The Challenge of Handwriting

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

My experience with handwriting anomalies began “at home” where both my mother and my grandfather, in writing a capital “C,” used a figure that looked sort of like a G-clef, without the curlicue at the bottom. This letter “C” was certainly not like any I practiced in my first grade classroom, where the “Palmer Method” cursive alphabet cards were posted around the top of the room (Have I given away my age? Do they even teach penmanship anymore?)

Over the past three years of writing this blog, I have, on several occasions, shared with you the fact that I’m not fond of colonial research. I think my difficulty with this period began when, as a relative newcomer to Virginia research, I experienced its dark side in the guise of Surry County deed records. It was not enough that the handwriting required intense concentration and study to decipher; in addition, the paper is such that both sides of the document can be read (or at least viewed) simultaneously, from a single side of the page. Many years later, I still shudder at the recollection.

Since experiencing that frustration, however, I have learned techniques and resources to help with difficult handwriting, regardless of historical period. Kip Sperry, in his Reading Early American Handwriting (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008), defines paleography as “the study of early handwriting, or the rules of reading old handwriting” and states that it is an “essential element in genealogical and historical research.” In recognition of that importance, here are five strategies that, if practiced, will help you experience success while reading documents with difficult handwriting.

1.       Be familiar with specific types of documents. Documents such as deeds and wills contain what is known as “boiler plate language,” reasonably standardized language that appears in most documents with the same function or purpose. This language may include such phrases as “In the name of God, Amen,” “An indenture made this (date),” and “In witness thereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal,” and “Signed, sealed and delivered in the presence of,” among others. Knowledge of such phrases will help you read words in context and will help you determine a word simply by its placement within the expected wording of the type of document you are reading. Such boiler-plate language may vary by geographical area, so knowledge of the standardized content that is used in your research area will help you to identify the handwriting quirks of the county clerk (or even the census enumerator) drafting the document. Remember, that clerk was not writing with you in mind!

2.       Know surnames in your research area. It is particularly important to know the surnames prevalent in the geographical area in which you are researching. Some years ago I was compiling marriage bond entries for my Princess Anne County, Virginia, Marriage Bonds 1822-1850 (Willow Bend Books, 1997). In doing so, I read multiple documents written by the same county clerk over several decades and became quite familiar with his handwriting. However, if I had not known that the Land family was prominent in Princess Anne County, I would have transcribed entries for this family as “Sand,” given the clerk’s style of writing a capital “L” and “S.” I believe that a large percentage of those frustrating indexing problems that we all-too frequently encounter when the indexer is unfamiliar with the locality and the names of prominent families.

3.       Consult published abstracts, transcriptions, and gazetteers. When you encounter a letter, word, or phrase that is difficult to read, compare what you think is correct with what others have used when abstracting or transcribing the same document and/or locality. Remember not to accept any published version at face value. Always use the information as a suggestion, analyzing the information and comparing it with the original document. I frequently index for and as an arbitrator, have sometimes wondered what was going through an indexer’s mind when they entered the data! Maps and gazetteers will assist you in identifying place names correctly. If at all possible, consult a map or gazetteer drawn or published as contemporaneously with your document as possible.

4.       Compare unrecognizable letters. If you encounter a letter that is not readily recognizable, look throughout the page to see if you find the same letter in a word that you can recognize. If you don’t find an example on the first page, look on previous or following pages. (Please note that this technique works for documents of any time period.) Remember as well that spelling and capitalization did not begin to be standardized until the nineteenth century.

5.       Create a “cheat sheet.” After you have successfully identified a letter, trace that letter onto a separate sheet and indicate what letter it represents. Add to this list with each letter that you identify within a document, or if you are reading a series of documents by the same writer, keep a list for that individual. I once transcribed an eighteenth-century English will for a friend. Written in what is known as “court hand,” it took me many readings to decipher several of the letters. The clerk’s “e,” “c,” and “r” all looked quite similar. Once I could predict which letter was which, my transcription became much easier. You will also want to include numerals (was that a “4” or a “6”?) as well as abbreviations on your list.

I highly recommend Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting for your personal research library (and if you are a librarian, for both your circulating and genealogy/reference collections). In addition to methodologies and an extensive bibliography, the main portion of the book offers a lengthy series of two-page spreads in which the left hand page reproduces an original hand-written document and the facing, right-hand page provides an accurate transcription of the text. These examples are very helpful.

A variety of other resources will help you decipher difficult handwriting:

English Handwriting 1500-1700: An Online Course

Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman (Avotaynu, 1994). This title provides the alphabet and various documents in German, Swedish, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian).

Old German Handwritten Scripts. When you access this site, the information is in German. If you do not read German, scroll down to the bottom of the left hand navigation bar to the heading “In anderen Sprachen” and click on the word “English” to translate the site.

Scottish Handwriting, 1500-1700, a Self-Help Pack (Scottish Record Office, 1994)

Understanding Colonial Handwriting by Harriet Stryker-Rodda (Genealogical Publishing Co., repr. 2007).

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