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Tips for Reading Old Records: Handwriting, Spelling, and Boundaries

by Genealogy.com
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More Tricks for Common Obstacles
Continuing from the previous article about reading old records, this article offers tips on deciphering handwriting, spelling, and shifting geographical boundaries.

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.

Handwriting Hints

"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.

Spelling Slip-ups

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 current spelling.

Just Plain Typos

Here are a few of the more common ones to watch for:

  • Letter transpositions — "Grover" becomes "Rgover" or "Smith" becomes "Simth"
  • Adjacent letters on the keyboard — "Grover" becomes "Grober" or "Smith" becomes "Wmith"
  • Dropping a letter — "Grover" becomes "Grver" or "Smith" becomes "Smit"

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.

Bouncing Boundaries

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.


About the Author
This article was written by Genealogy.com staff.

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How-To Article: Evaluating Written and Oral Evidence
Expert tips: When is an F Really an S?
Step-by-Step Guide: Word Meanings

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