You may encounter witnesses in several types of records:
- Baptismal records
- Church marriage records
- Aldermen’s court marriage records
- Civil registration records of births, marriages, and deaths
- Notarial 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.