Time spent researching and building a family tree now can blossom into meaningful travel in future.
For genealogy gives not only associations to ancestors, but also a strong connection to places… perhaps unexpected places that weren’t previously on our radar.
It gives a purpose to travel; informs future travel.
Mike Murray, of TimeTrackers, a family-run business in Western Australia, specialising in British and Australian family history, says: “Being connected to roots is one of those fundamental issues that we all have. We all want to know where we came from.
“It’s mostly the immigrant countries that are interested in genealogy. The people who have come from somewhere else.”
Dr Lesley Silvester says: “Most of the people we help are from the UK, Ireland, Italy…
“We do get a lot of Australians as well. Most of them have links back to somewhere else.”
Mike says: “Some of the older Australian families are only interested in ‘back to when they arrived’.”
A few have had five or six generations in Australia.
Ancestry travel has been stimulated by the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? “It really is a travel show,” says Mike.
While they didn’t actually have to go to a particular place to get a certificate, watching someone on a computer doesn’t make good TV.
Basically, research will take you from the known person, back one generation, and the job is then to find out as much as you can about that person.
“You step your way back through mothers and fathers who beget children, and the children have a mother and father, and you find those,” says Mike.
It’s difficult to do it any other way than that, he says. You need that framework to build the family story, which is much more interesting.
Some countries have a centralised system. England is good. Wales is good. In France and Italy there is no centralised registry. The same in all of the US and Australia. There are a lot of restrictions in Australia due to privacy and anti-terrorist concerns.
“We can’t get a birth record for anyone born less than 100 years ago,” says Mike. “The same with marriages, more than 75 years. Deaths more than 30 years.”
Another useful tool may be knowing occupations and trades.
“What makes ancestry travel really interesting is taking yourself back to the past in a specific place,” says Mike.
Most of us descend from the lower classes, which makes it more challenging.
Landowners’ lives are more often charted through the property records.
“That’s much more important than life. The lives of the peasant tenants is immaterial, but who owns the land down the back paddock is really important, as far as the records are concerned,” Mike says. “The lockdown has contributed more to our business than we had expected because people are using the time to clean up their history, or do their family history, or get their books ready for publication — and they ring us up for help.”
IT’S IN YOUR DNA
Interest in genealogy has also been stimulated by more widely available DNA testing.
Ancestry.com now has a pool of 18 million DNA-tested people.
But Mike explains: “90 per cent of people look at a single result, which is ethnicity.
“Your DNA says you are 53 per cent this and 42 per cent that.
“That’s based on matching sequences in your DNA to typical sequences in reference populations who are thought to have lived in this particular area for many generations.”
But the reference populations are small and the DNA ethnicity results are probably accurate to within the continent, but not really accurate to within the country and absolutely not accurate to smaller regions.
“So it is a very broadscale thing,” says Mike. “People moved around long ago as well. The whole population of the world has moved.”
DNA results are a useful tool, he explains: “For example, if you thought you were from the UK forever and you find you are 50 per cent Italian, that’s a big hint. It doesn’t really help you other than saying you’d better start looking there.”
But the second part of the DNA result is more interesting for genealogists. These are the people who match you, because they have done a DNA test.
Mike says: “They are your cousins. Often you can make contact with them and they may know more about your family than you do. That gives you opportunities to make contact with people and gives you a geographic place to visit, and meet your new cousins. That’s a much better way of using DNA results for travel.”
Lesley adds: “DNA results have become another tool for genealogists. That’s how we look at it.”
As more people do DNA tests, the pool grows.
But it’s illegal to have a DNA test in France, and rare in Germany.
THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT
Having done their research, Mike and Lesley have done their own ancestry travel… “what we call the Graveyard Tour”.
Mike explains: “We knew quite a lot about our family history.
“I come from Scotland and Ireland and Lesley comes from England and Wales. So we got our maps out and plotted the places we wanted to visit and hired a car and spent five weeks trundling around the UK.
“We particularly made videos. We have Mike’s Graveyard Tour and Lesley’s Graveyard Tour and they’re great because we took film of graves and graveyards and we’ve gone back to them.”
Lesley adds: “I was surprised because I’ve gone a long way back with my family in Norfolk and have found some substantial ancestors that I didn’t know I had. They were mayors of Norwich and the big house they used to have is now Cinema City in Norwich, but the banquet hall is a pub and we went and had a beer there and I was surprised that it gave me a really strange feeling. I didn’t think I would feel the connection, but I did.
“There were lots of parts of Norwich where I knew someone had stood there, or got married there.
“There was a special little silver cup that one of them had donated to one of the churches.
“They are very tangible things that connect you to your history. That’s what people can get out of going to places.”
A WESTERN PROBLEM
Culture and religion play a big part in the ancestry landscape. Mike remembers a discussion with a man in Bali about Westerners being interested in their family history. “His view was that Easterners know it, or they have a religion that they rely on to let them know where they come from and his view was that the lack of religion in the western world was one of the reasons that so many people are interested in their family history.
“They are looking for their roots. Whereas, as far as he was concerned, he knew his roots — they went back 1000 years.”
The same might be said of Australian Indigenous culture. On every “re-meeting”, connections are restated. Family groups, skin groups and totems are all known.
Mike says: “My roots are the Isles of Lewis, off the west of Scotland, which is a Gaelic community, where the naming of the ancestors contains the names of a few of their ancestors.
“By knowing each generation’s name, you can go back seven or eight generations, just by the names. Even though the names are few, the combinations change.”
SLEUTHING PAYS OFF
Lesley also volunteers at Tuart Place in Fremantle, a centre for people who have been in care as children, and helped some to piece together their story and find their families. DNA testing has helped this work. “We have had some really good results,” she said.
“One case took two and a half years of searching.”
ANCESTRY EVENT WITH WEST TRAVEL CLUB
As TimeTrackers, Mike and Lesley do research, DNA consulting, teach the skills, run workshops and give talks, record life stories on video, and publish ancestry books for clients.
They also edit the Western Ancestry magazine for the Genealogy Society. They have been involved in the society for more than 20 years.
Over the course of a single morning, at our West Travel Club Ancestry Travel event with genealogy experts Dr Lesley Silvester and Mike Murray, we will provide you with essential tools to:
Research your family history: tackling the genealogical heavy lifting you can do at home to trace your ancestry, such as building your family tree, DNA testing, accessing online records effectively, and more.
Prepare for overseas research: visiting record centres overseas, joining local family history societies and booking and attending events for when you’re there.
Walk in your ancestors’ footsteps: boning up on the rich history of the places you want to visit, including geography, local history, family occupations, the reasons for a family moving from one place to another, and more.
Plan your trip: information on heritage travel, genealogy cruises, themed escorted tours and planning to attend genealogy events in future.
When: Sunday, November 22, 10am-1pm.
Where: State Library Auditorium, Perth Cultural Centre.
Who: Dr Lesley Silvester and Mike Murray; MC Will Yeoman.
What: A three-hour lecture-style presentation, with plenty of time for questions. It will give a basic toolbox to start research.
How: Book at westtravelclub.com.au/events or phone 1800 429 000 during office hours.
Cost: Registered Members $60/Gold Members $40.
It is free to become a Registered Member. Benefits include receiving our weekly eTravel Digital Edition to your inbox, advance notice of events and tours, and reading Travel stories for free for 48 hours at thewest.com.au/travel.
It is $49 a year to become a Gold Member, which includes all of the above plus signed copies of Stephen Scourfield’s books Don’t Forget to Write and Elsewhere. Gold Members can book two tickets for any event at the discounted price.