Originally printed online at www.ancestry.com on 7/16/2003
Words can get us into trouble in more ways than one. This week we look at some terms that can easily cause genealogists to make incorrect interpretations.
A witness usually is only indicating that he saw a person sign a document and that the witness knew whom the person signing the document was. The witness usually should have no direct interest in the document being witnessed and should not be a beneficiary of the document's content or intent. Witnesses may be related to the individual actually signing the document. They may also just be other warm bodies that happened to be nearby when your ancestor signed his will or signed a deed. If the same witness appears on a series of documents for your ancestor over a period of time, then there might have been more of a connection between the witness and your ancestor, so the witness should be researched. But witnesses do not have to be related to the person signing a document.
Appraisers of an Estate
Appraisers of an estate do not have to be related either. Appraisers are typically appointed by the court official charged with handling estate cases. Your ancestor's estate might have been appraised. Appraisers are not to be heirs to the property, but there's no rule that they have to be brothers or cousins either. They could also very well be neighbors who the judge considered honest and reputable enough to make a fair appraisal.
Bondsmen are sometimes confused with witnesses, but there is a significant difference, both legally and genealogically. Family historians frequently encounter marriage bonds, guardianship bonds, executors' bonds, and administrators' bonds. The first type of bond (a marriage bond) serves a slightly different purpose from the other three, but there are similarities among all four. A bond is generally a contract that spells out specific duties or responsibilities of the person signing the bond. Penalties may result if the specific duties or responsibilities mentioned in the bond are not faithfully carried out.
An individual who signs a marriage bond is typically indicating that the person for whom they are signing the bond has no legal impediment to marriage. If it turns out that the marrying party was not legally able to get married (because they lied about their age, marital status, etc.), the person signing the bond may have to pay a fine. Consequently the person signing the marriage bond for the marrying party should have reasonably good knowledge of the person and their past. It is not always the father that signs the marriage bond.
Guardianship, executor, and administrator bonds are similar in purpose. They are drawn up to guarantee (as much as possible) that the guardian of a minor or the executor or administrator of an estate does not abscond with the money and leave bills unpaid. If the actual executor does leave town, the individual who signed the bond will be left holding the bag and will be legally responsible for the settlement of the estate.
Signing someone's bond and being a bondsman creates a potential legal obligation if the person for whom the bond is signed does not "act the way they are supposed to act." As a consequence, bondsmen are likely to be fairly well acquainted with the person for whom they are signing the bond—often they are related to the person. For this reason, names of bondsmen are always good genealogical clues.
"My Now Wife"
A will may use the phrase "I give my farm, the "Worthless Eighty," to my now wife or her heirs." Does this mean the testator had more than one wife? No. This wording is used as a preventative measure.
Let's look at what might happen if "my now wife" is not used.
Henry's will specifies that the "Worthless Eighty" is to go to his wife. Her name is not written into the will. She is the mother of several children with Henry. This wife dies and Henry marries SusieQ, who already had two children. Henry dies. The will says the farm goes to the "wife." SusieQ inherits the property and the farm goes to her children. Henry's children get left out.
If Henry's will had said "my now wife" or her heirs, then his first wife's children (Henry's children) would have inherited the property. To prevent potential stepchildren from inheriting instead of the biological children, the phrase "my now wife" is used.
The "my now wife" phrase really is a contingency phrase in the will—just in case a future marriage takes place and the will does not get rewritten.
While our ancestor may have been late for his own funeral, the use of this word does not always mean "tardy" or even "deceased." In many legal documents, the word "late" should be interpreted as "formerly." A deed may indicate that John and Susan Smith are late of Adams County, Ohio. This use of the word late simply means that the couple formerly lived in Ohio. If a reference is to the "late John Smith," then John is likely dead. "Late of Adams County," however, typically indicates a former residence.
Enumeration District Versus Registration District
Enumeration districts are districts used in the enumeration of the census. The borders of these districts typically follow either civil township or city ward lines.
Registration districts were used in draft registration and possibly for other uses as well. The borders of registration districts may follow county, township, or ward boundaries, or they may not. Registration district boundaries do not necessarily coincide with enumeration district boundaries. The districts were created for different purposes, either for counting people or for registering them for the draft. Do not confuse the two.
For U.S. censuses 1880 and after, relationships to the head of household are listed. Keep in mind that these relationships are only to the head of the household. Children of the head of the household may not necessarily be children of the wife in the household. Nor are all relationships listed in the census correct. The census taker could have made a mistake, or your ancestor might have lied.
Grantor, Grantee, Mortgagor, Mortgagee
These land record terms are frequently confused.
Grantor — one who sells the land
Grantee — one who purchases the land
Mortgagor — one who is borrowing money against land
Mortgagee — one who lends money against land
Do not incorrectly interpret something because you got your "ee's and or's" mixed up.
For Further Reference
Here are a few references for additional terms and phrases:
Black, Henry Campbell. Black's Law Dictionary (For genealogical purposes an old edition will suffice and can easily be picked up on eBay.)
Drake, Paul. What Did They Mean by That? A Dictionary of Historical
Terms for Genealogists. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, Inc., 2000.
Szucs, Loretto and Sandra H. Luebking, editors. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, 2nd edition. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998.
Evans, Barbara Jean. The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians. 3rd ed. Alexandria, Va.: Hearthside Press, 1995.
The bottom line is, if you do not know what it means—look it up. Incorrect interpretations may waste a significant amount of time and money.
(c) 2012 Michael John Neill