Australian Gold Rush Immigrants

Was Your Ancestor an Australian Digger?

Gulgong mine, 1871-1875 / American & Australasian Photographic Company. State Library of New South Wales

Prior to Edward Hargraves' 1851 discovery of gold near Bathurst, New South Wales, Britain regarded the distant colony of Australia as little more than a penal settlement. The promise of gold, however, attracted thousands of "voluntary" settlers in search of their fortune, and ultimately ended Britain's practice of transporting convicts to the colonies.

Within weeks of Hargraves' discovery, thousands of laborers were frantically digging at Bathurst, with hundreds more arriving daily.

This prompted the Governor of Victoria, Charles J. La Trobe, to offer a £200 reward to anyone who found gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. Diggers quickly took up the challenge, and gold was quickly found in abundance by James Dunlop at Ballarat, Thomas Hiscock at Buninyong and Henry Frenchman at Bendigo Creek. By the end of 1851, the Australian gold rush was in full force!

Were They a Digger?

Hundreds of thousands of new settlers descended on Australia during the 1850s. Many of those immigrants who originally came to try their hand at gold digging, chose to stay and settle in the colonies, ultimately quadrupling the population of Australia between 1851 (430,000) and 1871 (1.7 million). If you suspect that your Australian ancestor may have originally been a digger, begin your search in traditional records from that time period which generally list an individual's occupation, such as census, marriage and death records.

When Did They Arrive in Australia?

If you find something that indicates your ancestor was likely (or even possibly) a digger, passenger lists can help pinpoint their arrival in the Australian colonies. Outbound passenger lists from the UK aren't available prior to 1890, nor are they readily available for America or Canada (the Australia gold rush attracted people from all over the world) so your best bet is to search arrival manifests in Australia.

Of course your Australian gold rush ancestor may have actually arrived in Australia in the years preceding the gold rush - as an assisted or unassisted immigrant, or even as a convict. Therefore, if you don't find him in the passenger arrivals from 1851 on, keep digging (pun intended!). There was also a large gold rush in Western Australia during the 1890s, and outbound passenger lists from the UK are available for this time at subscription site FindMyPast.co.uk.
 

Research Your Gold Rush Ancestor

Once you've determined that your ancestor was likely involved in the gold rush in some way, you may be able to locate him in a gold digger database, or learn more from newspapers, diaries, memoirs, photos and other records.

  • Gold Diggers from South Australia - This free searchable database includes gold diggers from South Australia (1852-1853) who brought or sent their gold home from the Victorian goldfields, including those who deposited gold at the SA Gold Assay Office in February 1852, the consignors and consignees associated with the first three mounted police escorts, and those who lost their receipts or failed to claim their gold by 29 October 1853.
  • SBS Gold! - Explore the impact of the Australian gold rushes and uncover stories of the diggers through newspaper accounts, diaries and memoirs.
  • The Goldminer's Database - Search for information on 34,000 goldminers who participated in the gold rushes of New Zealand between 1861 and 1872. Many of these were Australians who went to New Zealand for a short time.
  • Fortune Hunters in Australia - an online database available to members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society includes names and other information extracted from the published CD titled American Fever Australian Gold, American and Canadian involvement in Australia’s Gold Rush by Australian authors Denise McMahon and Christine Wild. The publication includes data "compiled from official records, archives, contemporary newspapers, and diaries" as well as "material from letters written to or from the fortune seeker, from the gold fields within Australia, or from onboard ship”.
  • The National Library of Australia - Search the digital collections database for the term "gold" photos, maps and manuscripts related to the Australian gold rush and the gold diggers.