Why a witness to a document could prove dynamite to your family history


25 August 2023
Don’t ignore witnesses and family acquaintances with a different surname to your ancestor: they may reveal new relationships that you didn’t know about, as Dr Simon Wills explains...

In the determination to trace members of our own family with a particular surname, it’s easy to overlook the possible importance of people with a different surname that are associated with our ancestors.

These individuals crop up in all sorts of settings: in the same house during a census; as witnesses to marriages and legal documents; as people reporting a death; as employees; the masters of apprentices; beneficiaries in a will and so on.

A friend? A relation?

These acquaintances, for want of a better word, may be simply unrelated people connected with your family, such as friends, work colleagues and neighbours; but are they more than that? Are they relations? It’s worth investigating them because sometimes they yield valuable, or even surprising, family connections. 

Censuses quite often include other family members in the same household as the people that you are researching. Sometimes the enumerator includes a clear explanation for who these individuals are. You will see ‘uncle’, niece’ and so on to indicate their relationship to the head of the household. However, a lot of the time these relationships are missing, illegible, or unclear for other reasons. The census enumerator may use the vague word ‘visitor’ even when there is a family relationship. 

Legal records

Legal records of various kinds often include more than one member of a family, especially documents that are concerned with identifying property. Members of the same family might buy a building, land or a ship between them as an investment, and the legal papers associated with these purchases can prove interesting.

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Text extracted from an in-depth article on witness clues in the October 2023 issue of Family Tree. Get your copy here.

About the author

Dr Simon Wills is a genealogist and author with more than 30 years’ experience of researching his ancestors. He has a particular interest in maritime history and the natural world. His latest book is A History of Birds (White Owl). He is also author of The Wreck of the SS London, Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors, and How Our Ancestors Died amongst others.

Image: The Highland Family by Sir David Wilkie. Bequest of Maria DeWitt Jesup, from the collection of her husband, Morris K. Jesup, 1914 (The Met New York)