and later exploration of other regions.

Another penal settlement established in 1803 at Van Dieman’s Land, now known as Tasmania, became a separate colony in 1825. Britain formally claimed the western part of Western Australia (originally known as New Holland and later as the Swan River Colony) in 1828 and began another penal colony there.

Britain carved separate colonies from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. South Australia was founded as a “free province,” it never was a penal colony (its earliest settlements were funded by the sale of Crown lands). Victoria and Western Australia were founded free, but later accepted convicts. The Northern Territory was founded in 1911, when it was excised from South Australia.

In 1815, the government began accepting a limited number of convicts’ family reunification applications, to have their families join them. The number increased as Britain’s poor law parishes sought to spare themselves the burden of supporting convicts’ families.

Settlers of New South Wales campaigned to end convict transportation there; its last convict ship arrived in 1848. A penal servitude act in 1853 allowed only long-term (life) transportation, another act in 1857 ended almost all transportation. Some, however, continued until 1868. According to the Australian national archives, 158,702 convicts arrived in Australia from England and Ireland between 1788 and 1868, as well as 1,321 from other parts of the British Empire.

Only 36,000 people lived in the original colony of New South Wales in 1821. When military personnel there asked permission for their families to join them, the British government was eager to spur additional settlement. It was particularly pleased to encourage female migrations, because the male-female ratio was so unbalanced.

Britain provided migration assistance based on marital status, occupations that would facilitate settlement growth, relationship to military personnel already stationed there, and more. (Van Dieman’s Land didn’t encourage free settlers.) The government kept records of its own transportation assistance. Keep in mind that when a family member or employer paid someone’s passage, there may not be a government record of the sponsorship.

New South Wales began encouraging immigration in 1835, paying bounties to mechanics, tradesmen and agricultural laborers. The government required bounty applicants to submit character references from a responsible person, such as a clergyman, local magistrate or previous employer. The applicant also was supposed to provide proof of his age with a church certificate of baptism, but in practice, this wasn’t always enforced.

In the 1830s and especially the 1840s potato famine years, a major exodus from Ireland saw many Irish farmers headed to both America and Australia. The Australian gold rush in the 1850s provided another immigration impetus, drawing thousands of fortune hunters. Workers came to work in the growing number of opal mines; Australia now provides 95 percent of the world’s opals used in jewelry.

Australia today has six states and two territories; see a map on the next page. Territories primarily function as states, except that the Commonwealth parliament can modify or repeal legislation passed by the territorial parliaments. It’s important to know when the state where your ancestor arrived was formed and from what predecessor states. That’s because most immigration records aren’t maintained centrally, but rather are at state or territorial archives. Learn more about state and territorial development. Note that New South Wales administered New Zealand until Britain declared sovereignty in the latter in 1840. Norfolk Island was a tiny penal colony until 1855, and became an external territory of Australia on July 1, 1914. Christmas Island, too, has been an external Australian territory since Oct. 1, 1958.

Tracing Aussie Arrivals

Any information you can glean on your ancestor, including the circumstances of a convict’s offense, may be crucial in distinguishing your ancestor from another person bearing the same name. That means researching the person in all available records of the state or territory to which the person was transported or later migrated.

Passenger lists were prepared at the port of departure, either by a shipping company employee or a crew member—typically a purser. Ships transporting primarily convicts list passengers separately as such. Military and crew members are listed with some description of their occupation or role. Ships with any type of passenger grouped them into categories such as class (first, second, steerage), whether assisted (such as Assisted 2nd Class), or those receiving bounty land. For passengers of the age of majority—including convicts—you’ll see an occupation or role listed. Persons who died on a voyage were noted with a date of death. A child born on board was indicated beside the name of the mother, with or without the name and birth date. (Look for vital registration and/or baptismal records at the place of arrival.)

Historical research benefits your genealogy search, especially in an unfamiliar area. Learn about penal colonies at the time of your ancestor’s arrival, as well as the UK’s judicial system: A convicted person transported from England or Ireland may be documented in court records in the country of origin. Look for records of the criminal proceedings, the details of sentencing, and to what colony he or she was transported.

National, state and territorial archives provide access to a myriad of records. After federation—the union of the Australian colonies into the Commonwealth of Australia—in 1901, passenger lists and other immigration records are centralized. Before then, state and territorial archives hold them. You may find online collections as well. Let’s examine some helpful websites:

National Archives of Australia (NAA): Records at the NAA in the Australian capital city of Canberra date mostly from federation. Therefore, the archive doesn’t have records of convicts, colonial-era migration, or early exploration and gold rushes. The NAA does have 20th-century immigration records, primarily after 1923. It also has an online RecordSeach that lets you search passenger arrivals from 1898 to 1966 by surname, given name, ship/aircraft name, year of arrival, port of arrival, and/or port of embarkation (choose the “Immigration and Naturalisation records” group). Check back, as the database is growing with names from an indexing project for NAA’s 20th-century passenger arrival records.

