How to Research Witnesses for Genealogy Success

How to Research Witnesses for Genealogy Success

Show Notes: You may not have been around when your ancestors lived, but there were witnesses to the important events in their life. Genealogist Robyn Smith shares her 3 step process from her new Family Tree Magazine article called Witness Testimony.

Video class on researching witnesses in genealogy records

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Get ready to find out how the witnesses named on your ancestors’ records can help you bust brick walls in your genealogy research! 

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Watch Live: Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022 at 11:00 am CT 

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Show Notes

(This interview has been minimally edited for clarity)
Downloadable ad-free handout with time stamps and links.  (Premium Membership required)

Why You Should be Researching Witnesses

Lisa: I learned a lot from your article in family tree magazine. And I wanted to chat with you a little bit about that, because I think researching our ancestors’ witnesses is fascinating, and it’s something that people don’t always think about. We may focus on the names we recognize and not so much on the ones that we don’t. I’d love to have you give your “elevator speech” if you will, as to why people should be taking the time to research witnesses.

Robyn: Most of us in the genealogy community eventually hear about this thing called “cluster research”. We hear this phrase, the FAN club that genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills describes, where we take a look at the Friends, Associates and Neighbors of our ancestors. I would consider witnesses and bondsman in that FAN club, in that cluster.

Simply put, witnesses can help us find more family. That’s the benefit of researching these individuals and the records in which they find them. We can break through some brick walls. And this type of research can also tell us about the community ties and some of the customs in that time and place. So, witnesses and bondsman are always my secret research strategy.

What is a Bondsman?

Lisa: You mentioned bondsman, and that might be a new term for some folks. We might be used to seeing perhaps an immigration record or a birth record, and we see witness. What is a bondsman?

Robyn: This is one of those terms in genealogy that has a slightly different meaning historically than it does today. By bondsman we just mean someone who pledges a sum of money as a bond for another. Sometimes in these records, we might see that they’re called a Surety. You might see that term used. The difference between that and a witness is that there’s a financial obligation involved. I always try to tell people, it’s similar to cosigning a loan today. Most of us would probably not cosign a loan for people that we didn’t trust or that we didn’t know very well. And so, if you can keep that concept in your mind, that’s the value and the benefit of researching those witnesses and bondsman.

Lisa: Yes, when there’s a financial tie, there’s some kind of relationship there. And I guess if we can research them, that might lead us back to even more records about our own ancestor.

Genealogical Records that Include Witnesses

What kind of records will we find them in? In what type of records are we going to find witnesses and even more specifically, this term bondsman?

Robyn: The big one we think of, of course, is marriage bonds. We hear that phrase a lot. We may see them in marriage records, almost all deeds are going to have some sort of witness involved, and wills. Also, in probate records we will see executors and administrators often have to have bonds. If you’re going to serve as guardian to someone, typically, that person has to have a bond as well. And so those are sort of the big ones.

We can also think of court cases, civil court cases when you’re trying to secure someone’s appearance at a future court meeting. And I actually have seen the courts go after that bondsman if that person doesn’t show up. So, some of these records can get pretty juicy.

And of course, I think a lot of us are probably familiar with pension, military pension records and southern claims.

The only thing that I would caution people to watch out for is sometimes the witness is really just the county clerk, a local lawyer or local justice of the peace. So, it’s in researching that witness or that bondsman that you’ll find out the relationship if there is any, to the person of interest that you’re researching.

Lisa: That’s a really good point.

The Goal of Researching Witnesses in Records

Do you go after witnesses primarily because you’re wondering if they are related? Or is it also about that FAN principle where they may not be related, but researching them might actually lead me to more records about my own ancestor because of their will, depending on what the relationship was? Do both of those play into the way you approach them?

Robyn: I would say both. I’m actually really excited when I see a witness or bondsman because the curiosity serves you very well, in genealogical research, as we know. It’s a good thing to be a nosy genealogist. I want to know, why is that person there? That’s the question that I’m trying to answer. And more than a few times, it has led me to more family that I didn’t know about, particularly if that individual had a different surname.

