photo to help decipher old handwriting in genealogy

Deciphering Old Handwriting in Genealogy

Just about anyone who takes genealogy seriously is destined to face the challenge of reading original or microfilm copies of records written in an unfamiliar cursive style. If your research takes you back to at least the 19th century, you’ll encounter census records, wills, deeds, and multifarious other records written in old handwriting that you’ll strain to decipher. Records from the colonial period will elicit a double take if you’ve never seen them before. You’ll run into “ff” where you might expect an f,” and an “f” will actually stand for “s.” The ancient abbreviation “Maps” should be read as “Mass” for Massachusetts. The letters “U” and “V,” as well as “u” and “v,” were used interchangeably. On the whole, the following lowercase letters are most difficult to read, especially in 17th-century documents: “c,” “e,” “h,” “r,” “s,” and “t.”

Tips to Deciphering Old Handwriting in Genealogy – Abbreviations

Once you’ve figured out what the letters are, you’ll need to bone up on old abbreviations for terms in common usage today. For instance, “o.s.p.” is short for “died without issue.” “Yt” stands for “that.” “Als” signifies an “alias.” “D.v.m.” means “died while mother was living,” while “d.s.p.” also means “died without issue.” Did you know that “B.L.W.” means bounty land warrant, or that “do” was short for “ditto, or the same as above,” a notation you’ll encounter repeatedly in census records?

The challenges don’t end there. One has to learn to decipher numerals as well as letters. Even after you get familiar with a certain era’s lettering, you may find that what was conventional in 1700 is unrecognizable 50 years earlier. Then, of course, there is the problem of individual styles of writing.

Utilize Resources to Get You Going

For the novice, decoding early handwriting can be an intimidating task.

If you are a beginner, you may wish to save yourself time and headaches and get your hands on Kip Sperry’s excellent handbook, Reading Early American Handwriting. The books is the best tool we know of for teaching you how to read and understand the handwriting found in documents commonly used in genealogical research. This guide explains techniques for reading early American documents, provides samples of alphabets and letter forms, and defines commonly used terms and abbreviations. Perhaps best of all, the volume presents numerous examples of early American records for the reader to work with. Arranged by degree of difficulty, from the relatively easy-to-read documents of the 19th century to those of the 17th, the documents showcase examples of handwriting styles, letter forms, abbreviations, and terminology typically found in early American records. Each document–there are nearly 100 of them at various stages of complexity–appears with the author’s transcription on a facing page, enabling the reader to check his/her own transcription. This strategy allows the researcher to attain proficiency in reading the documents at a natural rate of progression

Ft. McHenry, War of 1812

The Forgotten War of 1812, Part I

Today and tomorrow, September 13-14, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the defense of Fort McHenry and the City of Baltimore. As most of us are taught as children, it was the defense of the fort that inspired Francis Scott Key, a Washington, D.C. attorney seeking the release of an American prisoner and watching the bombardment from shipboard, to write the poem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” that years later became our national anthem. However, beyond our national anthem, many people are hard pressed to explain anything about the War of 1812.

In an article for Slate, “Happy 200th Birthday, War of 1812! A primer on America’s most bumbling, most confusing, and most forgotten conflict” James M. Lundberg, an assistant professor of history at Lake Forest College, says it so well:

Like Avogadro’s number or the rules of subjunctive verbs, the War of 1812 is one of those things that you learned about in school and promptly forgot without major consequence.

There are plenty of reasons for this. The War of 1812 has complicated origins, a confusing course, an inconclusive outcome, and demands at least a cursory understanding of Canadian geography. Moreover, it stands as the highlight of perhaps the single most ignored period of American History—one that the great historian Richard Hofstadter described as “dreary and unproductive … an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.”

When Congress declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, the country was divided on whether or not to even fight it. The New England states that had been most affected by the offensive British practice of “impressment” seemed the least willing to pursue military action. In order to have the manpower, states put forth their own militias, whose records are a boon to genealogical researchers. Books like Virginia Militia in the War of 1812, Kentucky Soldiers of the War of 1812, Roster of Ohio Soldiers in the War of 1812, and Muster Rolls of the Soldiers of the War of 1812 (North Carolina) each contain thousands of names often with other pertinent details like rank, dates of service and where these men served.

When it came time for these militiamen to fight, the results were mixed. Some units were filled with unruly men loath to follow orders, while other units suffered from a lack of good leadership:

No one more fully embodied the pathetic state of early American military might than General William Hull, the bloated and incompetent governor of the Michigan territory charged with the initial matter of marching into Canada. Entering present-day Ontario from Detroit at the head of an ill-trained troop of 2,000 militiamen, Hull met with little initial resistance, but his triumph ended there. Upon hearing news that the British had taken Fort Mackinac at the northern tip of Michigan, Hull panicked and pulled his men back to the American fort at Detroit. When he received a bogus document warning of a vast force of Indians on the march, Hull lost it. Barely coherent, stuffing his mouth with so much tobacco that the juice ran down his face, and crouching to avoid imaginary artillery shelling, Hull yielded Detroit without any real fire from a smaller force of British Canadians and Indians. Incursions to the east didn’t go much better that fall. The war was just a few months old, and the entire Michigan territory had fallen into British hands.

Not all of the battles went as poorly as the infamous surrender of Detroit. The Battle on the River Raisin was fought in and around Frenchtown (now Monroe), Michigan from January 18 to 23, 1812, and was one of the four principal campaigns of the War of 1812 engaged in by the Kentucky forces. Following the massacre of American forces at Frenchtown – including as many as 60 Kentucky soldiers – patriots exhorted one another with shouts of “Remember the Raisin,” which gave the new nation the “vengeance-fired impetus” to wage the remaining battles of the War of 1812. The book Remember the Raisin! is a bipartite volume containing detailed biographical and genealogical sketches of nearly 100 officers and enlisted men who served on River Raisin, and complete rosters of the Kentucky soldiers who saw action there.

