Marriage Witnesses

Witnesses to a wedding can be a family history clue, but there are a few things to keep in mind before assuming that witnesses have to be related to the ancestral couple who got married.

Witnesses legally are just saying they saw something happen and that they know the individuals who are they claim to be. The witnesses do not have to be related in any way shape or form to the people getting married.

The witnesses can be friends of the bride or groom–perhaps even an engaged couple themselves. The witnesses could also be the wife of the officiant and another nearby warm body old enough to legally be a witness. They could even be the parents of the couple.

Unless the parents were vehemently opposed to the wedding, then probably not.

But don’t assume the witnesses must be related. Even if one of them has the same last name as one of the parties getting married, there may not be a relationship.

Like anything else, names of witnesses are clues.

Spelling Irregularities are a Genealogy Fact of Life

Variations in how your ancestor’s name was spelled can be endlessly frustrating. However, it’s worth remembering that a variation of how your ancestor’s name appears in an index can arise from a variety of situations:

  • Your ancestor did not know how to spell his name
  • Your ancestor could not read
  • Your ancestor did not speak clearly
  • Your ancestor had an accent with which the writer of his name was unfamiliar
  • The clerk didn’t care
  • The clerk had bad writing
  • The transcriber could not read the name
  • The transcriber did not care
  • The transcriber made a typographical error
  • The document has faded over time and is difficult to read
  • Or something else

Keep in mind that one of more of these could explain why James Rampley ends up indexed as Jarvis Pample.

Relative Consistency

Names will not be spelled the same. Sometimes a name can be spelled multiple ways in one document. What the researcher should look for is whether the spelling of the names are consistent with how the name probably sounds when spoken.

That concept of relative consistency applies to more than just spelling. Age, place of birth, occupation, and other characteristics of your ancestor should also be relatively consistent from one document to another.

Nothing will be 100% consistent. Do not expect it. Humans make mistakes. But records should provide information that is in general agreement with other information known about the person.

Unless they are outright lying. But that’s another problem.

Not Just One

If possible, obtain as many official records as possible that reference that place of birth, maiden name of mother, parental relationship, etc. One reference can be incorrect–either because the informant was unaware of the actual information, was intending to deceive for one reason or another, or something in between.

It can be tempting to go with the piece of information given in one record, but that one record and one piece of information can easily be incorrect. Obtaining as many records as possible allows you to evaluate information given by individuals over their entire lifetime and by other members of the same family. For one reason or another those details may not be entirely consistent and obtaining all those records and clues gives you the best chance of determining what really happened and getting past what seems to be a brick wall in your research.

Before Using that Camera on a Trip

Before using that digital camera (or phone) to take images of tombstones, books, relative’s photographs, or records on a trip, make certain that you know how to:

  • Organize the photographs.
  • Take the photographs in a way that helps track where you “got the information” (entry to cemetery, book cover, title page, etc.)
  • Back up the images so they are not lost.
  • Also include your notes or comments (pictures of anything you write down is on easy idea).

If you have any concerns, practice these activities at home. That is the place to get the bugs worked out, get help if necessary, and make certain what you are doing actually works.

Alpha Order is Not Your Friend

When an index or manual searching takes you to an ancestral entry in a census, tax or other list entry take times to look at the neighboring names. Are the names in rough alphabetical order? If so neighborhood clues can’t be inferred from the proximity of names.

That is unless all the “B” surnames lived in the same part of the county.

Wives with the Same First Name?

If certain details of your ancestor’s wife change, but the first name remains unchanged, have you considered that he had two wives with the same first name?

Maybe Thomas married Mary One and after her death married Mary Two.

Organize As You Go

Digital images should be organized as they are taken. While it may be tempting to put off sorting those images of tombstones, census records, family photographs, doing so will result in a large sorting task later.

That task may be so insurmountable that it never gets gone.

Or all those images may still be sorted when your phone or camera is not the only thing that is dead.

There are Few Absolutes

Normally an ancestor has to be dead to have an estate settlement, has to be born to have a birth certificate, etc.

Think about what really HAS to be true about your ancestor or relative when you researching them. He didn’t have to get married to reproduce. He didn’t have to name his oldest son after his father. She didn’t have to get married near where her first child was born. He didn’t have to have a relative witness every document he signed. There are few “have tos” in genealogy. Make certain you aren’t using “have tos” to make brick walls for yourself.

When this tip appeared originally, I used the phrase “when your ancestor wrote his will.” Of course not every ancestor was male and females had wills as well. But it’s unlikely your ancestor actually wrote his or her will–it was crafted by an attorney or another legal professional. Most likely the only writing your relative did on their will was to sign their name on it.