Now, another gotcha is that sometimes they end up in the records with just their initials. So, we first have got to confirm who that person is before we’re ready to say that they’re related to our person of interest. So, there are some cautions that we may need to be aware of as we’re doing this research. But it’s another stone to overturn as you’re doing your research. And I love it when I see a person listed in a record. I’m excited!

Lisa: Me too! I feel like oh, my gosh, I finally have another avenue that I can pursue, particularly in a brick wall situation.

3 Step Process for Researching Witnesses

In the article, you provide a three-step research process. Will you walk us briefly through that process?

Step 1: Transcribe the Document

Robyn: The first thing that I do when I find a document concerning my ancestor that has a witness or bondsman, is to transcribe the document. I want to make sure that we all are comfortable with the practice of transcribing. Transcription ensures that you are actually reading every single word in that document. It’s going to help you notice all of the details that you might miss if you are just looking at it in its current format.

There are a lot of great free tools available to us for transcribing. There’s GenScriber, or there’s Trint. I would also recommend Family Tree Magazine’s cheat sheet on reading old handwriting. That becomes very handy when you’re doing this transcription.

Step 2: Do the Research

The second step is to then do the research. I always say you want to research in a variety of records. I actually research the person as if they were my ancestor already. That means I’m looking in census records and deed records and court records and everything else trying to establish who this person is. And the things that we learn along the way, are not just that this person is in this time and place, which is very important to us as genealogists, but it also gives us a hint as to how old the person was. It also gives us a hint about their literacy in terms of whether they sign with their mark or whether they sign with a signature. It is in this second step, doing the deep research, that you probably will uncover whether or not the person is related to your family.

Step 3: Research the Law

The third step is to research the laws because as we know, laws governed everything about the sources that we use a genealogy. They’re going to govern who can serve as a witness and a bondsman, how old that person has to be, and also how many were necessary.

We need to be aware that these laws are going to differ from state to state or colony or a locale and also throughout time. I look at the published date laws that I can find in databases like Internet Archive and Hathi Trust and Google Books but you and also visit your local library, law library, or archive. You may have to do some deep digging.

Those are the three steps that I recommend: transcribe the document, research the individuals you find, and make sure that you research the laws.

Lisa: Fantastic advice!

The Power of Transcribing Genealogy Records

I’d love to ask you a little bit more about transcription because I think that is a step that can be tempting to skip. People think, oh, well, I read it, I want to get going! I want to add people to my tree, and they are tempted to not take the time to transcribe. Will you tell us a little bit more about transcription?  Why should we take that time? And what are we looking for, instead of just typing the words?

Robyn: Transcription to me is one of the basics of one of the basic genealogical skills I think we need to master in order to be successful, particularly once we start going back further in time and encountering those much more complicated problems. And it’s one of those basics that will remind you, if you don’t do it over and over again, that there’s a reason why it’s recommended in genealogy.

I can’t tell you how many phrases I’ve realized that I don’t fully understand as I’m transcribing. And Step one is to understand what that document is telling you. So, if there’s a phrase that I come across, I might email an archivist, or I might call one of my genealogy friends who’s got a little bit more experience in that particular time and place. Transcribing helps us to do that, and it helps us to understand.

When I transcribe, I also typically turn it into an abstract. I’m also making sure that I do a citation. So, to me, those are the building blocks of successful genealogical research.

I would also include keeping a research log and have a research plan. Those to me are very critical research building blocks to long-term success in genealogy.

I understand the impulse to want to skip transcribing. But I can tell you over and over again that I come across phrases that I thought I knew, but once I’m transcribing it, I really realized that I don’t. There are lots of wonderful webinars and classes that you can take on transcription that can teach you simple rules when you’re transcribing, and they’re easy to learn. They’re not complicated rules. And I think that once you start doing it, you’ll get more comfortable with the process. It will really become second nature.

I hope that I can encourage everyone with our conversation to do more of that transcribing. I did a lot of it earlier, not necessarily knowing or understanding all the rules, and now I’m going back and sort of revisiting those documents. It’s always amazing when things will jump out at you that you didn’t notice before, or it just didn’t resonate.

