To document Aboriginal descent you need to have a sequence of records going back from you to an identified or accepted Aboriginal person.
Families of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent were identified living on the Bass Strait islands in the early 1900s.
If your family tree doesn’t link up to these people, you may need to trace it back a further 70 or 80 years. You need to find records which identify the person named as an Aboriginal person.
You may need to look at the records of a lot of people. It is good if you know the line of Aboriginal descent. If you do not know the Aboriginal family line you may need to trace back all your ancestors. This is time-consuming and sometimes complicated.
Remember: the process you use to prove Aboriginal descent is the same as anyone researching family history.
- Identify the branch of your family that you believe to be Aboriginal
- Gather as much information about the family as you can working backwards from yourself
- Keep copies of the material proving a line across the generations to an Aboriginal person
- Talking to family members
- Checking family records such as bibles, letters, diaries and photos
- Searching published indexes to cemeteries
- Birth death and marriage certificates are useful
Once you have traced your family members to before 1900 you can:
- Search the Tasmanian Names Index to view many records including wills, inquests and birth, death and marriage records
- Work your way back step by step until you find a reference to the first registered event for your family in these records. This is usually a marriage or a birth where you can find no previous records of the parents
Checking a person did not come as a convict or free immigrant
If none of the people you have traced are identified in a record as Aboriginal, you need to check they did not come to Tasmania as a free immigrant or as a convict. Check convict and arrival records to see if this is why the family appears in later records. See the guides:
- How do I find out about a person’s life as a convict?
- Arrivals, immigration and departure records
- Birth, death and marriage registration records
- If it looks like the family has not registered a birth with the civil authorities, see the Guide to church records
- How do I find out about a person’s birth, death or marriage?
- Wills and probate records
General hints and tips apply to all family history research, including tracing aboriginal descent. Issues specific to researching Aboriginal ancestry include:
- Virtually all records which mention Aboriginality are records of something else and just happen to mention a person’s Aboriginality. Records of baptisms are good examples of this. There are very few instances of baptism records mentioning Aboriginality.
- Mostly archival records that identify people as Aboriginal are from first few decades of European colonisation. Later records do not indicate race. The only exception is in records about the Bass Strait islands.
- When using indexes to Government files, look under the terms that the civil servants would have used at the time. For example “half caste” is a term that was in common use.
- All archival records have gaps, even in areas with efficient record keeping practices such as the convict system. There were many Europeans in the early 1800s who did not get mentioned in records until perhaps they were parents of a later generation. Sometimes people appear in records when there is no specific record of either their arrival or birth. This does not itself prove they were Aboriginal.
- The use of the term ‘native’, ‘natives’, ‘native of Tasmania’, and similar phrases can cause confusion. It generally refers to a person’s birthplace. It does not prove the person was Aboriginal. Often death notices, obituaries, and other articles in newspapers in the 19th and 20th Centuries would say, for example, a person “…was a native of the Colony having been born in Launceston in 1830… “
Early records might say a person is a “native” as Aboriginal people were the only people who had been born in Tasmania at that time. Baptism records until about 1830 did sometimes refer to Aboriginal people as “natives”. They did not use the term for others in baptism records at that time.
Given these issues, sometimes proving Aboriginal ancestry can be difficult.
You may have found a record of an identified Aboriginal person, or the arrival of a convict or a free immigrant which will complete your search of the particular family line.
If you have traced back as far as you can and cannot find a record of a convict, a free arrival, or a person identified as Aboriginal, you may want to seek further help. There are private researchers who can help document your family tree.