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.

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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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Show Notes

(This interview has been minimally edited for clarity)
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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.

Bondsman

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 www.reclaimingkin.com. 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.

Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

 

Don’t Lose Control When You Post Your Family Tree Online

Online tree out of controlWhen you post your family tree online at multiple websites, it’s easy to lose track of changes you make at each one. Maintaining a master family tree on your own computer can help solve that problem.

Recently Gems podcast listener Louis wrote in with a question many of us face. He recently purchased RootsMagic 7 software to keep track of his family tree, but he’s still finding it difficult to corral all his data in one place. Here’s the problem, he says:

“I have my family tree splattered everywhere: FamilySearch, MyHeritage, and Ancestry. I’m afraid of losing control of my tree and would like some advice on keeping things straight. Each of the sites I go on seem to offer different information, so I started posting tree information on different sites. Can you offer any suggestions that I can use to centralize my data across different sites?”

I can fully appreciate Louis’ situation. Here’s a quick summary of how I keep my family tree organized all in one place.

Websites come and go, as we know, so I look at my RootsMagic database on my computer as my MASTER database and tree. This kind of approach lets you post your family tree online but not lose control of it!

When I post GEDCOM files of my family tree on other websites (what’s a GEDCOM?), I do so to try and connect with cousins and gain research leads. With that in mind, I upload only the portion of the tree for which I want to generate those connections and leads. In other words, I don’t put my entire GEDCOM on each site (MyHeritage, Ancestry, etc.) because I don’t want to get bogged down with requests and alerts for far flung branches that I’m not focused on researching right now. To do this I make a copy of my database, edit it to fit my research, and then upload it.

As I find documents and data on these websites, I may “attach” them to the tree on that site, but I always download a copy and retain that on my computer and make note of it in RootsMagic. That way I retain control of my tree and my sources.

backblaze online cloud backup for genealogyAnd of course the final step is to back up my computer so everything is safe and secure. I do that with Backblaze (the official backup of The Genealogy Gems Podcast) and you can click here to learn more about their service for my listeners.

In the end, it is my family tree and history. I want to keep ownership of it on my own computer, even when I share parts of it online.

Resources

RootsMagic the Master GenealogistBest Genealogy Software: Which You Should Choose and Why

RootsMagic Update for FamilySearch Compatibility

Free RootsMagic Guides

Family Tree Builder for Mac

Thank you for sharing this post with others who may have the same question! Email it, share it on Facebook, pin it, Tweet it–just use our handy social media icons on this page.

(Full Disclosure: Some of the websites mentioned and links provided in our articles are for sponsors of The Genealogy Gems Podcast. They are sponsors because we think they are terrific and use the products ourselves. We include affiliate links for your convenience and appreciate when you use them because they help keep The Genealogy Gems Podcast available for free. Thank you!) 

New Archival Collections: How to Know What’s New at Your Favorite Repository

New archival collections at your favorite repository may be the long-awaited key to solving your family history mysteries! But how can you keep up with what’s new at archives and libraries? Professional archivist Melissa Barker shares her favorite tips.

new archival collections

 

Not long ago, Lisa Louise Cooke read my article on what’s new at the Utah State Archives. She asked me how I keep up with new archival collections at my favorite repositories.

New Archival Collections May Be Just What We Need

Many of us can say that our ancestors were living in a certain area and their records should be located at certain local archives, libraries, or genealogical or historical societies. Maybe we have even done research there in the past, either by visiting the facility, contacting them by phone or email, or using their records online. Records, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts are constantly being discovered and made available in all of our wonderful archives. Many of these records may not make it to microfilm or online, but they are so rich with family information. (Don’t know where to look? Click here to learn how to find archives and libraries near your ancestor’s locale.)

But trying to keep up with all the new records that are being processed in archives, libraries, and genealogical societies can make your head spin! So how are genealogists supposed to stay current?

3 Ways to Keep Up with New Archival Collections

new archival collections uniforms1. Check the archives website. See if they have announced new records collections that are available for research (many archives do). The archives may even have a blog or newsletter that you can subscribe to, which will give you the latest news right at your fingertips. Not only will the archives announce new records that are available but they will even let their patrons know what has been recently donated to the archives and which records are currently being processed.

2. See if the archive has a social media presence. Archives like to post photos of new discoveries and records collections that are ready for the researcher. I know at the Houston County, TN. Archives I like to scan and post images of great documents or artifacts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. (Like the post pictured here that I shared recently.)

LISA’S TIP: Remember to use Google search terms to find your favorite archive’s website and social media homes! A quick search such as National Archives Pinterest might be faster than trying to find it on the actual social media site. That search brings up tempting boards for National Archives in both the US and the UK:

3. When visiting an archive, ask: “What’s new?” Talk to archivists about records collections that have recently been processed and made available for research. This is a great way to find more information and records about your ancestors. As an archivist who processes records on a daily basis that are not online or even microfilmed, I get excited about sharing what I find with the genealogy community.