I always recommend having a genealogy buddy. You can say to them, hey, can you take a look at this and tell me what you see? You can have a fresh set of eyes look at it and ask you a question. I’m a genealogy junkie, so I find all of this really, really exciting to me. I kind of lean into it. We’ve all got other things to do in our lives. I try to do an hour here and there; it might be an hour this weekend. But I’m sort of just always working towards a goal. And that transcription, I tell you, that’s a key first step!

Witness Research Example

Lisa: I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but do you have a witness story or just something that you spotted that you just would love to share with us?

Robyn: I do! My mother’s family, my maternal family is from Tennessee. I was researching my second great-grandfather, Mike Fenricks in Tennessee, where he lived. Almost every source in his life asserts that he was born in Alabama. And so, this is a problem that a lot of genealogists have. I had no idea where in Alabama I’m even though I thoroughly went through all of the sources that were available in that time and place.

I noticed that he served as bondsman to a man named Dee Suggs. And then I noticed that he jointly took a couple of sharecropping deeds with this same man Dee Suggs.


Sharecropping Deed: JM Fenrick and Dee Suggs

I also found him living in Dee Suggs’ house in 1920. So, the wheels start turning! Why is he interacting with this man and Dee Suggs who was also born in Alabama?

1920 census

The Dee Suggs household in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census

So, when the records ran out, for my ancestor, I started researching Dee Suggs. And where did this witness lead me? Dee Suggs led me back to Lawrence County, Alabama. And in that 1870 census household was a man named Mike. And that man ended up being his brother, it was his half-brother. And the same man is my second great, great grandfather. They had migrated to Tennessee together. They had been formerly enslaved, and I found a Freedmen’s Bureau contract that their mother signed where she calls all of them, her children. The 1870 census doesn’t provide relationships, so I had that critical labor contract that said, Sofrona and her four children. And so, it makes all the sense in the world why he’s associating with him and living with him, and jointly, promising bond for him. It is because they were half-brothers!

Lisa: I knew you’d have a great story!

Robyn: That story is the crux of my cluster genealogy lecture that I do. I go into more details, but following Dee is what led me to that community and his place of origin in northern Alabama. It was very exciting.

Learn more about Robyn Smith

Lisa: And I know you bring many stories to your readers at Reclaiming Kin. Please tell us the URL address and what they will find there at your website.

Robyn: Thank you so much. The URL is I call it a genealogy teaching blog, and what I mean by that is, I might start off with something from my family history, but every single post is meant to teach a skill. And so, every post there talks about a methodology, a strategy or resource. It’s not just about my family history, it’s about helping all genealogists to grow their skills, and also meet the special challenges of researching the enslaved. I’d be really happy if your listeners would come to the blog, take a look, sign up for my mailing list. And I’ll send you a free PDF, all my favorite research tips.

Lisa: Robyn, thank you so much. We’ll all look forward to your article Witness Testimony in the Family Tree Magazine Jan / Feb 2023 issue. And I look forward to hopefully talking to you again soon.

Robyn: Thank you so much for having me on today, Lisa.

Learn more about Transcription

There’s so much more to learn about doing transcriptions! Check out my full-length Premium video class called Transcribing and Analyzing Historical Documents. It’s part of Premium Membership, and it is going to tell you everything you need to know about how to do transcription, the tools that I recommend, and so much more. And along with that video class, you also get the downloadable handout. Becoming a premium member has a lot of perks. Learn more here.


Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members


Transcribing and Analyzing Historical Documents (Premium Elevenses with Lisa)

Transcribing and Analyzing Historical Documents (Premium Elevenses with Lisa)

This Elevenses with Lisa LIVE show is exclusively for Premium Members. Grab your mug because in this Premium episode, we are covering the important topic of transcribing and analyzing the historical documents you find in your genealogy research. I’ll share my best practices and favorite tech tools. 

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Show Notes

Download the show notes handout

From Premium Member Barbara C:

“I recently obtained a wonderful treasure trove of bounty land files from the National Archives. There are many, many pages in the file, including affidavits, letters, certificates, and so forth. Some of the handwriting is quite difficult to decipher, it’s also a challenge to understand exactly what’s going on in this saga!

