Reading older documents takes patience and practice, as well as a bit
of know-how. In the following excerpt from Kip Sperry's Reading Early
American Handwriting, the author outlines the basics of what you need
to know to get started. In its entirety, Reading Early American Handwriting
is an excellent reference and learning tool, filled with examples and
ideas. This 287-page book is available through Genealogical
Before beginning the study of old handwriting it is important to realize
that scribes, clerks, and church clergy did not write with the intent
that researchers would be able to read their handwriting several years
later. In some cases the writer's objective may have been to create an
impressive looking document. Regardless of the motives for writing, the
scribe obviously had some latitude in using his own abbreviations, punctuation,
and writing style.
One of the most important fundamental principles in reading old handwriting
is that it is always necessary to compare: compare and match unknown
letters, characters, or doubtful words in the same document to determine
if they are the same. Compare with words on the same page, and then look
on the pages before and after the one in question. Compare with letters
and words that are familiar to you. For example, if you think a letter
looks like an i, see how the scribe makes the letter i in
other words on the same page and surrounding pages. Look through the record
to determine how the writer forms the letter(s) in question in words you
can read. Continue comparisons until you recognize the letter(s) you are
studying. Look backwards and forwards in the record for similar words
and letters. An unusual looking letter, word, personal name, or place
may occur in the record more than once.
Compare any letters in question with letters in the months of the year
or other familiar words in the record. Most of the records used by genealogists
and historians contain dates and months of the year. For example, if you
find an unusual looking letter that may be a capital A, look for
the months of April or August. Months are usually easy to read and contain
many of the letters of the alphabet.
For those just beginning to read old handwriting, start your research
in the more recent nineteenth-century handwriting and work backwards in
time toward the colonial period. This way, you will gradually become familiar
with the older handwriting and abbreviations. With some practice, you
will eventually be able to read seventeenth-century records with some
ease. For records that have been microfilmed, this usually means beginning
your research at the end of the roll if it contains more recent and easier
to read handwriting.
Read the document through at a fast pace, identifying the letters and
words you recognize. Note any unusual letters, words, or unique abbreviations,
then read it again slowly, word for word. Look for familiar words and
phrases. If necessary, read the document through a third and fourth time.
You will eventually become familiar with the scribe's handwriting style
and abbreviations. Do not spend too much time on one word. Rather, leave
the word blank and transcribe the rest of the document, then go back and
read the record for common sense. You should now be able to fill in the
missing letters, word, or words.
Be aware of spelling variations, especially in records written before
or during the Civil War, 1861-1865. There were no strict spelling rules
in America until the nineteenth century. In 1806 Noah Webster published
A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the first American
dictionary which helped define correct spellings.
Spelling was not important to early Americans. Words were often written
the way they sounded, phonetically, and often in local accents. For example,
an individual's name might be spelled two, three, or more different ways
in the same document, as is sometimes found in military records at the
National Archives in Washington, D.C. Such documents with misspelled personal
names are frequently found in Civil War pension files.
When you find you cannot decipher, place your fingers or thumbs over
the word, covering all except the letter(s) in question. In this way you
can study just one or two letters at a time and compare them with other
letters in the same document. It may be helpful to transcribe the last
letter of the word and move backward to the beginning.
Write out on a sheet of paper or note card the letters you can decipher,
or use a personal computer and leave a blank space or dash for the part
of the word(s) in question. Substitute letters, such as vowels, a,
e, i, o, and u, for the missing letter(s).
Every word has one or more vowels. Now read the sentence again for good
Guidelines for Common Phrases
It will be helpful to look for common words and phrases in old records,
and then compare letters in those phrases with words you are reading.
Wills often begin with the standard phrase, "In the name of God Amen."
Probate records may also include standard phraseology, such as "I
give and bequeath to my beloved wife," "I give and bequeath
" or "my last will and testament." Look for key
words in probate records and wills, such as "loving wife," "legacies,"
Deeds often begin with a set phrase, such as "This indenture made
this...(date)" or "This indenture made and entered into this...(date)."
Look for key words in deeds and land records, such as "appurtenances,"
"grantee," "grantor," and land description.
Other early American records may begin, "Know all men by these presents,"
"We whose names are underwritten," "To all Christian people
to whom these presents shall come, greeting," or they may include
this phrase (or similar phrase) "In witness whereof I have hereunto
set my hand and seal this (date)," or "Signed sealed and delivered
in the presence of (name)." Various words in these phrases may be
capitalized, such as "Greeting," depending on the emphasis or
style of the writer.
Court records often use similar legal phrases and standard openings.
Repetitive phrases are frequently written, especially in legal documents,
and are sometimes repeated within the same document. The same words may
be used many times over.
Become familiar with set phrases and words in order to study the handwriting.
