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What do I need to know?
This is a step by step guide on how to use archives to find details about Aboriginal family history.
It's helpful to know the following information:
- place names
- subject area
- date range or year.
Aboriginal affairs records (like many archival records) were not organised in a consistent way. The title of the record may be the only information we have.
What are in these records?
Birth, death and marriage records
Records of schools
Local council records
Defence force records
Aboriginal Protectorate records
Board for the Protection of Aborigines
Aborigines Welfare Board (1839 to 1975)
Victorian Aboriginal mission and reserves records
Getting started on Aboriginal family research
Gather together as much information as possible, as this will make it easier to locate relevant records. Family photographs, letters and documents as well as discussions with relatives are all useful sources of information.
Make a list of the people you are researching, and for each person try to note down the following:
- family names, nicknames, different spellings of names
- dates of birth, and key events like marriages and deaths
- where they lived, the names of missions, reserves and towns
- places of work and service, did a family member serve in the Australian Defence Force?
- other possible involvement with government organisations or services
Visit your local library to discover resources and information to help with doing family history research. Search the Internet for information. Genealogical societies can also provide advice.
If your family has been affected by former government removal policies, Finding Your Story provides information about accessing government records of the Stolen Generations in Victoria, as well as organisations that can provide support and assistance.
Maintaining a family tree is a great way to keep track of your research. Use a template like this one to start mapping out what you know. Further templates can be found online by searching ‘pedigree chart’ or ‘family tree chart’.
Using archival records
Archival records can provide key pieces of information which can help you find out more about your ancestors.
Note down numbers
It’s important to organise your research. The documents in the collections of archives, major libraries and museums will have a unique reference number used to describe them. Take note of this number to keep track of what you’ve already looked at so that you can find that piece of information again if you need to check it. Note reference numbers on any photocopies you collect.
The same should apply to any family documents, photographs and pieces of information you collect. Note down who or where you got it from in case you need to ask further questions.
Working with archival records can be frustrating– the information you are looking for may not have been kept, created in the first place, or may have been destroyed. Official government records can be used to confirm or add to what you know, but they may also contradict what you know to be true from family stories and memories.
Be prepared for inappropriate language
Government records about Aboriginal people were created in the context of government policies and legislation that had a major impact on many Aboriginal families and communities in Victoria. They provide evidence of past attitudes held by government officials and other individuals, and may contain words, descriptions and information that are culturally insensitive or inappropriate. However they can also be rich sources of information about the lives and experiences of family members, including through letters written by Aboriginal people themselves.
Search the Victorian indexes to births, deaths and marriages
The Victorian Indexes to Births, Deaths and Marriages (BDM indexes) are a great place to start your research. They can be used to figure out connections between family members and confirm the dates of major events in their lives.
The BDM indexes can be accessed on all computers in the Victorian Archives Centre and Ballarat Archives Centre. They are also available at many libraries and genealogical centres around the state. Try contacting those in your local area to see if they have a copy.
Through the BDM indexes you can access:
- birth information from 1853 to start of restriction period (100 years ago)
- marriage information from 1853 to start of restriction period (60 years ago)
- death information from 1853 to 1985
The indexes will only give you a limited amount of information. To find out more you can use the reference number found in the index to purchase copies of certificates through the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.
It is useful to start with your own birth certificate and from the information on that, work backwards to your parents’ and then their parents’ birth, death and marriage certificates.
The Records of Births, Deaths and Marriages topic page (link) has more information about using the BDM indexes.
A few things to keep in mind when using the BDM indexes:
Victorian civil registrations of births, deaths and marriages began in 1853. However it is not uncommon to find, especially early on, that events relating to Aboriginal people have gone unrecorded. Don’t worry if you can’t find a record of people through the indexes. You may also find references to Aboriginal births, deaths and marriages from other sources such as the records of government and church-run missions and reserves.
Search our Aboriginal name indexes
Most of the key Aboriginal affairs records - including records of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines and Aborigines Welfare Board - in both the PROV and National Archives’ collections have been indexed to help Aboriginal researchers find information about family members.
PROV’s index is called the Koorie Index of Names, and the National Archives index is called the Bringing Them Home name index.
If your family members lived or spent time on an Victorian Aboriginal reserve or station, or may have had dealings with government employees or the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, the indexes may direct you to original records which contain references to them. If your family members lived independent of the mission system, they may not be mentioned in the indexes.
The indexes don’t contain any personal information about people, but provide a reference to an original letter or document, where you may be able to discover personal information such as where an individual or family lived, what life was like at the time, and family and community networks.
The indexes only include references to Aboriginal Affairs records. For example, they do not cover references to Aboriginal people in education, court and council records and in defence service records. See Tab 5 for methods of retrieving information from these records.
To access the indexes:
Contact the Koorie Reference Officer using our online enquiry form to request searches of both the Koorie Index of Names (for records in Public Record Office Victoria) and the Bringing Them Home name index (records in the National Archives’ collection).
The Koorie Index of Names is also available to search at the Victorian Archives Centre in the reading room.
You can also speak to the National Archives Reference Officer at the Victorian Archives Centre to request a search of the Bringing Them Home name index.
