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!
Video Premiere with Live Chat
Watch Live: Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022 at 11:00 am CT
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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?
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.
Discover your Mayflower ancestors–or more about your family history from around the world–in new and updated genealogy records online. Among them are the Welsh National Book of Remembrance for WWI and various records for Indiana, Massachusetts, Montana,...
Genealogy RootsJanuary 14 & 15, 2020 – St. George, Utah Genealogy expert Lisa Louise Cooke, (Genealogy Gems Podcast) and her special guest speaker Geoff Rasmussen (Legacy Family Tree Webinars) will share a stage on January 14 & 15, 2020 at the Senior...
Early American Ancestors Research Elevenses with Lisa Episode 33
Lindsay Fulton, VP New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS)
In this episode we head back to 17th century New England with Lindsay Fulton of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org
Lindsay Fulton is with American Ancestors and New England Historic Genealogical Society where leads the Research and Library Services team as Vice President. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog and was featured in the Emmy-Winning Program: Finding your Roots: The Seedlings, a web series inspired by the popular PBS series “Finding Your Roots.”
Watch the video and follow along with the show notes below as we cover how to get started researching our early American ancestors. Lindsay will also provide her top genealogical resources.
Getting Started with Colonial-Era Research
During this period of American history, New England includes:
To get started in Colonial-Era genealogical research, Lindsay says the first thing you need to do is put your ancestors into an historical context:
When did they arrive in New England?
Where did they migrate to?
Significant dates and events at this time include:
The Mayflower’s arrival in 1620
The Great Migration: 1620-1640, with the peak years between 1633 and 1638.
The Civil War in England, which slowed migration.
Turn to the book The Expansion of New England, The spread of New England Settlement and Institutions to the Mississippi Rover 1620-1865 by L. K. Mathews. Published in 1909 this important book includes 30 to 40 historical maps.
More Resources for 17th Century American Genealogy Research
AmericanAncestors.org/town-guides/ for New England
Early New England Finding Aids
Finding Aids provide a comprehensive list of all the available records for a person / family.
The first place to look for people settling in New England prior to 1700: New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Clarence Almon Torrey. This book includes scholarship prior to 1962. Learn more about it here.
The next place to look: Founders of Early American Families by Meredith Colkert. Scholarship goes a little further than 1962 and ventures beyond New England. This book covers 1607-1657.
The next place to look: New Englanders in the 1600s, A Guide to Genealogical Research Published Between 1980 and 2010 by Martin E. Hollick. At the beginning of the book there is a key to all of the original sources. For example, TAG refers to The American Genealogist.
From Lindsay: “The thing about 17th century research, like a said at the beginning, the most studied people on the planet. So, don’t reinvent the wheel, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find all of this information on your own. You have to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before you. There are all of these people who have done all this research before. Please look at first. Always look at with a little bit of hesitation because there’s always possibilities that mistakes were made. But at least take a peek at what’s already been done first!”
Colonial-Era Study Projects
The first example that Lindsay provided of a study project for early American ancestors is the Great Migration Study Project (searchable online database at AmericanAncestors.org)
Directed by Robert Charles Anderson, FASG
Started in 1988
Genealogical and biographical sketch for immigrants to New England from 1620 to 1640
Fourteen published volumes
Newsletter (bound versions available)
Tours and other educational programs
Searchable online databases
The Great Migration Directory, Immigrants to New England, 1620-1640
The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633 (3 vols.)
The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England 1634-1635 (7 vols.)
The Pilgrim Migration: Immigrants to Plymouth Colony 1620-1633
The Winthrop Fleet: Massachusetts Bay Company Immigrants to New England 1629-1630
The Great Migration Newsletter, vols. 1-20
The Mayflower Migration: Immigrants to Plymouth, 1620
Those who are included in the study project:
If person appeared in a record
Direct or indirect implication of arrival
Appearance of an immediate family of a person known to have arrived
New England Historical and Genealogical Register (published since 1847)
New York Biographical & Genealogical Record
The Mayflower Descendant
The American Genealogist
These can be searched on AmericanAncestors.org: Database Search > Select the Category Journals and Periodicals, and then scroll through all of the available items. They are fully searchable. You will be able to see the actual record. You can download and print the items.
