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Guidelines for Reading Old Documents

by Kip Sperry
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Making Sense of Scribbles
One common barrier in genealogical research is the difficulty of reading the handwriting on old documents. Handwriting expert Kip Sperry offers some tips and techniques that can help you decipher what you see.

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 Publishing Company.

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.

Fundamental Principles

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 common sense.

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 unto…" or "my last will and testament." Look for key words in probate records and wills, such as "loving wife," "legacies," or "testament."

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 old records.

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 and interpretation.

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 transcription.

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.

Book Cover - Reading Early American Handwriting 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 Publishing Company.

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