Using State Archives to Research and Write your Story

This year’s theme for National Reconciliation Week was ‘Don’t Keep History a Mystery’. Reconciliation Australia challenged all Australians to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures by exploring the history hidden just beneath the surface, ready and waiting to be uncovered.

There is so much Victorian history that is yet to be fully unravelled. At the State Archives in North Melbourne, Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) offers plenty of opportunities to unearth truths that have yet to be told, and to explore new depths in stories that are already familiar.

Explore the collection

PROV’s original records are a primary source of information about important historical events, including the substantial impact of government legislation and practice on the lives of many Victorian Aboriginal families and communities.

Now held at both PROV and the National Archives of Australia, these records were mostly created by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines and the Aboriginal Protectorate as part of the government’s attempts to manage and control the Aboriginal population in Victoria. Aboriginal missions and reserves were also managed by government and there are records about the communities at Coranderrk, Framlingham, Lake Condah, Ebenezer (Lake Hindmarsh), Lake Tyers and Ramahyuck.

A significant aspect of the collection are letters and petitions written by Aboriginal people as they dealt with often repressive administrations. Aboriginal voices in the records reveal their advocacy for basic rights and entitlements, and provide evidence of the ways in which they resisted the Board for the Protection of Aborigines policies and sought greater control over their lives. One example is a letter from Coranderrk Residents in 1882 (Citation: VPRS 1226/PO, Unit 4 Item X1857). Signed by residents, including William Barak, this letter to the Chief Secretary of the Victorian Government protested their lack of control over the management of the station.

Tools for your research

Whether the aim of your research is to aid your writing, or for your personal knowledge and understanding of a particular topic, PROV has developed a wide range of tools and resources to assist you to access records in the collection.

PROV’s Koorie Records Unit (KRU) has developed a Koorie Services section of the PROV website, which is a great starting point to learn more about government records relating to Indigenous Victorians from the 1830s through to the 1970s.

The KRU has developed a number of tools for researchers interested in accessing Victorian government records about Aboriginal people and the government administration of Aboriginal affairs from the 1830s to the present. These tools include:

• To coincide with Reconciliation Week 2018, the KRU launched a new Topic Page on Victorian Aboriginal Missions and Reserves for the PROV website. The page assists researchers to access information in the collection about Aboriginal missions and reserves that were overseen by government from 1869 to the 1970s. In particular, it is intended to help people with family and community connections to these places locate relevant records.
walata tyamateetj is a guide to government records about Aboriginal people in Victoria. This book can be read online, downloaded as a PDF or ordered as a hardcopy book.
Footprints: The Journey of Lucy and Percy Pepper is a remarkable story of a family’s fight for family, war and survival, and the impact of government laws that defined who was ‘Aboriginal’ and who was not in early twentieth-century Victoria. The e-book is available for free download via the PROV website.
Koorie Stories from the Archives showcases a number of multimedia stories about Victorian Aboriginal families and communities utilising archival records. Teacher resources are also available, exploring themes of Aboriginal involvement in war, cultural identity, the importance of land and family, and the fight for survival and rights.
• PROV’s in-house journal Provenance has published a number of articles relating to Aboriginal history, that utilise records in the PROV collection.

Extra support for Aboriginal people

In addition to the KRU’s online resource services, a dedicated Koorie Reference Officer can provide free confidential advice and assistance for Aboriginal people undertaking family history research in Victoria. In particular, this service aims to help members and descendants of the Stolen Generations, as well as case workers and agencies accessing records on behalf of Aboriginal clients.

The Koorie Reference Officer can be contacted through the online enquiry form.

The KRU has also developed online resources including a step by step guide on how to use the archives to find details about Aboriginal family history.

The Finding Your Mob online publication also provides information about records, resources and assistance for Aboriginal people tracing their family history through archives.