Mayflower Research Resources
The Silver books and the Pink books done by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. It’s looking at those passengers with known descendants. These are only available currently in book form. If you are interested in applying to the Mayflower Society, they accept these as original records. You can cite the pages. (Learn more about Mayflower related resources at American Ancestors.)
Mayflower Families 5th Gen. Desc.
Available at AmericanAncestors.org
Index of all the 5th Generation descendants,
their spouses and children
If you click Mayflower Families Fifth Generation Descendants, 1700-1880, it will take you to a search page where you can search by names and years, or search by volumes. It will bring up all of the available records.
General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) Membership Applications, 1620-1920
New – available soon. Only on AmericanAncestors.org
Contains all Mayflower Society Applications for applicants born before 1920. Approximately ~30,000 applications
All data indexed for each generation
Available to: American Ancestors & NEHGS Members, FamilySearch Affiliate members, and GSMD Members.
New England Genealogy Records
When doing New England genealogy research look for the following records:
Probate Records Court Records
Usually you’ll be looking at the town level. This is why you must know where your ancestors were living, and what the place was called at that time, and what the borders were.
Premium Podcast episode 177 (Genealogy Gems Premium Membership is required.) In this episode we explore the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s American Ancestors website with Claire Vail, Director of Creative and Digital Strategy for the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Answers to Your Live Chat Questions About Colonial American Genealogy
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Susan W: Is there a source for Rhode Island? (I’m not sure if she was thinking about one particular resource you mentioned or generally. Perhaps she just needs a RI finding aid?) From Lindsay: Yes! American Ancestors-NEHGS has a fantastic guide to Rhode Island research, which you can access with a free guest membership here.
From Cindy A: What percentage of the items you showed would require a paid membership? From Lindsay: The majority of the databases shown are included as a benefit of membership with American Ancestors-NEHGS, but if you are interested in Colonial American genealogy, you should consider membership. We have hundreds of databases that will help you to discover more about your 17th and 18th Century ancestry. You can learn more about these databases (and books in the library) with a free guest membership.
From Sue M: What resource was Nathan Snow in. He’s related to my BATES family. From Lindsay: Nathan Snow was included in the American Ancestors-NEHGS database, Mayflower Families Fifth Generation Descendants, 1700-1880. This database supports the following searchable fields: First and last name, Year, Record type, Location, Family member names: Spouse, Mother and Father (where available), Keyword – for names in the lineage text of direct descendants.
From Kathy M: Excellent. Can you comment on both land inheritance (i.e. did it follow English primogeniture) and on best sources for finding 1600 female ancestors’ family names. From Lindsay: Alicia Crane Williams wrote a blog post about this entitled, Probate records: Part One, where she states, “for the most part, a testator could leave anything to anyone, unless they were dealing with colonies such as Virginia that followed the laws of primogeniture where all real estate was left to the oldest son. This did not apply in New England, although it was customary to follow the legal model of giving a double share to the oldest son. A legitimate heir who was left out of a will could potentially contest it in court, thus the bequests of one pound or one dollar to cover any claim that someone had been accidentally forgotten.” For more information about land inheritance in New England (and the U.S.), you should examine Wade Hone’s Land & Property Research in the United States. It is an excellent deep-dive into land records. As for female ancestors’ family names in the 1600s, I would recommend examining Torrey’s New England Marriages and Hollick’s New Englanders in the 1600s. Those are the two best places to start your search for the ladies in your family (I covered these in the episode too).
From Louann H: Suggestions for time period 1660-1776? From Lindsay: Many of the resources discussed during the presentation covered the 17th century, and would be your best bet for resources for 1660-1700. You can learn more about these databases (and books in the library) with a free guest membership. After 1700, there are few compiled resources similar to the Great Migration Study Project; however, you could start with a search of the American Ancestors-NEHGS Library catalog. We have thousands of published genealogies that may cover your family history in the first half of the 18th Century.
