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Deciphering Old Handwriting - From a
genealogy course taught by Sabina J. Murray

Old handwriting in genealogy research

Not only have our words and their meanings changed throughout the years, the way we form the letters have too.

In order to get the most information from the records that are available, we have to decipher these records and put meaning into the symbols we see on the old documents or papers that we find.

As we read old Bible, census, courthouse, archive and Church records to obtain the names, places and dates, often we are unclear at the words before us. Also, the further back we go - the harder it is to read.

An important note to remember is that much of the writing is "phonetic." They wrote the name the best that they could by how it sounded.

This on-line tutorial will help you understand these old records better.

The Leading "s"

One of the most dramatic changes in letters has been the letter "s."

Here is a regular lower case "s" and another "s" that looks like a backward lower case "f."

Over 100 years ago the "s" was often written like a backward "f." This strange symbol for "s" was used very commonly in instances where there was a "double s." The unusual s first, called the "leading s." Then the regular s.

Sabina came across this name, early in her research experience, in the U.S. Census. She interpreted this name to be "Jefse" (after all, there are some very unusual names on these records) Later on she found out about the correct translation and felt a little foolish. The true translation is "Jesse."

Here's how the "leading s" looks in old genealogy documents

Old Style Abbreviations

Some of the writing looks like our modern day shorthand. To save paper and time, abbreviations were used often. Here are some of the things you will encounter:

Lines were often used in abbreviations. They can be found over, under and through any given abbreviation.

Smaller letters (both top and bottom) are common.

Single and double dots are used in a variety of positions.

Here are some great examples of abbreviations in old style lettering that you will find on the US Census and many other types of records:

Proper Names | Places of Birth | Occupations

Marks

When we think about someone's mark, we usually think of an "x." But, there were many different kinds.

Many of our ancestors could not write. Many of the signatures on wills and other legal documents were signed by a court clerk, while the person made his or her "mark." Even if they could write, many people still used marks.

Look at some of these examples of marks:

Marks in old handwriting

Numbers were also different.

Here is a good example of how an "8" can look much like the number "6."

Are ready to try for yourself? Try to decipher these:

Here's a genealogy document with old handwriting that you can decipher. Apply what you have learned in this lesson.

Try your skills deciphering the old handwriting on this old genealogy document.

Now you are ready to try to solve the old handwriting mystery that had Sabina stumped for many years?

This is from the will of Doctor Jonathan Eammis from Montgomery County, Georgia in 1797.

The good Doctor left his dear friend Sands Standle, his still (medicinal purposes only), a rifle, a barrel shotgun, his notes of hand, personal estate, and even his wearing apparel.

He also left Sands Standle's wife a silver watch and...

a horse named Clumse.

Here is the big mystery...

What is the name of Sands Standle's wife???

This old handwriting puzzle was presented to many experts in the genealogical field over a period of 4-5 years. No one could give Sabina an answer.

This was the only record that Sabina had found that mentioned this person's name. She wondered why the letter "t" was in the name. And it seemed that there should be a CAPITAL "T" instead of the apparent lower case letter.

How the Answer Was Found...

Sabina deciphered many documents over the years. One day she saw the letter "A" in a document that looked just like the one in the mystery name.

Here are some examples of CAPITAL "A's" that are all squished together.

She immediately made the connection to her
long time puzzle. The mystery was solved!

Here is the name again. Can you tell now?

Try to decipher this for a minute before going to the answer. Remember it took her years.

The ANSWER

About Sabina J. Murray:

Sabina J. Murray is an accredited genealogist, teacher and expert researcher based in Northeast Florida. She is a former director of a Family History Center and her old handwriting course has been enjoyed by millions since it went on-line in 1995. She has additional tutorials published on the Treasure Maps genealogy Web site at http://www.amberskyline.com/treasuremaps/ - Your resource for genealogy, family tree and family history products, research tools and other genealogy search helps.


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