Common sources for family history research
The next step is to think about what sort of contact your family members would have had with the state and federal governments, which would have led to records being created about them. Do you know where they went to school, if they served in the Australian defence forces, if they appeared in court for any reason, or wrote a will?
The Family History theme page has ideas for where to search using the name, date and place information you have already discovered.
Below are examples of records commonly used for family history research:
- Aboriginal affairs records
- Wills and Probates
- Inquests and other Coronial records
- Education Department files
- Prisoner records
- Court Records
- Criminal Trial Briefs
- Adoption and Wardship
- Defence service
Some archival records can be viewed online, but most can be viewed at the Victorian Archives Centre in North Melbourne.
Explore the Aboriginal affairs records
Once you’ve found a bit of information on your family, you may want to dig deeper into our collections.
The Aboriginal Victorians theme page has ideas and links for extending your research into the Aboriginal records.
walata tymateetj: a guide to government records about Aboriginal people in Victoria is a detailed guide for researchers to find and access the wealth of material about Aboriginal Victorians within the Public Record Office Victoria and National Archives’ collections. It has been designed to assist Aboriginal people to find records about their family and country, regardless of which collection the records are held in.
You can pick up a copy free of charge from the Victorian Archives Centre or Ballarat Archives Centre. Alternatively you can download the free electronic version.
View items in our collections
Original records from the collections of Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives can be viewed onsite at the Victorian Archives Centre. You can search the catalogues of both Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives, order records and speak to staff.
Only some of the material can be viewed straight away because records may need to be checked for access availability and also, not all records are stored onsite. Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives of Australia each have their own procedures for accessing records. If you are planning on visiting, it is a good idea to get in touch with the Koorie Reference Service and they can assist you with gaining access. Alternately, have a read through the links below.
Copies of records can be made using the digital cameras provided (just remember to bring a USB stick). Aboriginal people can request photocopies of documents relating to their family history research through the Koorie Reference Service.
Public Record Office Victoria also has a reading room at the Ballarat Archives Centre. You can’t view material that is held in North Melbourne there but you can access some computer indexes such as the Births, Deaths and Marriages indexes, as well as the online catalogue. The staff there can assist you to get started with your research, or put you in contact with the Koorie Reference Service.
If you’d like some help at any point you can get in touch with the Koorie Reference Service at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Planning your visit:
- order the records you want to view or contact the email@example.com for assistance
- bring a USB stick (to use the digital cameras)
- check what you can and can't bring into the reading room
Where to next?
Our collections are just one place you might find information relevant to your family history.
Organisations such as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), Koorie Heritage Trust, State Library of Victoria and Museums Victoria also hold significant collections which contain information on the histories and culture of Aboriginal people in Victoria.
Victorian Aboriginal Cooperatives, cultural centres and Keeping Places are good sources of local information and resources about Aboriginal history and culture.
Local historical societies also often hold significant collections of records and information relating to a particular area that your ancestors lived.
How can I find out if a family member was Aboriginal?
Many archival records created by past governments will not necessarily identify a person as being Aboriginal. Try to think broadly when researching your ancestors. If you are having trouble locating information about a particular person you may find that more information is available about their siblings or other relatives. Think about searching for other family members, and not just back in time.
Can you provide proof and confirmation of Aboriginality?
We are not authorised to provide confirmation of Aboriginality, but we can provide assistance with finding your family history in the archives. Information about the criteria and process involved can be found on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) website.
Why are the archival records held in two collections?
The records relating to Aboriginal affairs functions are divided between Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives of Australia because responsibility of Aboriginal Affairs and the related records passed from the Victorian State government to the Commonwealth in 1975. The Commonwealth has continued to create records relating to Aboriginal affairs functions since that time.
In addition, both organisations hold records that relate to other functions – for example, Public Record Office Victoria holds records relating to State functions of education, courts, wills and probate; and the National Archives holds records relating to Commonwealth functions such as defence service. Therefore, you need to search both collections.
Where possible, Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives provide one main point of contact, the Koorie Reference Service, to deliver services to the Aboriginal people covering both collections.
I live a long way from Melbourne. How can I access my records? Do I have to come to Melbourne?
If you can’t visit the Victorian Archives Centre the Koorie Reference Service can undertake searches of some records on your behalf. Email your family history request to firstname.lastname@example.org. Try to include as much information about the people you are researching as you can. If we find relevant references in the collections, we can provide you with copies. This service is provided free charge. You can also seek assistance from support organisations.
How much does it cost to see my records?
It doesn’t cost anything to search and view records at the Victorian Archives Centre in North Melbourne. When visiting the Victorian Archives Centre you can make digital copies of records using the camera and scanner facilities. Copies of relevant records can also be provided free of charge for Aboriginal family history researchers by contacting the Koorie Reference Service.
Why can’t I find records about me and my family?
Records at Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives may only exist if you or your family have interacted at some stage with government departments, or were associated with Victorian Aboriginal missions or reserves. Unfortunately, many government agencies did not keep their records in the past as this was not required by law. Information about individuals within archival collections can be difficult to find as not everything has been indexed. If your search has been unsuccessful, it’s always worth trying again in the future.
It is also worth searching Aboriginal records in other Victorian collections, particularly if you or relatives were removed to children’s homes, fostered or adopted.
Finding Your Story has information about accessing government records of the Stolen Generations, as well as support and family history services.