In Part 1 of this two-part series, we
looked at how relationship words, such as "brother" or "cousin,"
could cause confusion when you read older records. We also explored how
dates could cause similar problems. In this article, we'll show you the
possible pitfalls that come from older handwriting styles, spelling and
punctuation, and the changing boundaries of counties.
"If only the typewriter had been invented a few centuries earlier!"
That's often the cry of people trying to read older records. Old fashioned
handwriting often gives older documents charm, but it also can be difficult
to decipher. There are even some styles of handwriting that were not taught
in schools, but by notaries or others to their helpers. The secretary
hand, the court hand, the italic hand each had distinct letter
forms and abbreviations. Below are a few clues that may help you out when
facing a document with an unfamiliar style of handwriting.
First, read slowly and with care. Make sure that the words make sense,
and don't assume anything.
Watch out for double S's. The first S in a pair was often written
to look like a lower case F.
The following capital letters often look the same: I and J, L and
S, L and T, M and N, T and F, and U and V.
In addition, rounded lower case letters such as A, O, and U could
also appear identical, especially when the A or O was left slightly
open at the top or the U was almost closed at the top.
Don't forget the possibility of abbreviations. Names were abbreviated
quite often, as well as common words. For example, you may find "sd"
for "said," "decd" for "deceased," "do"
for "ditto," "chh" for "church," and
"rect" for "receipt." Double letters were often
written as single letters with a line or tilde above them. Name abbreviations
usually consist of the first three or four letters plus the last letter.
Both name and word abbreviations are normally written with the last
letter of the abbreviation raised.
If you're having trouble deciphering a word, try saying it out loud
in several different ways.
If you can, read the remainder of the sentence and try to figure
out what word would make sense.
Find other words in the document that you can read,
and use the letters in those words to piece together the letters in
the words that you can't read.
Use a handwriting book to help piece the letters together. Two books
that you can use are The Handwriting of American Records for a
Period of 300 Years, by E. Kay Kirkham and Understanding Colonial
Handwriting, by Harriet Strykker-Rodda.
If all else fails, you may need to consult a handwriting expert.
Remember, you can run into errors not only when looking at handwritten
documents, but also when you are looking at records that have been transcribed
from older original documents. When reviewing a record with an unfamiliar
handwriting style, it is important to record all the letters of the alphabet
on a sheet of paper and list the variations that you come across. This
self-training takes very little time and saves a lot of errors and forgetting.
As you read through older records, you'll often find words and names
spelled in a variety of ways, even in the same document. Even in more
recent records, you may come across typos and other inadvertent spelling
errors. While misspellings of words may only be slightly bothersome, spelling
problems related to names can make deciphering records and tracing families
difficult for today's genealogists.
Why Do Spelling Inconsistencies Exist?
First, name spellings weren't standardized several generations ago, so
many people spelled even their own name in a variety of ways. In addition,
many people couldn't write, and those who wrote for them when the need
arose sometimes had minimal spelling skills and just spelled phonetically,
writing down what they heard.
More drastic name changes often took place when a family immigrated to
the United States. The family may have Americanized its name by dropping
syllables or difficult letter combinations, translating their name to
English, or changing it completely. In addition, immigration officers
could make mistakes as well. You can find similar problems in census records
when the enumerator interviewed newly-arrived immigrants. See our excerpt
from Elsdon C. Smith's American Surnames.
He details the ways in which immigrants' names changed upon arrival to
the United States.
Finally, spelling mistakes exist simply due to human error. Record-keepers
and transcribers aren't any more perfect than the rest of us!
Problems with Pronunciation
All kinds of records were prone to spelling mishaps, including vital
records, church records, and of course the immigration and census records
mentioned above. Throughout all of these documents, the following letters
were often confused due to verbal miscommunication: B and P, D and T,
F and P, F and V, G and K, J and Y, S and Z, V and B, V and W, and W and
R, depending on the accent of the person who was saying the name and the
person who was writing it. In addition, C and S could become CH and SH.
Also, double letters, such as RR or LL, could turn into a single R or
L, and vice-versa.
Vowels were prone to change as well. I, IE, EY, and Y were often interchanged
and the same happened with O and OE, A and AY, and other similar vowel
combinations. E could be added to or dropped off of the end at will (and
the same goes for S). Vowels could also be dropped out of the middle of
a name, leaving several consonants in a row. These are all letter changes
to keep in mind when you are looking for a family name in a record set.
Let's take a look at an example.
Current spelling: Grover
Alternate spellings: Grovr, Grober, Groeber, Grower,
Krover, Krober, Kroeber, Krower, Crover, Crober, Croeber, Crower.
Try saying all of these different spellings out loud. They all sound
fairly similar, and with the right accent they could sound virtually identical.
You might want to try the same exercise with some of your family names.
The idea is to find new spellings of a surname that sound similar to the
Just Plain Typos
Here are a few of the more common ones to watch for:
- Letter transpositions "Grover" becomes "Rgover" or "Smith"
- Adjacent letters on the keyboard "Grover" becomes "Grober"
or "Smith" becomes "Wmith"
- Dropping a letter "Grover" becomes "Grver" or "Smith" becomes
Word spellings most often are just an inconvenience, but changes in name
spellings are much more significant. It is important to keep different
possible name spellings in mind when you are researching, so that you
don't overlook records that might refer to your family.
Many cities, counties, and states didn't always have the names that we
associate them with today. For example, New Amsterdam is now called New
York City. In addition, the boundaries of a city, town, county, or country
may have changed over time. Your ancestors may have moved to another county
without ever packing their bags!
It is boundary changes that can make locating your ancestors' records
difficult, because the records almost always stayed in their original
location the county seat of the parent county. This means that
if a boundary change caused your ancestors to make a "move" that you don't
know about, you may be looking in the wrong place for their records. You
may also find it difficult to locate someone born in a territory before
it became a state a person's records could be in any one of the
states that that territory became.
In short, it may be helpful to learn the history of boundary changes
in the area where you suspect that your ancestors lived. Three good books
for learning about boundary changes are George B. Everton's The Handy
Book for Genealogists, 8th edition, William Thorndale and William
Dollarhide's Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790 to 1920,
and Alice Eichholz' Ancestry's Red Book.