Tuesday, October 14, 2014

They Witnessed our Family History - Witnesses as Sources of Information

They Witnessed our Family History

Image in The Public Domain ©©

Our ancestors did not live in isolation. Just about every significant event in their lives was witnessed by other people. Births were witnessed, Godparents acted as witnesses for babies of family and friends, when our forebears married, their ceremonies required witnesses to the occurrence and death certificates and other legal documents were required to be witnessed. Other family events which are likely to have been witnessed include divorces, wills, applications to purchase land, immigration and naturalisation records. Even criminal ancestors employed witnesses to testify to their character in court appearances, (usually in the desperate hope that they might avoid punishment). Witnesses were an important part of our ancestors' lives. 

Witnesses at the Trial of suspected Salem Witch Mary Wolcott Image Wikimedia©©

Our past, our history and our family history has been well witnessed and the names and testimonies of witnesses are a valuable legacy for us to explore. The significance of these testimonies is much greater than merely names on paper. People who certified our ancestors' legal documents and witnessed their meaningful life moments, were often people who were close to them. They were   family friends or relations - brothers, sisters, parents or cousins. Often witnesses will be the people, when researched, who provide crucial evidence for, or hold vital clues to, unraveling family stories. It is well worth not overlooking the people who personally witnessed our ancestors' lives as a source of information about our ancestors.

The names of witnesses can assist in confirming the identity of an ancestor. This can be especially helpful when you have a forebear with a common name.  Researching the people who witnessed important events in your ancestors' lives can add 'meat to the bare bones' of their stories. In the following examples, I hope to show how researching those who witnessed the lives of my own ancestors has significantly augmented my understanding of their life stories.

Mary Williams - Witness Mary Bird

I have never found a marriage certificate for my third great grandparents, convict Michael Frayne and Mary Williams. I suspect that they were never legally married. Mary stated on several documents that she was born in Singleton, in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales in about 1845, however, I have been unable to find evidence of her birth in Singleton nor a marriage to Michael Frayne. I have a marriage certificate for Michael Frayne and his first wife Bridget Donelly on February 8, 1858 at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney. Bridget Frayne died in Singleton on August 29, 1864.

In 1861, in Singleton, a woman named Mary Williams married a James Buckley. I have determined this to be my Mary Williams by process of elimination. Her mother Mary Bird gave consent for her daughter, a minor to marry. Although my Mary's parents are reported to be Mary Kelly and Joseph Williams, I believe Mary Bird and Mary Kelly to be one and the same person. In  March, 1865, Mary Williams gave birth to a son named Michael. Again, the witness was a Mary Bird so I know that this Mary Williams is the same person who married James Buckley four years before having a son in her maiden name. Since James Buckley was alive in 1865, I must assume that this child was not his. There is a world of difference, however,  between believing and proving beyond doubt that you have the correct ancestor. Witnesses can provide evidence or they can provide clues. In this case I found significant clues in a news article of 1864. It is not evidence but it affords an enticing new line of research for me.

A news article in The Maitland Mercury and  Hunter River General Adviser on Thursday 25th August 1864, reveals that Michael Frayne was charged with a breach of the Publican's Act, for allowing disorderly conduct to take place in his licensed public -house. A witness claimed that I saw four women there in the parlour, one was lying drunk on the sofa and another was a little the worse for liquor. This witness suggested that at least one of the women was a prostitute. A second witness, Fanny Dawson countered this evidence by stating that she herself was at Mr Frayne's house last Saturday evening; a girl named Betsy Bird was there, also Mrs Buckley and Ruth Rose. They were not drunk. 

As soon as I read this news item several names stood out immediately, those being Buckley and Bird. These were both surnames on the certificates I had collected. Mary Bird was the witness to the birth of a baby boy to a Mary Williams in March of 1865. Mary Bird was also named as a witness and significantly, the mother of Mary Williams on the occasion of her marriage to James Buckley in 1861. A likely synopsis begins to materialise.....If my two time great grandmother Mary Williams married James Buckley, there is a distinct possibility that she was the same Mrs Buckley in the news item, stated to be present in the public house of Michael Frayne, especially as searching has failed to find any other Mrs Buckley in the area in 1864. My hunch is that Betsy Bird may have been Mary's step or half sister. It is entirely plausible that Mary, then with the married name of  Buckley, was acquainted with Michael Frayne just prior to the death of his wife Bridget in 1864, Coincidentally, or not, she gave birth to a baby named Michael (no father named) whilst still legally married to James Buckley in 1865. Of course it may just be a strange coincidence that my 3 times great grandfather's name was Michael.... and it is still just in the 'hunch' stage of research but......Since Mary Buckley (Williams) did not divorce her husband James and there no record of his death, then this would account for there existing no marriage record for my three times great grandparents. Mary would have still legally been married to James Buckley. It could also feasibly be the reason that Michael and Mary left Singleton and went to live in Brisbane, Queensland as 'husband and wife', before their daughter and my great great grandmother Sarah was born in 1868.

