Australian Gold Rush Immigrants

Was Your Ancestor an Aussie Digger?

Forest Creek Diggings
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Prior to Edward Hargraves' 1851 discovery of gold near Bathurst, New South Wales, Great 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 fortunes—and ultimately ended the practice of transporting British convicts to the colonies.

The Dawn of the Australian Gold Rush

Within weeks of Hargraves' discovery, thousands of laborers were already 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 immediately took up the challenge and gold was quickly found in abundance by James Dunlop at Ballarat, by Thomas Hiscock at Buninyong, and by Henry Frenchman at Bendigo Creek. By the end of 1851, the Australian gold rush was in full force.

Hundreds of thousands of new settlers descended on Australia during the 1850s. Many of the immigrants who'd originally come to try their hand at gold-digging, chose to stay on and settle in the colonies, ultimately quadrupling the population of Australia between 1851 (430,000) and 1871 (1.7 million).

Did Your Ancestors Arrive During the Gold Rush?

If you suspect that your Australian ancestor might have originally been a digger, begin your search in traditional records from that time period, such as census, marriage, and death records that generally list an individual's occupation.

If you find something that indicates your ancestor was likely—or even possibly—a digger, passenger lists can help pinpoint the date of their arrival in the Australian colonies. Outbound passenger lists from the United Kingdom 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.

Researching Ancestors Who Predate the Gold Rush

Of course, your Australian gold rush ancestors may have actually arrived in Australia in the years preceding the gold rush—as an assisted or unassisted immigrant, or even as a convict. So, if you don't find them in the passenger arrivals from 1851 on, keep looking. There was also a second sizeable gold rush in Western Australia during the 1890s. Start by checking the outbound passenger lists from that time period. Once you've determined that your ancestors were likely involved in the gold rush in some way, you may be able to locate them in a gold-digger database or learn more from newspapers, diaries, memoirs, photos, or 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 information on some 34,000 gold miners who participated in the gold rushes of New Zealand between 1861 and 1872, many of whom were Australians who went to New Zealand for only a short period of time.
  • Fortune Hunters in Australia: This 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. In addition to data "compiled from official records, archives, contemporary newspapers, and diaries," there is also material from correspondence written to or from fortune seekers, both from the goldfields of Australia, as well as communications penned during ocean crossings.
  • The National Library of Australia: Search the digital collections database for the term "gold" photos, maps, and manuscripts related to the Australian gold rushes and those who participated in them.