Aboriginal people and family history

A guide to resources that will help you to research Aboriginal Australian family history.

Main records

Aboriginal culture places a strong emphasis on family connectiveness and place. Often family relationships are remembered and told through family oral histories, stories and memories.

Certain records provide important documentary evidence of a person's life events and relationships. Some of the main records are:

Birth, marriage and death certificates

Birth, marriage and death certificates (civil registration recorded by the government) are vital records for establishing and confirming details of a particular event and for understanding relationships between people. These records are located at the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in each Australian state and territory.

Indexes to birth, deaths and marriages are available for various periods for each Australian state. Check your local or state library for information about their holdings of birth, death and marriage indexes. The State Library of Victoria holds copies of all available indexes for each state.

Church records

Individual churches record baptisms, marriages and burials. Church records differ from civil registration certificates but they can be used in conjunction with each other. For example, a church may have recorded the baptism of a child while the parents of the child may have registered the birth of the child with the government civil registration system. Enquiries about possible access to church records can be made through public library services. Nick Vine Hall's Parish registers in Australia is a good starting point for identifying available registers.

Government run mission stations and reserves

Records relating to the administration of the Aborigines Protection Board and the Aborigines Welfare Board may contain names of Indigenous Australians residing at the various government stations. Rations lists, correspondence records, Exemption certificates and attendance registers kept by mission and government settlements may contain information about Aboriginal ancestry.

Records administered by Police Protectorate authorities may also be useful. Records such as these are held at State and National Archives within Australia. In Victoria, these records are split between the Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives of Australia.

A useful list of government run stations for each state and territory, the name of the administering body and the dates of operation appears in Lookin for your mob: a guide to tracing Aboriginal family trees.

Church-run missions

Registers administered by church-run missions can contain details of births, deaths and marriages. In order to access the appropriate records it would be useful to have knowledge of a particular mission that family members were associated with.

Records that were generated and administered by government agencies can be found at the National Archives of Australia or the archives office located in each Australian state and territory. These agencies have published guides to their holdings of records relating to Aboriginal people. Please see the sections for national, Victoria and other states and territories' records in this guide.

A useful list of missions for each state and territory, the name of the administering body and the dates of operation appears in Lookin for your mob: a guide to tracing Aboriginal family trees.

Newspapers

Newspaper reports of deaths, obituaries and inquests may be useful for Aboriginal family history research. The National Library of Australia's Trove website provides online access to a large and increasing number of Australian newspapers. The online Ryerson index provides references to death and funeral notices appearing in a range contemporary Australian newspapers.

Cemetery records

Cemetery records in the form of burial registers and grave headstone transcriptions provide details of the death of an individual and their relationships with others. Enquiries about available cemetery records can be made through public library services.  The online Australian cemeteries website is a good starting point for research in this area.    

Electoral rolls

Although Aboriginal people had a right to vote early in Australian European history, it was not actively encouraged and was often very difficult to exercise due to restrictive conditions on registration. Voting was limited to men only until 1901 after which time no new Aboriginal voters could be registered.

Different states had different laws regarding voting rights. As a result of these policies, the electoral rolls are not comprehensive or an accurate reflection of the Aboriginal population, however, they are worth checking. The entries in the electoral rolls do not provide distinguishing notions about aboriginality.

Paper and microform copies of historic electoral rolls are held by state libraries around Australia. Electronic copies for each Australian state (except South Australia) for various years from 1903 to 1980 can be consulted onsite free of charge at these libraries, on the Ancestry Library Edition database.

Military records

Indigenous Australians have fought in every military conflict that Australia has been involved in. The National Archives of Australia (NAA) holds official government records of Australian military personnel. The NAA has digitised many of their service records which can be searched and viewed through their website. References to published sources can be found by searching the Library's online catalogue. A good starting point is to search our catalogue for the term: Aboriginal Australian soldiers. An example is: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers for the AIF: the Indigenous response to World War One.

The Serving Our Country project aims to document the contributions and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers, nurses, peacekeepers, ancillary staff and their families through the collection of letters, diaries, photographs and other memorabillia relating to the thousands of Indigenous Australians who have completed military service. It is the first comprehensive historical study of Indigenous Australians' long under-recognised defence service in campaigns from the Boer War to 2000.

 

Maps

The National Library of Australia presents an online Map showing the distribution of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia on their website.

The ABC presents an Indigenous Language Map on their website.

More maps can be found on the Internet.

Some limitations of records

Many events of births, marriages and deaths for Aboriginal people went unrecorded. These events were required to be registered but the remoteness of some groups led to many omissions. When registration became compulsory in each state, managers of government and church-run missions and prominent pastoralists were responsible for the registration, but it is likely that only permanent resident Indigenous Australians were recorded.

Changes of names or names adopted by individuals may make research difficult. Sometimes Aboriginal people adopted the name of a mission or station, or a mission or station administrator.

Aboriginal kinship groups did not often keep written records.

Many Aboriginal families were dislocated by the removal of children from the family group. Relevant information can also be found at the Link-Up services component of the AIATSIS website and under the Stolen Generations tab in this guide.

Information about adopted Aboriginal persons or former wards can be found in the Adoption and Forgotten Australians guide.