The incidence of the surnames Bird and Buckley appearing in connection with Michael Frayne could in fact be coincidence, but at the very least, the appearance of the names of people who witnessed an episode in my third great grandfather's life, has presented significant incentive for further research.... and in the meantime, I have a most intriguing speculation!

Mary Bird witness to the marriage of Mary Williams and James Buckley

Edward Joseph Weston -Witness Christopher Bauer

Edward Joseph Weston is my great great grandfather on my maternal side of my family tree. He married Sarah Frayne, the daughter of the same Michael Frayne and Mary Williams mentioned above. Edward Weston was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, to Edward Weston and Mary Ann Turner. After the death of his father, young Edward aged 10, with his mother left England in 1870, bound for Maryborough, Queensland. They arrived on board the ship, Flying Cloud in August 1870. 

From a letter to Edward, 'Teddy' from his Aunt Ann Manton Weston in London, it seems that Mary either traveled to Australia with the intention to marry, or that she met her future husband soon after arriving in their new homeland. Aunt Ann Weston, in her letter, sent after September 5, 1870, instructed 'Teddy' to be a good boy for the man soon to be his new father. The name of Mary Ann's future husband was not mentioned in the letter (I often wish that my ancestors  were more forthcoming in the information they provided....) and despite a search for a marriage using both Mary Ann's maiden name of Turner and married name Weston no marriage was found.

Edward Weston is a reasonably common name, so when searching the digitalised newspapers on the National Library of Australia's website, TROVE, I limited my search to Queensland and Maryborough, where I knew the family had resided. My search resulted in numerous news accounts regarding the name Edward Weston which gave me cause to believe that my ancestor's name appeared in the newspaper quite regularly with regard to court appearances. My family were not the only Westons in Maryborough, however, and Edward himself was most unhelpful in never using his middle name, so when I found the name Edward Weston reported in the Maryborough Chronicle, I had no evidence that this person was in fact, my great great grandfather until I discovered someone who witnessed first hand Edward's misfortunes.

The compelling clue which enabled me to verify that the news reports I had found on Trove, were related to my two times great grandfather, appeared in the form of a witness named Christopher Bauer. The man named Bauer appeared more than once as a witness for Edward Weston  when he was charged with various offences. Then with good fortune, one single news report generously informed me that the witness, Christopher Bauer, was Edward's step-father! If I could prove a marriage between Edward's mother Mary Ann and Christopher Bauer, I would have the evidence to prove that this was my seemingly wayward Weston ancestor.

By searching marriages under the groom's name of Bauer, I discovered that a Mary Ann 'Thorner' had married German born Christopher Bauer on December 2, 1870, four months after arriving in Maryborough. Her parents were named as Joseph and Mary Turner, which were the names of my Mary Ann's parents  and her birthplace and year was the same also in Ipswich, Suffolk, England. There was no doubt that I had found my Mary Ann's marriage. Despite a letter from England indicating that Mary Ann was to marry, the marriage had been difficult to find because her maiden name was misrecorded as Thorner instead of Turner.

Edward, it appears, was a touch too fond of the drink. He was employed as a general labourer, in various capacities, which was somewhat in contrast to his Weston ancestors who were generations of London doctors in Middlesex, London. He appeared too frequently in the Maryborough and other district courts, charged with drunkenness and assault under the influence, and his witness was usually his step-father. A patient man it appears was Christopher Bauer, even reported to have visited the home of one of Edward's assault victims, George Pitt, who was not happy with the attention young Edward Weston was paying to his daughter. Poor Christopher, on this occasion,  was beaten with a fence paling, by Pitt, and all three men ended up in court. Patience had worn thin by the time Edward was 29 and his step father appears to have reached his limits with the incorrigible step son. On July 20, 1883, Christopher Bauer had his step son charged with ungentlemanly language almost amounting to threats, according to the Maryborough Chronicle, which reported the trial. Edward's Witness had turned accuser however, he had provided me with all the evidence I needed to significantly enhance my  story of my great great grandfather's early years. It also went a long way towards explaining he reason that his son Fraser left him at the Goodna Mental Aylum (which treated alchoholism) in 1925 with no contact or forwarding address!

There are references to court appearances for one Edward Weston after his marriage to Sarah Frayne, for use of obscene language and drunkeness, however, without the known name of a witness I cannot verify that this is my great great grandfather (although his reputation by now has preceded him well and truly.. so I have my strong suspicions and little doubt!)

