Witnesses as clues to relationship

The witnesses to an event, can be the clues we need to break through a brickwall

Everyone who search for ancestors in Norway notices and sometimes despair at the many similar names that appeare in the records. Things does not get easier as they changed their last part of the identification information (the farm name) when they moved from one place to another. You might want to have a look at my articles about Norwegian naming and Norwegian renaming.

In the older christening records often only the father’s name was recorded. If there were several persons in the area with the same or similar name, recording witnesses to an event can give us valuable clues to find the right parents.

Lets look at the words used to indicate witnesses to an event.

Witnesses to a christening (daap/dåp) is in the records recorded as sponsores (abbr: spons.), testes (abbr: test. or t.) or the more modern faddere (abbr: fadd., fad. or f.).


Witnesses to an engagement (trolovelse) or wedding (ægteskabsinngåelse) were recorded as cautionister/cautionistre (abbr: caut.), forløfningsmænd or forlovere.

So, what should we be looking for?

I look for

  • Same or similar first names. If a witness have the same name as the child, could it be a grandparents who is renamed? With a girl it could also be the mother.
  • Same patronyms. Could the witness be a sibling of one of  the parents? I have also seen (adult) persons being the witness at a younger sibling’s christening.
  • First names matching the patronym of the parents? The witness could be one of the parents’ father.
  • Farmname. If it is the same farmname it could be a relative. Often we find neighbours as witnesses. If one or more of the witnesses are living at a farms far from where the parents live, I tend to ask why this particular person travels this far to witness this child’s christening?

When it comes to geography, you may want to take a look at my articles Norwegian place names and Norwegian farm structure.

In order to sort out the witnesses we may have to put in some work looking at the area around the family in question. I think it is worth putting in the extra work to be able to get through a brick wall. Besides, looking at the people living in the area may bring up interesting information we hadn’t thought of looking for.

This is one of my forefathers. Let us say that there are a number of Knut Knutsons in the area and you don’t know which one it is.

Rasmus Knutson Korsnes, son of Knut Knutson Kjellstad and Ingeborg Monsdotter Muldal, was born in 1794 in at Korsnes, Norddal Prestegjeld, was christened on 15 Jun 1794 in Norddal Kirke, Norddal Prestegjeld,
Witnesses at Rasmus’ christening was Knut Knutsen Rønneberg, Mons Monsson Muldal, Lars Kristensen Ytterli, Anne Kristoffersdatter Hallstad, Anne Pederdatter Muldal and Laurense Monsdatter Muldal

Here are Ingeborg and her siblings:

i. Femia Monsdotter Muldal was born in 1752.
ii. Mons Monsson Muldal was born in 1755 
iii. Ingebrigt Monsson Muldal was born in 1757.
iv. Ingeborg Monsdotter Muldal was born in 1759
v. Laurentze Monsdotter Muldal was born in 1760
vi. Peder Monsson Muldal was born in 1763 and died before 1779
vii. Peder Monsson Muldal was born in 1766

Looking at the witnesses we see that Mons Monsson Muldal and Laurentse Monsdotter Muldal are Ingeborg Monsdotter Muldal’s siblings. It is then fair to assume that Rasmus’ father is the Knut Knutson who is married to Ingeborg Monsdotter Muldal. Anne Pedersdotter Muldal is a living at neighbouring farm from where Ingeborg Monsdotter Muldal grew up. I find no family relations between them, so they might have be friends since childhood. Further research might reveal relationship with the other witnesses.

I am using this case only as an example as the names of both the parents were recorded at Rasmus’ christening.

It was not uncommon for cotters to ask members of the household of their landlord to be witnesses at their children’s christening. This is the case with my Great-Grandfather Rasmus Knutson Vestnes where the landlord, his wife and two daughters were among the witnesses. Sometimes the child might be renamed after the landlord or someone in his household to honor them.

When my Great-Grandmother Karoline Elise Olsen was born in 1872, her father Markus Olsen was building a fishing vessel (bankskøyte) in Ålesund. Among the witnesses to Karoline’s christening we find the buyer of the vessel. The other witnesses were merchants and wifes of merchants in Ålesund. None of them relatives of Karoline’s family. I suspect this was a way for Markus Olsen to establish or strengthen business relations.

Witnesses to a wedding can be harder to track. In many of the older records the witnesses were not recorded. Sometimes the witnesses were recorded at the bethroal and left out in the wedding record.

I would say, in very general terms, that the older the record, the more likely the wedding witness was a relative. It was often the father, an uncle or a brother of the bride or groom.  This changed over time, until the last part of the 1800’s where it was quite common to ask a friend to be witness.

The traditions regarding who should be the wedding witnesses varies a lot, both in time and geography.

As we see, looking at the witnesses might point us in the right direction if we have problems with establishing a relationship. We should however, be careful not read to much into neither renaming nor the choice of witnesses. I have, on a couple of cases, seen genealogists, based on the choice of name and witnesses, suggest a father, other than the one recorded in the church books. I find this highly speculative and often a pitifull atempt to give the child a more interesting ancestry.

If you have views, experiences or questions, please comment below or send me a mail by going to the contact page. 

3 thoughts on “Witnesses as clues to relationship

  • May 18, 2017 at 2:21 am

    This is an important article. For years, I did not pay attention to the witnesses names. Now that I am a little better informed, whenever I have a reason to go back to a baptismal record, I work really hard to try and read the names of the witnesses and have discovered a lot of interesting things including the fun fact that family members from other places sometimes traveled to be at the home for the birth and baptism. It adds a little human touch to the list of names to think about that.


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