A witness is somebody who has firsthand knowledge about an event. They have seen something pertaining to the event, such as the signing of a document, a birth, a marriage, a death, a crime, etc. If they have seen an event firsthand they are known as an "eye-witness."
In the case of a marriage record, the witnesses may be relatives to the bride or groom. They may be friends of either of them or perhaps somebody in the courthouse who agreed to witness the marriage by a judge. The witness may also be the wife of the minister. When considering these various possibilities, be sure you investigate the witness during the time period of the event. Taking the time to do this might reveal more information about the bride and groom.
A person who receives either real or personal property by a will, cannot witness it. That does not mean the person witnessing it is not related to the testator. They may be distant relatives. Then again they may not be relatives or even close acquaintances. Depending upon the circumstances at the time of the will, a witness might have been summoned from the community. They may be a cascual acquaintance of the testator, but were qualified to witness that he or she created the will, agreed to the terms of the will and signed it. Do not assume there is no relationship. Always go one step further and look at other area records for clues.
Once the will was brought into court for probate, one or more witnesses were asked to testify that they had actually witnessed the testator sign (or place a mark) on the document. If the witnesses were not available, somebody who was present at the time of the signing of the will, would be asked to testify that they were present and saw the testator sign or mark the will.
Do not overlook contested wills. Particularly if there was no pre-marital agreement or if descendants of the deceased were unhappy with the will, it may be contested. This will normally be done in the court (county) where it was probated. At that time the witnesses were summoned to testify and there may be more information in the court file as to their relationships.
Court records, civil and criminal, will contain documents of testimony by witnesses. They will be sworn to tell the truth. Most courts reimbursed the witnesses. There may be complete testimonies in the court records, but if not look for witness books and lists of names of witnesses. The witness testifying may provide evidence for or against the plaintiff or defendant. There may be a relationship between them.
Witnesses are shown on land records. They may be relatives, neighbors or acquaintances. If they are neighbors, did they arrive in the area at the same time? Did they have the same former location? While not a firm rule, many times in the 1800s a woman's father signed the mortgage to cover the loan for the property. He may have carried the loan.
You may see the word Jurat after the name of a witness. This means that the person swore on oath or affirmation. If they have affirmed instead of swearing on oath, this is a significant clue that they may have been Quaker. At that point you need to begin looking at Quaker records.
The legal age varied within the colonies and then within the states. However, to witness documents, normally a male had to be at least fourteen years of age and a female at least twelve years of age.
The normal death certificate, contains no place for a witness to the death, unless it was by the physician or hospital/clinical staff. The informant did not witness the birth of the person and may not have been present at the death. The information needs to be verified. In the case of deaths investigated by a coroner's jury, the records will contain depositions from witnesses. Normally they will be people or a person who was present when the death occurred. However, do not rule out the possibility that there is a relationship.
Take the time to investigate witness relationships. They may provide the clues you need, the missing link to your ancestry and are well worth the extra time.