Edward Joseph Weston ©

Christiana Siegler and Gottlieb Nerger - Witness Johan George Haug

Christiana Siegler, born 18th December, 1840, in Beutelsbach, Baden-Weurttemberg, Germany, is my third great grandmother. Christiana arrived in Brisbane, Queensland on board the La Rochelle on August 15,  1863 with her 17 year old brother Gottlob. On the 19th of September, just a little over a month  after her arrival in Australia, Christiana Siegler married Prussian born Gottlieb Nerger in 1863, in Drayton, Queensland. Gottlieb had arrived in 1852 aboard the Caesar Godeffroy and was a good deal older than Christiana. Since the birth date of my great great grandfather, John Gottlieb Nerger, was January 9, 1964, only four months after Gottlieb and Christiana married, it is apparent that Christiana was pregnant when she arrived in Australia. Gottlieb and Christiana are unlikely to have known each other previously since they did not originate from the same place, so the question sat unanswered.... how did they meet and marry so quickly? It was only after researching the witnesses of the marriage, that I was able to fill in the missing chapter of this story. One of the witnesses was a Johan George Haug. Investigating in more depth,  I discovered that Johan Haug arrived in Brisbane, Queensland in 1855 from Germany. Johan was a schaefer or shepherd, as was Gottlieb Nerger and as both German speaking shepherds settled in Drayton on the Darling Downs within a few years of each other, they would certainly have become acquainted. The crucial piece of inforamtion which explained how Christiana and Gottlieb met was that Johan George Haug came to Australia from the same village in Germany as Christiana Siegler lived in with her family. The next thing to examine was the possibility that he knew the Siegler family.

A search of the passenger list from the ship,  La Rochelle, on which Christiana and her brother Gottlob Sigler aged 17, travelled, shows Johan's wife Friederike and their two sons, Johan Heorge Jnr and Rahel journeying to accompany their husband and father in Australia. Accompanying Mrs Haug on the ship was Christiana and her brother Gottlob Sigler who were travelling alone. Christiana's parents, Johannes and Anna Siegler had lost five of their eight chldren so perhaps they believed that their two elder children could begin a better life in Australia. One daughter, Pauline Margarethe remained behind in Beutelsbach, too young to travel. Christiana's parents had been applying to immigrate to America for some time but had not been successful.

In 1862, the year prior to her journey to Australia, Christiana Sigler gave birth to a baby girl, Sophie Johanna who lived only a short time. This also could have been the motivation for sending their daughter to Australia for a new life. Armed with this knowledge, naturally my mind has been spinning with possibilities. Was Christiana having an affair with a married man in the small village the family lived in? Did her family consider her suitor unsuitable? With the information I discovered through this witness, it is feasible to surmise that the Siegler family asked Mrs Haug to supervise their 22 year old daughter during the long voyage to Australia with her 17 year old brother. Perhaps Friederike Haug herself, suggested that the older Siegler children accompany her to the new land where her husband had spent three years making a new life for his family. Christiana would have undoubtedly been regarded as help for Mrs Haug with her children during the long voyage. The passenger manifest for this journey made by the La Rochelle shows the Haugs and Sieglers travelling together and with this connection established between the Haug and the Siegler families in Beutelsbach, it is not inconceivable that Johan Haug arranged a marriage between Christiana Siegler and Gottlieb Nerger. Did Mrs Haug know that the young woman had fallen pregnant either on the voyage or just prior to leaving Germany? I will never know the exact details of the situation, however, I have the threads of a story to expand upon, purely because I researched Johan George Haug who acted as a witness to the marriage of my three times great grandmother, Christiana Siegler and Gottlieb Nerger.

[A son, my two times great grandfather, named, John (Johan) Gottlieb Nerger was born in Drayton, on January 9, (my birthday), 1864 and was claimed by Gottlieb to be his own child. The couple had two more children, George (probably named for Johan George Haug) and Hermann, before Gottlieb's untimely death along with his baby son Hermann, at the Gympie Gold Fields in September 1869] 

John Gottlieb Nerger 9/01/1864

William White: Witnesses Thomas White and John Watters

Searching for the Wills of ancestors can be challenging if they possessed a common name. The Will of Esther Drusilla Lloyd was simple to locate thanks to her uncommon middle name, however, finding her husband William Lloyd's last testimony was  more challenging.  Unless you know an address or some identifying information about an ancestor, then searching for the Will of Tom Jones or William Williams, is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. When I searched the Will Calendars on the PRONI website for a Will for my great great grandfather William White, I did not know when he had died or whether he has died in Londonderry or County Tyrone. It was only was the name of one Witness to his Will which identified him from the many William Whites who wrote a Last Will and Testimony in Northern Ireland. Without the crucial name of a witness which I recognised, I would not have been able to prove that I had the correct document. The only information I had was the name William White (from his son Hugh's marriage certificate) and a few family stories. I had no names for any other children besides my great grandfather, Hugh, and not even a name for William's wife.