But you’ll find invaluable help at the NAA site in the form of its Fact Sheets about migration and citizenship. Specifically, Fact Sheet 227 explains when passenger lists and naturalization records were kept, what information they contain, and how to search for them in RecordSearch. For specifics on records in the places your ancestors arrived, see the individual Fact Sheets for passenger records in Canberra, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane and Adelaide. Fact Sheet 2 provides contact information for national, state and territorial archives and libraries.

ArchivesACT: Australian Capital Territory, home to Canberra, was created from the surrounding New South Wales in 1911. This was after the penal colony era, so no convict records exist here. If you’re searching for other post-1911 immigration-related records for the area, visit the website.

New South Wales State Archives & Records: The NSW State Archives & Records site has an extensive collection of records for tracing immigrant ancestors. Click Collection & Research to review all the site’s collections A to Z or scroll down for links to categories of collections. Those include Convicts, which includes a research guide, digitized convict indents (lists of those transported), a searchable index to a variety of convict records and more.

Also check the Immigration and Shipping category for a research guide, searchable index to assisted immigrants and browsable digitized shipping lists (similar to an American passenger lists). If you have an index entry with no digital record attached, click the Request a Copy link to order a copy. See more on ordering records here. You also can watch free online classes, including two covering convicts and shipping.

Queensland State Archives: The QLD State Archives website holds an impressive collection of records, especially relating to immigration of both convicts and free settlers. Click Search the records and look under Indexes for a link to indexes such as convict arrivals at Moreton Bay and St. Helena, rations issues to immigrants, registers of immigrants and more. You can view a partial image of a convict arrival record with the arrival number, prisoner name, ship name and details about the original conviction; a link lets you order a full copy. Remember to search for name variants and unexpected spellings.

State Library of Queensland: This site has a convict transportation registers database with details for more than 123,000 of the estimated 160,000 convicts who were transported to Australia. Search results usually contain a substantial amount of information—name, crime, court, term of the sentence, date of transportation departure, name of the ship, and place of arrival. You can use the name and the court to look for court records in England or Ireland. Under Resources in the site’s Family History section, click Immigration Indexes for a research guide and links to resources.

State Library of South Australia: Remember that South Australia didn’t have any penal colonies, but convicts who’d satisfied their terms of transportation could move there. The South Australian Colonization Act of 1834 allowed land sales to English and Irish immigrants, mostly through free immigration schemes.

This state library has an impressive immigration collection called Bound for South Australia. It contains names of virtually every passenger for the 3,000 overseas and local ships arriving South Australia between 1836 and 1851. Use the clickable porthole image to access immigration information and lists of passengers displayed in alphabetical order by year of arrival. You’ll learn the name of the ship, port of departure, date and port of arrival, and sometimes other details about the passenger. This data can provide family group information, ages, occupation, and even guide you to other South Australian records.

From 1863 to 1910, the South Australian government administered the Northern Territory, so look there for records. The Northern Territory archives doesn’t have online information about immigration or convicts.

State Library of Tasmania: Between 1804 and 1853, Britain transported approximately 76,000 convicts to what was then called Van Diemen’s Land. It was renamed Tasmania in 1856. Museum Victoria’s immigration timeline is particularly helpful.

The state library (also referred to as LINC) links to databases of convict arrival, conduct, probation, reconviction and other records, and links to information on offline records. The Tasmanian Names Index lets you search many databases at once, with a link to order records that aren’t digitized online. You even can watch an instructional video on using the database.

The State Library Victoria: This library has microfilm of records associated with convicts and immigration, but almost nothing has been digitized. See a description of its family history collection; instructions for ordering copies here.

State Records Office of Western Australia: This office has microfilmed passenger lists and some convict records, described under Archive Collection>Family History, but they aren’t available online. You’ll also find Australian immigration records and other resources at nongovernment websites, including:

  • At this subscription site’s Card Catalog, use the Filter by Location section on the left to narrow the database list to Oceania, then Australia. Under Filter By Collection, choose Immigration & Travel. Click a database title to search.
  • FamilySearch: This free site today offers a few immigration databases. And don’t overlook the articles about Australian immigration and emigration in the FamilySearch Wiki.
  • Findmypast: To find this subscription site’s migration and convict transportation databases, click the Search tab on the home page, then choose Immigration & Travel from the dropdown menu. In the search form, be sure to enter Australia as the destination country. The site’s database of Crimes, Prisons and Punishment from England and Wales can help you learn more about transported ancestors, especially if passenger lists are missing.
  • MyHeritage: This subscription site’s database titled Queensland Early Pioneers Index, 1834-1859 may be worth searching for you.
  • Trove: This National Library of Australia free resource brings together content from multiple repositories. In particular, the newspaper search may provide details about your ancestors’ migrations, sometimes even revealing them to be in locations other than those you might expect.

Your family history in Australia is as varied and fascinating as the land itself. With all the records and assistance now available on the web, now is a great time to start investigating your Australian family links.

From the December 2017 issue of Family Tree Magazine.