Until next time, this is The Archive Lady, remember it’s not all online, so contact or visit an archive today!

Learn More about Using Archival Collections

Listen to me on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast! This year the podcast is celebrating its 10th-year anniversary. Tune in to hear more inspiring stories and tips to help your family history research. Listen on your computer or on your mobile device through the Genealogy Gems app. Click here to learn more.

 

Early Emigration Records for Britain in New and Updated Genealogical Records

Emigration records, not immigration records, are the key topic of this week’s new and updated genealogical collections. Findmypast offers several new collections regarding early British emigration. Also this week, record collections for Australian census substitutes and United States newspapers.

dig these new record collections

Britain – Emigration Records – Leaving from Britain

Early emigration from Britain 1636-1815 is a collection from Findmypast containing over 21,000 records that allow you to learn if your ancestors left Britain for North America or the West Indies. The collection includes 10 pieces from The National Archives including colonial papers, general entry books, passenger registers, and weekly immigration returns.

Each record includes both an image and a transcript of the original source material. Transcripts may include occupation, year of birth, the year they departed, their destination, and the ship they sailed on. Depending on the type of document, images of the original records may include additional details such as marital status, former residence, and nationality of settler.

Britain – Emigration Records to Barbados

Britain, early emigration to Barbados is another collection from Findmypast, centering on your British ancestors who left for a settlement in Barbados between 1678 and 1715. With over 20,000 assorted documents, this collection includs baptisms, burials, censuses, landowner lists, and more.

Each result provides you with a transcript and image of the original record. Transcripts may contain name, birth year, age, and parish as well as the nature of the event that was being recorded and the date. Depending on the type of document, images of the original records may also include additional details such as fathers’ names or information pertaining to other North American colonies such as the colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Britain – The Royal African Company Records

Britain, Royal African Company, 1694-1743 is a collection of over 55,000 records to uncover the details of those on board the Royal African Company’s ships to and from Africa as well as the names of those who lived and died at company forts. These Findmypast records came from The National Archives T 70 series, Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa and Successors.

The Royal African Company was a mercantile company from 1660 until it was dissolved in 1750. It was first incorporated as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa before being reconstituted in 1672 as the Royal African Company of England. You may find the name of one of your British soldiers who traveled with the company among these records.

Australia – Census Substitutes

Over 1 million new records have been added to the Findmypast collection of Australia Electoral Rolls. The new additions cover Queensland and Tasmania. Electoral rolls are lists of names of those eligible to vote and can be used as a census substitute.

Previously, the Rolls existed as simple PDF searches that could only be accessed separately, state by state. Now, they are fully transcribed and placed into one central collection. This makes searching for your Australian ancestors easier and now you can search across all 12.6 million of these census substitutes at once. The entire collection covers New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia and spans the years 1860 to 1959.

United States – Wisconsin – Newspapers

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has digitized their entire collection of the student newspaper, The Post, to mark the 60th anniversary of the paper’s founding. These newspapers cover 55 years and are exclusively online at UWM website.

The newspapers can be searched by decade, name or keyword, and date. Some of the stories are fun and lighthearted like the Sept. 26, 1956, story on the “coed” who was crowned “Alice in Dairyland” after earlier being voted a “datable doll” at a campus carnival. Other stories include a 1975 article dealing with campus safety and parking. Lastly, you will also find more politically charged articles dealing with marijuana use and legalized abortion.

More on Emigration Records

emigration recordsOur own Sunny McClellan Morton has just what you need to learn more on researching your ancestors’ emigration travels. The English Genealogy Guide: Researching Emigrants to Australia, India and South Africa is available from Family Tree Magazine as a downloadable PDF. And, read our blog post titled Emigration Records With an E: When Your Ancestors Left the Country, by Lisa Louise Cooke. You will be amazed at how much there is to learn about emigration…with an “E”!

Love Was in the Air: Our Ancestors and Valentine’s Day

This time of year many of us will show love with chocolates, flowers, jewelry or–as my husband prefers–tools and Chinese takeout. Many of us will also turn to Hallmark or American Greetings for the perfect card.

Valentine’s Day

Our ancestors exchanged love tokens at Valentine’s Day, too. Love letters, notes and even fancy gifts have passed between suitors for over 300 years.

In England, many would-be lovers started sending pre-printed cards through the mail in the 1840s, when postage rates were standardized.

In the United States, the practice became more popular after the Civil War, when thousands of soldiers-turned-beaus were looking for belles.

The National Archives (UK) has gathered a few virtual valentines in honor of the season.

Browse images of old love letters, handmade and commercially-printed cards, like this 1905 valentine with its bold primary colors. Maybe these will inspire your own expressions of love this season! Or maybe they will inspire you look more closely for the love stories in your family history and honor a romance that came before you.

Learn more about using the National Archives Catalog from home to find even more genealogical treasures by watching Elevenses with Lisa Episode 40 at the Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel at https://www.youtube.com/GenealogyGems.

Watch episode 40 of Elevenses with Lisa

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