While I was growing up, my paternal grandmother Jemima Florence McDade (White) , was fond of telling me stories about her childhood on the family flax farm in Brookend, County Tyrone. As a child, I was completely mesmerized by her tales. Unfortunately, among the anecdotes of near drownings in flax bogs and other more exciting adventure tales that were my preference, I neglected to notice the names of any ancestors. When I discovered that my grandmother's father, Hugh Eston White had been born in County Derry, and not Tyrone as I had believed, I had no way of knowing whether my White ancestry originated in Londonderry or Tyrone. The only story of my grandmother's that remained fixed in my memory and which included any names, was one which told me that ' two generations of Whites had married two generations of Watters.' This story included only the first names Anna White and John Watters.

Through my blog I had been contacted by a Watters relative from Tamnavalley in County Tyrone, who informed me that both his mother and grandmother had been Whites who married into his County Tyrone Watters family. His parents were in fact, the same Anna White and John Watters that my grandmother had mentioned. This person and I had no way of really understanding exactly how we were related however, other than that my White family had married into his Watters family. He did not know much of the White family history so I still did not know whether my twice great grandfather, William White had ever lived in County Tyrone. But I did discover that it was my grandmother's first cousin Anna White who had had married John Watters.

My task thus was to read possibly all of the 127 Wills written by men named William White in Northern Ireland, within the time frame in which I was searching, in the hope that I would find a Will for my own William. On page six of the results in my PRONI Wills Calendar search for William White, and in the fifty-second Will I opened and read, I found a name of a Witness to the Will which literally jumped off the page!  As I read the following words, 'my son in law John Watters of Tamnavalley', I knew I had struck GOLD. Even William's naming of his son Hugh in the Will would have been insufficient information for me to identify him, since Hugh's unusual middle name of Eston was not mentioned. As Hugh was unmarried at the time of his father's death no spouse's name was included. I knew from my new Watters cousin in County Tyrone, that the Watters family lived in Tamnavalley so the name of this Witness was all I needed to verify that the Will was written by my great great grandfather, William White.

My great great grandfather's Will named all of his children, their spouses, their places of abode in Northern Ireland, Canada and the USA and even gave me names of grandchildren. I have since gone on to research all of the people mentioned in the Will and prove beyond doubt that I have the correct Will. The Will itself, was a treasure trove of information and but for the name mentioned to me as a child, of John Watters, and his witnessing of the Will of my great great grandfather, his father in law, I might never have found a wealth of information about my twice great grandfather, William White of Brookend, County Tyrone who married a County Londonderry girl and lived in Magherafelt, Derry where my great grandfather Hugh was born in 1866.

Hugh Eston White, son of William White ©

The people who knew your ancestors can be crucial keys to unlocking their stories. One can never overestimate the importance of the people who witnessed ancestors' real life events. These folk were there, on the spot, acting as eye witnesses to many important details regarding day to day occurrences and significant events in your ancestors' lives. They are sometimes the only people who can  reveal significant extracts of your family history.

The Peasant Wedding Peter Breugel the Elder Image Wikimedia ©©


  1. Those people on the sidelines are important in any game.

    Thanks for this bumper post and the examples that illustrate your point so well.

  2. Great post Sharn...those FANs strike again! We need to ensure we record the witnesses to events, not just the primary players.

  3. I love looking into witnesses too Sharn, I've still got lots to go but some of those I have researched have turned up a few surprises and answered a few questions.

  4. Nice post Sharn and witnesses are important but so often overlooked

  5. Excellent post. I'm hoping that witnesses on parish registers (marriages) will be the vital clue in my research on the MATTHEW and ASHTON families in North Yorkshire. On a different note... I did a local history study some years ago, and I was given many birth certificates for a particular country town in Queensland - and on many of them the witness's name was the same. I later confirmed that she was the local midwife.

  6. G'day, I enjoyed this post which I have included in GeniAus' Gems this week at http://geniaus.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/gags-geniaus-gems-24-october-2014.html

  7. All this lovely research has brought back memories of the old Australian Marriage Witness Index and all the volunteers who contributed information whenever they bought a Marriage Certificate. I can't find a link to it but even though it would not be a complete list of witnesses I should image it could be a help to some people in identifying friends of ancestors.