What do we really know about the lives of people in the past? A recent trip to the center of Australia showed me how much there was to learn about people and events in the past just by going to the place where they occurred and seeing it for myself.
When I visited Central Australia earlier this year I realized how little I had learned about the early explorers to this area. My education was fairly typical in Australia at the time and I must admit that what I learnt about the early explorers was very dry and uninteresting. I learnt names and dates and what the person was famous for and it apparently made little impression because I don’t remember any of it now. What has brought the exploration of Australia to life was actually seeing the desert country they had to survive and struggle across.
So I bought a book at the exorbitant Ayers Rock Resort rates – Tim Flannery’s The Explorers – so I could learn more on the plane trip back to Sydney. It is a marvelous compilation of extracts from the explorers’ own writings – from Abel Tasman and William Dampier and others almost up to the present day with Robyn Davidson, who traveled alone on camel-back from Alice Springs to Shark Bay in WA. These extracts bring the country alive – what it was like when first seen by white men and what they thought about it.
What has this got to do with genealogy, you ask? No, my ancestors do not come from Alice Springs, they come from western NSW, from the Albury-Wagga area and from Blayney. What my trip to Central Australia emphasized was that you have to visit a place to understand the people who lived in it. It is not enough to just read dry accounts about the geography of the place, you have to go there and feel how hot it is, see how dry it is, and imagine living there yourself. If you can find contemporary descriptions, or even paintings or photographs, of the place then you even further ahead.
We all want to go back to England or Ireland or Scotland to see where our ancestors came from and get a sense of where we originated, but how many of us travel to the places in Australia where our more recent ancestors lived? Even if you can’t travel there, or while you are waiting for the opportunity, it is possible to learn much more about an area or suburb by visiting and doing some research.
Go to your local library and see what they have, or do a search in the catalogue of the State Library of NSW (SLNSW) or the National Library of Australia (NLA). You may be able to get an inter-library loan of books about the town or area. And don’t forget pictures – the picture catalogues of both the SLNSW and NLA have many digitised images that can give you an idea of what the place looked like even if your ancestors do not appear in them. Newspapers can also show pictures and descriptions of the area, although harder to find. If you are in Sydney you can visit the Society of Australian Genealogists library, or there may be a genealogy or family history society library in your area.