One of the pages is especially important to my research, as it contains a statement by my ancestor of his parents’ names (which I have not been able to find anywhere else). But I feel that there is probably a lot more to be gleaned.

I would love to know where/how to use all of these documents on my Ancestry tree and in my family tree software. Perhaps select certain excerpted documents for the media gallery and source lists?”

Benefits of Transcription

I consider transcribing the document to be an essential part of the process. Benefits:

  • It helps you become more intimately familiar with the text.
  • It makes the document keyword searchable.
  • It makes it much easier to use the text of the document in other projects.

Barbara asked about 3 of the 4 steps that we need to do when approaching a document like this:

  1. We need to know what it says – handwriting, translation, etc.
  2. We need to transcribe it into typed text – making it keyword searchable and taking us further into the document and the story it has to tell.
  3. We need to ponder it – learn more about it. Who what, where why of its creation
  4. We need to use – in our tree and to enrich the story of our family

Getting Started

  • Make a high-resolution image of the document. This allows you print and mark it up if needed.
  • Save it as a PDF. This allows you to save all the images together in one document, keeping them all together in one digital file.


A transcription is a true word-for-word recreation of a document with all the original punctuation and spelling. All notes and marks should be copied exactly.

1. Figure out what the document says

First glance at the document:

Closer inspection of the document:

  • Try to read the document out loud.
  • Circle trouble words and spots.
  • Be sure to zoom out.
    It may be tempting to zoom in close but and that can help, but it’s just as important to zoom out so that you can compare letters and see the surrounding words and context. Also, important when extracting a record (such as a burial) from a page containing many records. Nearby records may also be relevant to your family tree.

2. Transcribe it into typed text

  • Take it slow and allow yourself to become more familiar with the writing.
  • Seek out additional writings by the same author for comparison.

Dealing with Oddities

It’s not unusual to see run-on sentences, missing periods and commas, other punctuation, underlining, or words that have been struck out. Transcribe all exactly as they appear. In the final document, any comments about interpretation should be placed in the footnotes or endnotes.

Diacritical marks: Items like long dashes (—) or the tilde (~) or the et cetera (&c) which can be found throughout old records.

Abbreviations: Superscript letters are often underlined to indicate missing letters in an abbreviated word. All abbreviations in the text should be transcribed ‘as is’. Usage like Feby or Chas should not be typed as the word you think they are meant to be. Don’t “interpret” anything or change them to modern equivalents.

Indicating illegible words: Square brackets signal that legibility is an issue. Don’t use parentheses. If a word or any part of a word or phrase is illegible, use square brackets to enclose the questioned part. Question marks can also be used to indicate doubt.


… south by southeast measuring fourteen [?] chains to the next marker …

… south by southeast measuring [fourteen?] chains to the next marker 

Obsolete Letters: You may run into archaic letters well into 19th century documents.

  • Old-style double ‘s’ written to look like ‘fs’ is transcribed as ‘ss’.
  • Old-style thorn ‘y’ was pronounced, and is transcribed as, ‘th’. 
  • Old ‘w’ may resemble ‘no’.

Typing the Transcription

If the document is very difficult to decipher, I like to type it out in a Word document. Doing this allows me to take it a word at a time, while making notes along the way about words that need more research. The end result is a keyword searchable document. Use the Comments feature as you’re working on it to help you note and resolve issues.

Work with the old and new documents side-by-side. Get more space by hiding the menu ribbon: click the small arrow at the bottom right corner of the ribbon. Show and pin the ribbon by clicking any menu item and then clicking the small pin icon in the bottom right corner.

Speech to Text Transcription

If you’re confident that you know what it says, you could use a speech to text transcription service to speed up the process. This would allow you to speak the words slowly and clearly out loud, and the program types it into text. After the initial transcription is completed, you will then need to review it carefully and correct any errors. Again, the end result is a keyword searchable document.


  • Website and mobile App
  • 25 cents a minute. Accepts all audio and video file types.
  • Save & export your transcript as MS Word, PDF, SRT, VTT and more.


  1. Log in at
  2. Upload your audio file.
  3. It takes a few minutes, and you’ll receive an email when the file is read.
  4. Read through the transcript and correct errors.
  5. Download the text file or copy the text.

