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

Pin it on Pinterest! Free Genealogy Video

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

Watch the Video Interview

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.

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

 

Episode 71 – Genealogy Organization and Work Flow that WORKS!

When you’re working on our genealogy, you’ve got data and records coming from all directions: websites, interviews, archives, downloadable documents, and more. Some of it you’re actively working on, some of it you need to save for later, and the rest has already been analyzed and is ready for archiving. This variety of data requires a variety of storage locations.
 
Genealogy Workflow Organization

Watch episode 71

 
In this week’s special episode of Elevenses with Lisa (episode 71) I’m going to share with you my genealogy data workflow. We’ll talk about how it all fits together to ensure an uncluttered desk and the ability to instantly put my hands on what I need when I need it. If that sounds like something that you need help with, please join me this week.

 Watch Live: Thursday, September 16, 2021 at 11:00 am CT 
(calculate your time zone

Three ways to watch:
1. Video Player (Live) – Watch live at the appointed time in the video player above.
2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch live at the appointed time at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 
3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat. 

Episode 71 Show Notes 

Barbara left a comment saying she found our recent videos that we called How Alice the Genealogist Avoids the Rabbit Hole helpful (episode 68 and episode 69), but she did had a question about Evernote. She asks, “Once you have processed (the genealogy record) and extracted the information you need, do you remove them from Evernote and place them in your digital genealogy filing system? I get a bit confused in thinking about what the other purposes of Evernote might be. Wouldn’t I just save my documents, newspaper clippings, etc. to my digital files on the hard drive and also to my Google Drive folders? Is there any need to also have them in Evernote?”

This is a great question, and I think the best way to answer it is to talk about my entire genealogy workflow in which programs like Evernote play a part.

It really helps to have a consistent way to capture and find what you’re actively working on. My workflow works great for me, but its just one way. Follow along with me and see if this might be a flow that will work for you.

The Genealogy Data Flow

Let’s start off with an overview of my workflow. And there are really 5 major workstations, if you will, that your data flows through. Some of these we’ve discussed previously here and also in several Premium Member videos:

  1. Active Genealogy Work
    This is the stuff we are working on currently. I several different tools to capture and work on these items: Evernote, genealogy website subscriptions, “pending” folders on my computer, pending tabs in my 3 ring notebooks and physical pending box on my desk. We discussed this in Elevenses with Lisa episode 7.
  2. Conclusions added to Master Genealogy Database (Software on your computer)
  3. Archival Digital Storage (your computer.) See episode 8 (Digital Archiving) You can certainly keep archival items in Evernote as well.
  4. Archival Paper Storage (your binders.) See episode 6 (Paper Archiving)
  5. Cloud backup. I use Backblaze at https://www.backblaze.com/lisa (affiliate link – thank you for your support of our free content)

Incoming Genealogy Sources

Not everything I find while researching is ready to be archived the moment I find it. Some items are actively being found and worked with such as:

  • Items I’m exploring for the potential application to my current research project
  • Items pending analysis
  • Unproven items
  • Items playing a role in a bigger research question that I want all together for now.
  • Bright Shiny Objects (BSOs) – stuff I found along the way that doesn’t relate to my current research goals

Not everything is captured on my computer. Many items (photos, audio and video records, typed notes) are captured on my phone and my iPad. So, I need an easy way to funnel everything back to one active workspace. A cloud-based notetaking service allows me to do this because it’s available as software on my computer and an app on my mobile devices. All synchronize through my account on the cloud. I use Evernote  (affiliate link – thank you for your support of our free content) so I’ll refer to that, but there are others out there like OneNote, and Google Keep. (Learn more about how to user Evernote in episode 70.)

Evernote allows me to:

  1. Capture and hold items
  2. search and retrieve more effectively than on my computer thanks to OCR (subscription)
  3. work my genealogy research plan
  4. easily collaborate with another researcher by sharing a single link
  5. Store and share media such as audio and video recordings

OK, so does everything go straight into Evernote? The answer is no. So let’s take a look at what happens to a digital item when I get it. I’m going to call it data, but it could be a downloaded genealogy record, a web clipping from a website, a photo of a gravesite I took with my phone, or anything else that includes information I want to use.

Working Your Genealogy Research Plan

When we work our genealogy research plan, we will inevitably locate documents. Typically, these are digital, but sometimes we find a physical document and make a digital copy of it.

Before a digital item is deemed relevant and ready to archive, we have a lot of work to do. We need to evaluate and analyze the document to determine its value and its possible application to our family history. If deemed reliable and applicable, we then need to extract the data and enter it into our family tree software. We may also decide to add some or all of the information to other places such as our online tree if we have one.

Many times, all of this work can’t happen in one sitting. We may need to be able to review and work with the item several times before we’re finished with it. I call this “processing” the document.

Even after its processed, we may still need the item nearby for reference as we work our research plan in the hopes of reaching our goal. At this stage, I consider this item to be “Active.” The opposite of that would be items I consider to be “Archived.” An archived item has been fully utilized and is no longer playing an active role in my research plan. That’s not to say I may not need to reference it again in the future, which is why it must be archived where I can retrieve it. The point is that the item is not relevant to my current active research. For example, perhaps it pertains to my mother’s side of the family and right now I’m working on my father’s side of the family.

My active digital items are typically added to Evernote, which I consider to be my Active workspace. It is not my archival space. However, this is not to say that you can’t store everything in Evernote forever if that’s what you want to do. You certainly could. I’ve given this a lot of thought and there are a few reasons why I don’t store everything in Evernote.

