Researching your overseas ancestors

A guide to researching ancestors who emigrated to Australia from countries other than the United Kingdom

Why can't I find them?

Group of men and women, with man holding dog in foreground, Bonegilla

Group of men and women, with man holding dog in foreground, Bonegilla.  H2001.322/3


As you progress with your family history research you are bound to have some difficulties finding the right information or the relevant records. Here are a few suggestions on ways to work around such problems.

Spelling and transcription errors -  forms were usually filled out by the head of the house, or by an official and perhaps the information was misspelled or incorrectly heard. Indexes are not always reliable either as poor handwriting could mean there were errors with transcriptions. If possible try and obtain the original document to verify the information listed.

Names, nicknames and abbreviations -  look for your ancestor under all variations of their name, for instance Saul could be written as Saulle, Saule, Soule, Sowl, Sowle, Sowell and even Sewell. Or perhaps they shortened their surname - Goldstein to Gold or anglicised their name - Triantafyllou to Rose. First names might also have been abbreviated  - Theodora to Dora, Jacob to Jake and so on

Too many people with the same name - if you find thirty records for a Hans Schmidt from Berlin how do you determine which Hans is yours? Try and find records for parents, siblings or children, anything that can verify a relationship. Or try and eliminate the records for the other people with the same name by identifying the names of their immediate family.

Age - in many countries only the age was recorded on the census, so the date of birth that is listed in the transcript is an estimate that has been calculated from the age that was given. People frequently lied about their age too. Women lowered their ages, particularly if they were married to younger men and children's ages were exagerated so they got higher wages. People also raised or lowered their age to make themselves a more suitable age for immigration. Try searching with a broader age range.

Place of birth - people often put the town where they assumed they were born or they put the name of the town where they were registered. Check neighbouring areas.

Lost records - over the years many valuable collections of genealogical records have been destroyed, making it impossible to find certain records. If  the record collection you require has been destroyed your next step is to try and locate a different record source. For instance if you cannot find a death certificate try and locate a burial register for the relevant parish church or identify the cemeteries for the town where you ancestor lived and then try and obtain a cemetery record.

You still can't find them - make sure you've searched through every available source. If you still have no luck then it's worth taking a break and moving on to a different ancestor. So many records have still to be digitised and indexed, you might find if you come back in a few months that you find new records.


The following books are excellent resources that focuses on the main problems researchers encounter and list numerous ways to approach these problems.