Tool: GenScriber

  • GenScriber is free for non-commercial use.
  • Has some requirements: (Win) 1. pdf_utils must be in the include folder to enable viewing pdf images. 2. LibreOffice or OpenOffice must be installed to enable the import/export of office formats.


  • Record from a meeting, at the website, or import a recording file.
  • Free: transcribes from Zoom or Google Meet. 300 monthly transcription minutes; 30 minutes per conversation.
  • Pro: $8.33 / month. 1200 monthly transcription minutes; 90 minutes per conversation

3. Ponder the document

Now it’s time to think about the who, what, where, and why of the document’s creation. Here are some questions to get you started:

The Author:

  • Who was the creator / author? What do you know about them? Where could you learn more about them?
  • What about their life or situation may have shaped the source?
  • What was the perspective of the creator?


  • Why was it created? What was the purpose of this source? The motive behind it?
  • Should the message be taken literally?
  • Who is the intended audience? Does the audience affect the reliability of the source?
  • What did the author choose not to write about? What questions does it leave behind?
  • Was the source for public or private consumption?

Historical Context:

  • What was happening at the time and place the source was created?
  • How might that have shaped the source and / or changed its meaning?

4. Use and share the information

Barbara: “I would love to know where/how to use all of these documents on my Ancestry tree and in my family tree software. Perhaps select certain excerpted documents for the media gallery and source lists?”


  • Save to your computer backed up to the Cloud.
  • Extract the data and add it to your master family tree database (RootsMagic, Legacy, Family Tree Maker, etc.)
  • Folks don’t appreciate images on Ancestry that aren’t photographs.
  • Select only those you are willing to have copied freely without attribution.
  • Use in projects that can be shared with your family! Example: Videos

Premium Videos: 


Listen to the audio podcast version
FamilySearch Wiki Deep Dive (Audio Premium Podcast 200)

FamilySearch Wiki Deep Dive (Audio Premium Podcast 200)

Premium Podcast Show Notes: The FamilySearch Wiki is an invaluable resource for figuring out which records are available, where they are held, and alternatives when they are not available. Get ready for a deep dive into how the website is laid out and the best ways to navigate it. 

Premium Podcast episode 200


Listen to Premium Podcast Episode 200



The Wiki has Hawaiian Roots

The name Wiki comes from the Hawaiian word “wiki-wiki” meaning “quick” because online wikis allow instant updates and help you find information quickly.

What is a Wiki

A wiki is a website that

  • Collaborative editing platform for users
  • Doesn’t require HTML editing
  • Has links to both internal and external resource pages

What Does the FamilySearch Wiki Do?

The FamilySearch Wiki is focused on providing information for genealogy research such as:

  • How to find data
  • Where to find data
  • How to analyze and use the data

You don’t have to worry about the Contributor info

You’re going to see many things about wiki creation and management. Not everything is relevant to you when you just want to find information. In fact, the majority of the Help section is geared to people creating, editing and maintaining wiki pages. Don’t worry about being a contributor. Enjoy being a user.

What are the sources of Wiki content?

The original material was added from the old Family History Library research outlines. The original research outlines have been retired but are still available to download for free as PDFs from this page on the Wiki.

Users add material in their areas of genealogical expertise. The Wiki is constantly being updated by LDS missionaries and other volunteers as new material is discovered or released.

The FamilySearch Wiki focuses on records not ancestors

Keep in mind that the purpose of the Wiki is to explain where genealogical materials are located and how to get access to them.

The Wiki does not have individual ancestor information. So, if you want to find records, start by deciding specifically what kind of records you want.  Identify when and where the ancestor lived at the time the record was created. Then head to the Wiki to figure out what records are available and where they can be found.  

The Wiki links to:

  • Materials that available at or any other online genealogy website.
  • Materials that are not available at or any other online genealogy site.
  • Materials that were previously unknown or newly made available online.
  • Strategies and techniques for finding and researching genealogical records.

