Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Learning the Lay of the Land

I wonder how many people, when starting to build their family tree, consider how international that growing tree's place names will become. We add names, then dates, then places where significant life events occurred: birth, marriage, death. For the most part, those listed places remain in the same country, but eventually, the family history trail will require us to jump borders.

Many people in the United States—or any former British colony, for that matter—can assume the trail back to the homeland of origin will lead them "across the pond" to England or another country in Europe or Africa. We seldom imagine ourselves connecting with a distant cousin in yet a third place, whose ancestors also originated in that same homeland. Yet, with the international spread of genetic testing for genealogy, that is exactly what is happening.

Thus, in my quest to determine the parents of my husband's Irish second great grandmother, Johanna Falvey, I wasn't entirely surprised to find some DNA matches in New Zealand. Of course, the fact that Johanna's obituary told me so prepared me for such a discovery. But I am not alone in such a find; the Irish diaspora claims descendants from many countries around the world.

The challenge is learning how to learn about those families' generations. In the case of research in New Zealand, I know next to nothing. I'd fare far better if presented, instead, with a distant cousin in, say, Australia.

I wanted, specifically, to find an obituary for one of the Falvey family from New Zealand. If I were searching in Australia, for instance, I'd know to head to Trove, but where does one go for New Zealand newspapers?

My first step was to check with one of my go-to favorites, The Ancestor Hunt, where Kenneth R. Marks provides links to freely access historical newspapers around the world. Well, make that almost all around the world. While he does include such former British colonies as Canada and Australia—he even includes links to some collections in the Caribbean—there is, alas, no reference to any New Zealand publications.

Clearly, I needed to do what I always do when approaching the frontier of a new-to-me research territory: head to Cyndi's List. There, I searched for New Zealand resources and clicked away at possibilities. Drilling deeper amidst the listed possibilities, I learned about DigitalNZ, and was delighted to see the website included access to a resource called Papers Past.

Then came the long list of available newspapers, and I realized I had yet another step to take in my customary exploration of a new research territory: learning about the actual geographic location. I knew the Falveys who immigrated to New Zealand eventually lived in a place called Blenheim, but I knew absolutely nothing more about that place than its name.

So, to Wikipedia I went to get briefed on Blenheim. There, I discovered the place is located toward the northern tip of the South Island, included in the region of Marlborough. I gleaned the names of several local newspapers, and armed with that newfound knowledge, I zipped back to the Papers Past website to try my hand at finding some Falvey mentions.

Despite such preparation, I wasn't too successful at my first foray into New Zealand's historic print media. What I needed to do was learn to widen my scope. After all, the Falveys who arrived in New Zealand may have traveled at much the same time as my Johanna Falvey and her husband John Kelly, on their way to the States in 1869. Back then, as had happened elsewhere, borders changed. Blenheim was once considered part of Nelson Province, and likely the newspapers which the locals relied on might have changed, as well. When I broadened my search, I found many more references to the Falvey name.

It does seem awkward to first approach research in a totally foreign area. We want to jump right in to finding our ancestor's name, but it does take a period of orientation before we can confidently assess that the resources we've found are the appropriate ones for the people we are seeking. Simple and generic websites like Wikipedia can help us glean enough information to take that first step towards getting the initial big picture we need, and finding aids like Cyndi's List can then help us zero in on likely resources to help us move towards our original research goal.


  1. A good lesson in understanding the geo-political landscape of a new research area. Good place to start: Cyndi's List! Have fun in your New Zealand journeys.

    1. Thank you, Lisa! I and our newly-found New Zealand cousins are having a blast with this puzzle. And yes, it's been quite the learning curve.


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