How Findmypast's records can reveal the diverse tapestry of Australian history

3-4 minute read

By Guest Author | July 29, 2022

Tracing Australian ancestors with Findmypast

Using Australian immigration passenger lists, convict registers and Anzac records, Helen V Smith explains how we can reimagine our Aussie ancestors' rich stories.

On 13 May 1787, 11 ships carrying over 1,500 men, women and children, left Portsmouth, England for an epic 20,000km voyage around the world to an already inhabited land. The inhabitants, the First Peoples of Australia, were culturally diverse with an estimated 700 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities speaking around 250 languages.

The First Fleet itself was culturally diverse. There were 12 black men from Africa, America or the West Indies, 11 were convicts and one George Nelson aboard the Prince of Wales. Among the convicts were persons from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and North America. Among the crew were men from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands, Madagascar, Germany, Norway, France, Sweden, Portugal and Holland.

These and around 164,000 other convicts transported between 1788-1868 left their mark on the tapestry of Australia as settlers and the beginnings of many family lines. 

Where did Australian settlers come from?

Settlers arrived from many countries. Most government-assisted passengers were from the British Isles while other settlers came from Europe and Asia, bringing many trades and cultures. The lure of gold in the 1850s provided a large influx of people. Every one of them created part of the Australian story we know today.

Australian census, 1911.

According to the 2011 census, 27% of the population were born overseas, with a further 20% having at least one parent born overseas. I am one of these - my mother was fifth generation Australian and my father was born in England.

The story of Australia's past

We can and need to tell and share our ancestors' stories, the highs and lows, their part in making the Australia we know today. Sadly, the Australian tapestry does also have snarled, twisted threads and we also need to document those stories.

The stories you can uncover are rich and diverse - the untold stories of the women; the Irish navvies working on the railways; the Chinese market gardeners; life on the goldfields; the Anzacs, including the First Nations soldiers; the Sikh soldiers and all the men from many cultures who joined the AIF, answering the call as Australians; the women and children on the Home Front who kept the country operational; the stories of the Influenza pandemic and then the Great Depression. Findmypast has many record collections which will give facts and context to these stories.

The records you need to trace your Australian family story

Australia Convict Ships 1786-1849 and Convict Transportation Registers 1787-1870 give biographical detail of the convicts including place of conviction, crime and occupation. You can follow the convicts' stories through their incarceration in the colonies to the end of their sentence with hopefully a conditional or absolute pardon.

Then there are the early census and muster rolls, which will show where your convict and later some free settlers were residing.

A snippet from the 1828 New South Wales Census

A snippet from the 1828 New South Wales Census. View this record here.

Findmypast's extensive migration collection, with records covering everything from early free settlers to 1890-1960 arrivals, helps determine when your ancestor arrived in Australia. Did they come on their own or with a family?

Directories can put your ancestor in a time and place and often show occupation, as do the electoral rolls spanning from the 1850s to around 1980.

The armed forces and conflict collection provides details of Australians who served in a number of wars.

Newspapers are a wonderful resource for adding colour to your family story. Combine Findmypast's newspaper collection with Trove, the National Library of Australia's newspaper archive, to build up the most comprehensive picture of your past.

The front page of the British Australasian, 1898

The front page of the British Australasian, 1898. View this page here.

The Seekers' song I am Australian conveys the tapestry that is Australia;

"“We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We'll share a dream and sing with one voice
"I am, you are, we are Australian.""

Together we can tell our ancestors’ stories and show their part in making the Australia of today.

About the author

Helen V Smith genealogist

Helen Smith (DipFamHist, PLCGS) has written Death Certificates and Archaic Medical Terms 2015 2nd ed. and in Brisbane Diseased: Contagions, Cures and Controversy.  She has spoken in person in the UK, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia, aboard 16 Unlock the Past cruises and on numerous webinars. She is a  genetic genealogist starting a DNA SIG in 2015. Helen also has a Quested One Name Study registered with the Guild of One Name Studies. Her website is

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