Signing in with your free FamilySearch account isn’t required, but there are some benefits to doing so. When signed in you can:

  • Add Wiki pages to a personalized Watchlist
  • Receive email alerts on your Watchlist pages
  • Request to become an editor / page creator (Learn more here)
  • Participate in Talk Pages
  • Practice editing and work on articles in the Sandbox before publishing them live


As we discussed in the video How to Navigate the FamilySearch Wiki, it’s typically best to start your search by selecting a location.

However, you can use the search box to search for words. Try it out and analyze the results to see which methods work best for your specific query.

After running a keyword search, look in the upper right corner of the results page to find the number of results retrieved. Take a quick look at the result snippets to evaluate them.

You can always start over by clicking the Wiki Home link. Don’t click FamilySearch in upper left corner. Clicking FamilySearch will take you back to the main FamilySearch website and require that you sign in if you are not already signed in.

Search Case Studies

In a new web browser tab, go to

Perhaps you have heard that there are German census records available, but you have no previous experience with them. Before you start randomly checking various genealogy websites, turn to the FamilySearch Wiki for an overview of this record collection.

On the Wiki home page, start typing German census in the search box.

Many record collections have their own page on the Wiki. As you type these pages will populate in the drop-down list. In this case, we see German Census Records. Click that to go to that page.

Take a moment to read through the page and you’ll discover some important information that will save you time and headaches. In this case we learn important information about:

  • When censuses were taken
  • National versus local censuses and their various levels
  • Censuses in areas where boundaries have changed over time
  • Various types of census forms we may encounter
  • The purpose behind the creation of census records in Germany
  • The kind of information we can expect to find in the German census
  • Other types of records containing similar information
  • Resource articles (including a handout from a past RootsTech)
  • Wiki articles describing online collections

There are a couple of actions we may want to take before going on to search for records:

  • Add the page to our Watchlist
  • Look closely for clues and links
  • Right-click interesting links and open them in new browser tabs to review
  • Click on the Category to see what else is attached to this category – in this case we see some example images that are helpful in interpreting German census forms.
  • Click the Cite this page link in the left column if we plan to reference the page elsewhere.
  • Click Printable Version in the left column if we want a printable or PDF version of the page.
  • Explore related pages by clicking the What links here link in the column on the left. Notice it also shows if there are any other users watching the page.

Types of Searches

Topic Search

“When searching for information on a specific topic such as probate records, type the topic into the Search box. As the topic is being typed in, a list of pages with the topic word or words in the title appear below the Search box. If one of the listed pages is the specific topic you are looking for, highlight and press enter.” If you don’t pick from the drop-down list you will get a results list of every page that includes the topic. Pretty overwhelming!

Vital records Search

FamilySearch recommends using the Guided Search.

Location Search in the search box

“When only the name of any country, state in the United States, province in Canada, or county in England is typed in the Search box and then enter button is pressed you will be taken directly to that Wiki page. For example: If the word Alabama is typed in and the enter button is pressed the result is the Alabama, United States Genealogy page.”

Page Title

If you happen to know the exact title of the Wiki article you want, type it in the Search Box and press enter. You will be taken directly to that page rather than a results list because this is the best place to drill down.

The Search Box

Search box: can be found in two places: the center of home page, and the upper right corner. You can run three main types of searches:

  1. Single key words,
  2. phrases,
  3. and search strings. 

Wiki Search Help Page

Search Operators

  • Quotes:

Odd Fellows – 49 results

“Odd Fellows” – 32 results

  • Minus sign
  • OR
  • Word stemming applies: car will also find cars
  • Intitle:Dunkards
  • subpageof:”Requests for comment”
  • Numrange doesn’t work on the wiki
  • Use Google site search to search using Google’s engine and search operators!


Adding a page to a watchlist: click the star icon in the upper right portion of the page

Find your current watchlist of pages: when signed in, click Watchlist list (upper right portion of the page to the right of your account name) and then click Edit your list of watched pages. Here you can remove them. Click a linked watched item to revisit that page.

Receive an email when a page or a file on your watchlist is changed: click Preferences (in the header list to the right of your account name) and scroll to the bottom of the page. Under Email options check the box for Email me when a page or a file on my watchlist is changed.

Learn about Becoming a Contributor

Wiki University


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