The main reason I don’t store everything in Evernote is that I’m a firm believer in retaining control of my data. If we store everything on a website or in a cloud service (which Evernote is), they (or their hosting provider) could pull the plug tomorrow and it would all be gone. I certainly don’t think that would happen overnight, although there are real cases of that happening. But I don’t want to take the risk, and I don’t want to have to scramble in a panic to move a mountain of data because I’ve been given a 30 day notice that a service is ending or has been sold to another company. (And let’s not even think about the possibility that the email notification of that happening went to my Spam folder!)

In order to retain control of my family history data, my long-term data storage needs to be within my control: my computer, external hard drives (both backed up with Backblaze) and paper print outs. That being said, when it comes to my active research project, I’m willing to trade the risk for the speed and convenience of using an online tool or service such as Evernote. My active research is a small fraction of my total research, most of which has been archived on my computer.

So, when I first find an item, I have a decision to make: where am I going to put it? Will I save it to my computer or to Evernote? It depends on what it is.

Items I save to Evernote:

  • Items needing OCR to be most useful. Examples: Newspaper articles, web clippings
  • Items created with my phone or tablet. Examples: Photos of gravesites and documents, interview audio recordings, videos of research trips
  • Items needing analysis before confirmed as pertaining to my family. Examples: Record downloaded from a genealogy website. I want these in Evernote because everything is together in one place. Tags and the search feature allow me to instantly retrieve any combination of records I need at any given time for cross reference. And if I need to share any or all of the items with another researcher it’s easy to do with just one share link. A cloud notetaking service make working your research plan much easier. (Premium Members watch my video class Collaborative Genealogy with Evernote.
  • Example: Items pertains to my family but not part of my current research project.
  • Downloaded genealogy records I don’t have time to process right now.

All items are tagged with relevant information to make them quick and easy to find in addition to keyword searching.

Items I save to my computer hard drive:

  • Items to I want to keep that have been processed.
  • Digital scans of visual items. Examples: Family Photos, old postcards
  • Large files created on my computer (audio, video).

I have a solid system for organizing my folders and file on my computer so it’s quick and easy to find them. If you’re a Premium Member you can watch my step-by-step classes on how to set that up for yourself on my website GenealogyGems.com.

The bottom line is that whenever I need to find something for my active research project I’m going to search my notetaking service first, and then my computer hard drive.

Genealogy data workflow

Archiving Processed Items

Once I reach my research goal and I’m done actively using those sources, I’m ready to archive them. I could just leave everything in Evernote, but I want to make sure that all genealogical documents that I referenced as a source in my master database, are archived on my computer for long-term storage that I control, and that is being automatically backed up.

An important thing to understand about Evernote is that you can’t just download everything with one click in its original file format. However, you can save individual digitized items in your note, such as genealogical records, to your hard drive. Since there is no lifetime storage limit, I leave the note intact in Evernote, and I save the image to my computer hard drive. Save the image by right-clicking on it (in Windows, & I think it is Command click on a Mac) select Save As and save it to the appropriate archival folder.  I do this at the end of the research project. Now you may feel like your “research project” never ends! But I’m referring to a genealogy research plan.

how to save evernote image to hard drive

How to save a document image to your hard drive from Evernote.

You can learn how to create one in Evernote by watching my Premium video class Using Evernote to Create a Research Plan. (Premium membership required.) Of course, after I’ve answered my research question I quickly develop the next one and build a plan around it. So, you’re right, it never actually ends – thank goodness!

How Do I Find It Later?

My software database is the brain of my genealogy operations. I may have family tree information on various genealogy websites, on my computer, in Evernote and maybe even on my own family history website. But my database is the final word on what I have found and believe to be accurate. As I draw conclusions and add data to my family tree in my database, I cite my source. Therefore, everything I need to know about my tree is in one location I control on my own computer. If someone asks me a question about someone in my family tree, I can quickly look up the information and also see where I got it (the source).

genealogy database software

“Your genealogy database software is the brain of the organization.” Lisa Louise Cooke

When I want to refer back to one of those sources I would look in one of three places:

  1. My computer archival digital files (especially if it’s not part of my active research plan). This is easy to do because I know my folder system well, and it guides me. I’ve never lost anything yet!
  2. Evernote (particularly if the source is part of my current research plan.)
  3. The surname binder (if my citation tells me or I suspect it would be an archived piece of paper.)

Because I stick to my system, I usually instinctively know where to look. And because of they way each is set up, I can find things FAST!

Final Thoughts

Of course there are always exceptions to any rule, and there may be an item or situation that doesn’t fall perfectly neatly into a category or activity. Use your own best judgement on how to handle those. OCR search capability and great systems for digital and paper items will make it possible to find what you need when you need it. And most importantly, you’ll retain control over your family history legacy.

Be sure to share your Evernote credentials in a secure place and share them with a trusted relative so that the account can be passed on in the future. Learn more about protecting your legacy by watching my video class Saving Your Research from Destruction. (Premium membership required.)

Resources

Premium Members: download this exclusive ad-free show notes cheat sheet PDF
Not a member yet? Learn more and join the Genealogy Gems and Elevenses with Lisa family here.

Genealogy Gems Premium Videos including:

  • Organize Your Research with Evernote
  • Making Evernote Effortless
  • Using Evernote to Create a Research Plan
  • Evernote: 10 Projects You Can Do
  • Collaborative Genealogy with Evernote
Evernote for genealogy genealogical sources

Learn more with Lisa’s Premium Video Classes

Elevenses with Lisa Archive

You can find the Elevenses with Lisa Video Archive here or through the menu: Premium > Premium Videos > Elevenses with Lisa.

Free Newsletter and Bonus Gift

Please click here to sign up now if you haven’t already. You’ll receive a BONUS free eBook with your first email.

Pin It on Pinterest

MENU