When A Witness is Just a Witness

Sound genealogy research advice suggests that we research names that appear as witnesses on documents our ancestor signed. That’s good advice. Those names could be clues.

The key word is could. Like much advice it all depends on context and the specific situation.

The more often the same person appears as a witness on documents my ancestor signed, the more likely there is to be a connection between the witness and the ancestor. If the ancestor was an immigrant who did not know the language and the witness name appears to be from the same ethnic group that is suggestive of a connection. In some cases where an ancestor could not read, I have wondered if the witness was a trusted associate of the ancestor who was literate in the language in which the document was written.

But there is always the possibility that the witness was just another warm body who was of legal age when your ancestor went to the lawyer, justice of the peace, notary, etc. to have a document witnessed or drawn up.

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Organize As You Go

It can be fun to find information, make discoveries, and be “hot on the trail” of tracing a lineage.

It’s not as much fun to organize and keep track of what you have found. That organization and tracking is imperative so that careless mistakes are not made and information does not have to be located more than once.

Take time to organize what you find as you find it. Later you will be glad you did. Because sooner or later you’ll need to find something in that haphazard collection of materials you’ve put in a folder on your computer or a pile on your living room floor.

Or you will realize you’ve found the same thing three times and that you are more confused than necessary.

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Informal Use of Cousin

When a family letter, newspaper reference, interview or other item refers to two individuals as being “cousins,” remember that the relationship may not be a “first cousin” (an individual with whom a person shares a set of grandparents. The reference could be to one of a variety of relationships.

In informal writing, I use the word “cousin to refer to a relative with whom I share an ancestor and who is not my own direct-line ancestor or an aunt or uncle. The person may be a second cousin, third cousin, fourth cousin once removed, etc. I’m not the only one who does this and your grandma’s reference to someone as her cousin may mean what my reference to the word does or it may even indicate other relationships–including ones by marriage.

In non-genealogy writing to clarify the relationship somewhat, I may refer to someone as my “Rampley cousin,” “Ufkes cousin,” etc. Another approach is to indicate the relationship a little more specifically–cousin of my Grandma Neill, Great-grandma Habben, etc. That way someone has a sense of whether the cousin is related to them or not and how they are related to me. I avoid the “cousin/removed” statements where possible and indicate the relationship if more clarity seems necessary–“his grandma Henerhoff and my grandma Neill were first cousins,” “our Mom’s mom’s were sisters,” etc. (and give more detail if necessary).

But when you see the word “cousin,” don’t assume the two individuals shared a grandparent–the connection may have been a biological one further back, could have been a relationship resulting from a marriage, or even a family friend who was considered a relative.

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Lived Here One Year and Naturalized?

Laws change.

In 1887 a widowed relative and her child immigrate to the United States. In 1888 that widow marries a United States citizen. At that point in American history, the widow and her child are now United States citizens. As a woman what rights she had at that point in time are another matter entirely.

But if the researcher encounters a later census enumeration where the date of immigration and the date of naturalization for the grown child look a little “odd” because they are one year apart–that’s the likely reason for it.

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Where Do I put the “Probably?”

My relative’s tombstone in a Tioga, Hancock County, Illinois, cemetery indicated that she died in 1877. The place of death is not given and I’m not certain where she died–at least not exactly. I do have a fairly good hunch as to where she died–at least as far as the name of the township. I probably know where she died. Based on the tombstone (and the death record at the church), I have the date of death. But I need to exercise some care when I comment somewhere about her place of birth.

  • Died in 1877 probably in Walker Township, Hancock County, Illinois.
  • Probably died in 1877 in Walker Township, Hancock County, Illinois.

I use the first suggestion and put the “probably” after the year or date of her death. That is because the 1877 seems pretty solid based on my sources; it is the location that is more conjectural. My statement needs to reflect that.

And of course I need to cite the tombstone and the funeral entry in the church records for this person’s date of death and place of burial. There’s no “probably” in that statement.

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What Could An Alien Do?

Your immigrant ancestor who had not naturalized could not vote in elections. What else could your unnaturalized immigrant ancestor not do? The way to get the specific answer to this is to view contemporary state statute and see what rights are allocated to alien citizens. Unnaturalized aliens and those who had not filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen of the US could not file a claim for a homestead.

Depending upon the time period and the location, your alien ancestor may not have been able to file suit in court, bequeath property in a will, own property, etc. These laws have changed over time–do not assume what was true in 1800 was true in 1900. The answer is in contemporary state statute, many of which are on Google Books at http://books.google.com or Archive.org http://www.archive.org in addition to other locations.

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Court of Naturalization?

Before 1906, any court of record could naturalize in the United States. While there tended to be one court within each county that did this, it is possible that in certain areas there was more than one court in a county working people through the naturalization process.

Make certain you’ve search the records of all courts that could have naturalized your ancestor. Also consider the possibility that your relative may have traveled a distance to naturalize, perhaps in a location where an already naturalized relative was living.

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Reading and Responding

How carefully do you read?

When reading documents, make certain you are actually reading and thinking about what the document says. Also make certain you are seeing what the document actually says and not what you want it to say.

Based on responses I see to things people post on social media and elsewhere, it seems that there are some who do not always actually read what is written before responding to it.

Make certain you don’t do that with genealogical information.

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Neighboring Political Entities?

Genealogy is often about location. Where your ancestor lived and where records were kept for individuals who lived in that location are vital things to know. Do you know all the political jurisdictions in which your ancestor lived: town/city/village, township, hundred, county, state, province, etc.? Do you know what jurisdictions border those towns, cities, villages, townships, hundreds, counties, states, etc.? How close did you ancestor lived to any of those borders? What is the chance he or she crossed those borders and left records in another area? Which of those jurisdictions kept records? Which ones still keep records? Where are those records located?

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