Quick tip – Did they know the witness?

You may encounter witnesses in several types of records:

When you come across witnesses, ask yourself: would this be the type of event a random person would witness? Or is the person likely to have been a close connection to the person of interest?

For example, a notary may have asked a neighbor to witness a will, but the witness may not have known the parties in the record. Civil registration records may have been witnessed by a clerk at town hall. But parents would not just pluck someone off the street to become a godparent of their child. Some records will list how the witness is related to the main parties in the record.

I have solved several cases by looking closely at the witnesses, and seeing whether their presence could indicate a close relationship. They often provide a link to the families of the parties, and may help to determine which of two or more same-named people we are looking for.

Crew member on the lookout. Credits: Willem van de Poll, collection Nationaal Archief (CC-0)


About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG® is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate certificate in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Tina Stuber says

    This is so very true! – as I’ve discovered in researching both my Dutch and my German ancestors. Thee the naming conventions, let alone patronymics- led to repetitious and sometimes confusing use of the same names.
    I’ve tracked the witnesses where they have been given and found family members: aunts, uncles and even the next generation when grandparents filled the role!

    As many of my ancestors are from the same towns, I’ve found myself spending a significant amount of time researching the in-laws-and their families- as they are often witnesses at baptisms or weddings.

    Often the brother or sister of the bride or groom marrying into my line is a witness for the wedding or a subsequent baptism or two… and (more than once!) that same brother-in-law or sister-in-law has married the brother or sister of my ancestor, further uniting the two families. This has actually helped me fill in gaps where name variations have kept me from finding the record for one or more child. Finding the missing sibling marrying into the in-law family was a circuitous route – but an amazing trail!

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