From Jane C: This has been wonderful, doing Mayflower research. What are Notarial Records? From Lindsay: Notarial records are a private agreement written by a notary in the form of a contract. Some of the most common ones are marriage contracts, wills, estate inventories, leases, and sales contracts. While they were not common record keeping practices in New England and New York, notarial records were plentiful in Quebec. You can learn more about them by watching our free webinar called Navigating Notarial Records in Quebec.
News You Can Use: Google Photos Update
Google Photos is currently the home of more than 4 trillion photos and videos of users around the world. According to Google, 29 billion new photos and videos are uploaded every week. They just announced that starting June 1, 20201 “all new photos and videos backed up in High Quality will count toward the free 15 GB of storage that comes with your Google account or any additional storage you may have purchased, the same way other Google services like Google Drive and Gmail already do.”
In that episode we discuss that “High Quality” is the slightly compressed version of images and videos and “Original” quality are full size, uncompressed images and videos. In the past you could upload “High Quality” for free.
All “High Quality” content uploaded before June 1, 2021 is exempt from counting against your storage. On that date they plan to launch a new storage management tool that they say will help you easily identify items you’re currently storing that you may want to remove if they are low quality or otherwise unwanted. This will help you reduce the amount of storage you use.
If you don’t want to pay for additional storage, here are some tips:
Use Google Photos as a tool for specific projects rather than a complete storage system.
Turn off auto-sync of your photos from your phone and other devices.
Carefully select and manually add images and videos.
Family History: Genealogy Made Easy
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 8: Best Genealogy Websites, Part 2
In a follow up to last week’s episode about subscription genealogy records website, in my first segment our guest is Yvette Arts, Director of Content Partnerships at World Vital Records. She tells us about exciting developments at the website that have helped make it a success.
In our second segment we look at five organizations that provide free online access to genealogy records for those with North American roots: FamilySearch, the National Archives of the United States, Ellis Island Foundation, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and Library and Archives Canada.
Now for some updates on these sites and MORE since the show first aired:
FamilySearch.org is still free and growing exponentially. It captures records from all over the world, not just North America and the U.K. It is now home to over 3.5 billion names in searchable databases, with over 35 million new records added every month. In addition, they’ve added over 60,000 digital books to the site. The layout of the website has changed dramatically since I described it in the original show. Click on Search to get to their databases, then enter an ancestor’s name and, if you can, a life event (birth, marriage, residence or death). A significant portion of new online records are browsable but not yet indexed. So now, after you search for individuals in their databases, scroll down to the Browse section below the search fields. There you’ll be able to see what records you can browse for a locale (choose the international region, then you can choose more specific locations). You can still order microfilmed records at the Family History Library to a satellite FamilySearch library near you. From the Search screen, choose Catalog, and you can search for and order available records by location.
The National Archives (U.S.), also known as the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) also offers more on its website now. The portal for genealogists looks a little different now but still helps you see how to search and use the site for genealogy. There’s a direct link to the 1940 census, with images, maps and descriptions. Remember that Footnote, the subscription site I mentioned that’s digitizing military records, is now Fold3, which we talked about in Episode 7.
EllisIsland.org still offers free access to the passenger records of those who landed at Ellis Island. In addition, you can still look at ship information (click on Ships from the home page). The Immigrant Experience and timeline I mention can be found by clicking on the Ellis Island tab.
The National Archives (U.K.) links from the home page to resources for ordering birth, marriage and death certificates for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Read about updating order information, including costs, at these sites. There is still a portal for genealogists from which you can learn all about the various record groups I mention in the podcast and more.
Library and Archives Canada continues to add more valuable genealogical data to its site, including census data! Start from its Genealogy and Family History page. In addition to the features I mention in the show, they’ve improved their online indexes: scroll down on the above page and you’ll find the Ancestors Search (Databases) link to a main search engine and individual databases for vital records, censuses, immigration, land, military and several directories.