Please see Part II for additional discussion on the War of 1812.

Image credit: By Dr.frog at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Using family bible records in your cluster genealogy

Overcoming the Brick Wall Through Cluster Genealogy

Editor’s note: The following article, originally appearing in “Genealogy Pointers,” is excerpted from Emily Anne Croom’s book, The Sleuth Book for Genealogists: Strategies for More Successful Family History Research.

Cluster genealogy is the idea that ancestors did not live in a vacuum but in a cluster of relatives, neighbors, friends, and associates. Studying the history of one person naturally puts the researcher in contact with members of this group, as witnesses to each other’s documents, as neighbors, as in-laws, as fraternal brothers and sisters, as business partners or clients, and so forth. Our ancestors often migrated in family groups, as church congrega¬tions, or as a group of neighbors. They often lived very close to other family members. They worshipped with, went to war with, bought land from, and were buried near friends and relatives.Although we may not know the names of this group when we begin researching a focus ancestor, we must train ourselves to look for its members.

Some researchers call this the “whole family” approach or the “big picture” approach. Regardless of the name, the principle is the same: We cannot have long-term success if we limit ourselves to a one-name/one-person approach. Continue reading…

Noble Ancestry leads to the Saint in your family

Noble Ancestry Leads to the Saint in Your Family

Are you related to a saint? Would you know where to look to find out if you are? Lineage records and works on the royal or noble ancestry of Americans command the attention of researchers hoping to learn if they are descended from one of the early saints.

Since all of the 275 saints identified in Alan Koman’s 2010 book, “A Who’s Who Of Your Ancestral Saints,” are in the direct line, or are the aunts or uncles of 24 royal or noble figures possessing American descendants, the task facing the researcher is clear: Consult the accepted works of royal/noble lines to determine if your ancestry intersects to one of theirs.

A major link for many searching for their saintly ancestor is through the Order of the Crown of Charlemagne, and several books are available just for those who can trace their pedigree through these lineage records.

Noble Ancestry – More than Charlemagne

A considerable amount of literature exists on the subject of royal and noble ancestry, and you may find your relatives go back to another noble line. “Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists” describes 398 pedigrees of colonial Americans that are traced from one or more of the following ancestral lines: Saxon and English monarchs, Gallic monarchs, early kings of Scotland and Ireland, kings and princes of Wales, Gallo-Romans and Alsatians, Norman and French barons, the Riparian branch of the Merovingian House, Merovingian kings of France, Isabel de Vermandois, and William de Warenne. Continue reading…

The Ark and The Dove Adventurers

The Ark and The Dove Adventurers

On November 22, 1633, the 358-ton “Ark” and the 26-ton “Dove” departed from the Isle of Wight carrying the founders of the Maryland colony. (The “Dove,” badly damaged in a storm, returned to England for repairs before rejoining the “Ark” several months later in the Antilles.) The two ships ultimately landed at St. Clement’s Island in southern Maryland on March 25, 1634.

The 125 passengers of the “Ark” and the “Dove” sailed at the behest of Cecil Calvert, the Catholic Lord Proprietor of Maryland, who stocked the vessels with enough food and supplies to last, hopefully, for an entire year in the wilderness. At the outset, Lord Baltimore, as the proprietor was also known, expected Maryland to become a Catholic refuge for his co-religionists. In the end, he was remarkably successful in attracting far more Protestant countrymen “by offering them free land and the customary political rights that landholders in England enjoyed. Calvert also promised real religious liberty for virtually all Christians.” In fact, it was Calvert’s Maryland–and not Roger Williams’ Rhode Island–where religious freedom and the separation of church and state first gained a foothold in the New World.

Given this heritage, nearly three centuries later, in 1910, a number of descendants of Maryland’s founding families formed The Society of The Ark and The Dove in order to perpetuate the memory of its pioneers and to promote fellowship among their descendants. Over the years, the Society has encouraged research in early Maryland history and supported a variety of commemorative institutions, such as the Historic St. Mary’s City Foundation.

The book, “The Ark and The Dove Adventurers,” published under the auspices of The Society of The Ark and The Dove, is an important contribution to Maryland genealogy and history by the organization.

Edited by noted Maryland genealogists George Ely Russell and Donna Valley Russell, “The Ark and The Dove Adventurers” furnishes “documented accounts of the first settlers of Maryland in 1634, followed by compiled genealogies of their descendants, if any, extended to the fifth generation when possible.”

The first part of the book describes the family and descendants of Sir George Calvert (Cecil’s father) the first Lord Baltimore. The remainder traces the progeny of the following passengers: James Baldridge, Major Thomas Baldridge, Anam Benum, John Briscoe, William Brown, Leonard Calvert, Thomas Cornwallis, Ann Cox, William Edwin, Cuthbert Fenwick, Captain Henry Fleete, Richard Gerard, Richard Gilbert, Thomas Greene, John Hallowes, Nicholas Harvey, Richard Lowe, John Neville, Richard Nevitt, John Price, Robert Smith, Ann Smithson, Robert Vaughan, and Robert Wiseman. “The Ark and the Dove Adventurers” concludes with a list of passengers who are known not to have had descendants and some later arrivals previously and erroneously claimed as 1634 descendants.

Complete with a name index to 6,000 individuals, “The Ark and The Dove Adventurers” is the new starting point for 17th-century Maryland genealogy.

Image Credit: MIT.edu