A familiarity with such organization of words will be helpful in reading
Guidelines to Handwriting Variations and Transcribing
Sometimes a stroke, flourish, curl, swirl, squiggle, or loop was used
by the writer and may change the appearance of a letter or word. For example,
a capital L may look like a capital D. This may have occurred
on the same line, or for words above or below the word, the flourish making
the letter look like a different letter. For example, a stroke from another
word through a small l might make the letter look like a t.
The small letter d frequently had a backward flourish, sometimes
connected to another letter. Some strokes may indicate the omission of
a letter. Sometimes the ascenders or descenders are exaggerated. Ascenders
or descenders, perhaps appearing as a "curlicue" extending above
or below the writing line, may run into or connect to other letters, thus
changing the appearance of those letters.
It may be helpful to make a sample alphabet of the hand a particular
writer used. This is especially useful for difficult to read handwriting.
Trace the writing of the scribe. When you have trouble reading a word,
compare each letter with the alphabet you made. In this way you will be
able to become familiar with the writer's style of writing and abbreviations.
For difficult-to-read documents, it is recommended that you transcribe
the entire document, writing only the words and letters you can read,
then go back and fill in the missing words and letters. Read the document
for common sense and compare letters and words. It may also be helpful
to read your transcription out loud or to another person. In this way
you may be able to hear what the scribe meant to say in his writing.
It may be helpful to make a word-for-word transcription of the document
in order to study the scribe's handwriting style and abbreviations. It
is essential to transcribe the record accurately and not to omit any details.
Use footnotes where necessary to document sources and clarify your transcriptions
Guidelines for Capitalization and Punctuation
The first word in a sentence may or may not begin with a capital letter.
Likewise, words in the middle of a sentence may be capitalized. Capital
letters are often used to place emphasis on a word, for example Born,
Baptized, Married, or Died. There may be an inconsistency in the use of
capital letters. Sometimes personal names and place names (localities)
are capitalized, while other times they are not. In addition, it is common
to find proper names that begin with a lower case letter. Do not correct
capitalization as shown in the original record in your transcription.
Be on the lookout for initials that were used for given names in old
records, such as the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 U.S. population census
schedules. For example, the personal name "A.B. Smith" may be
found in a census schedule or other record. Compare and study each letter
with other words in the same record.
Punctuation may or may not be clearly seen in early American documents.
Some sentences clearly end in a period, while others do not. Punctuation
was not important to early American writers and was seldom used. Commas,
colons, and semicolons were used haphazardly. A colon (:) was often used
to denote an abbreviation. A dash (-) or equal sign (=) may frequently
be seen indicating the end of a line or an abbreviation. Note that long
dashes or other similar marks in a document are frequently ignored during
Be aware of symbols, wavy lines, and dots used for abbreviations or word
divisions. A double hyphen similar to a modern equal sign (=) may have
been used at the end of a line to divide a word carried to the next line.
Sometimes a letter or word is repeated from the ending of a line to the
beginning of the next line (which may appear on the next page), or the
equal sign (double hyphen) is repeated at the beginning of a line.
Practice is Important
Most of all, practice at reading old documents. It will greatly
improve your paleography skills. Study the handwriting carefully and evaluate
difficult words letter by letter. Practice transcribing documents for
different time periods and localities in America. Patience, practice,
and perseverance will pay off in big dividends when studying early American
handwriting. Read and interpret the documents carefully. Getting used
to old handwriting will come with experience and will become easier to
those who persevere.
"One of the major challenges facing the genealogist in any language
is learning to use and understand older language forms and handwriting
styles.... The ability to read early records develops slowly and can
only be obtained through actual experience. Do not try to absorb, in
a single reading, all of the material written in the old script or unfamiliar
[language, i.e., Spanish]. It is necessary, instead, to have available
one or two of the reference works described while attempting to read
an early record until an instinctive knowledge of the techniques develops.
"You can compensate for any deficiency in formal [foreign language]
instruction by study, patience, and a determination to understand the
records. Consulting a good beginning grammar book (and possibly one
of the quick introductory [foreign language] courses) and always having
a dictionary at hand will also help to compensate for any deficiency.
Do not be discouraged from performing research by a lack of formal training
in the [foreign] language."20
The purpose of this guidebook is to instruct the reader in reading and
interpreting early American handwriting and to provide facsimiles of documents
that may be used to practice reading and transcribing. Study each reproduction
carefully. The more experience you have in reading and understanding old
handwriting and abbreviations, the greater will be your confidence, and
genealogical research will provide you with ever greater rewards.
20 Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves
Leubking, eds., The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy,
rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997), p. 591.
||For more information about deciphering
handwriting in old documents, you may want to take a look at the full
text of Reading Early American Handwriting available through Genealogical