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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: When is an F Really an S?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Rhonda is taking a break this week, so this week's
column features highlights from past months. Enjoy!

May 04, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Not too long ago, as I was going through some photocopies from the mid-1800s, my husband stopped long enough to see what I was looking at. His comment? "I don't know how you can read that stuff." and of course I was thinking how nice it was to be reading something that was pretty neat.

Once you get beyond the published books and indexes to records, you will find yourself delving into a variety of hand written records. The further back in years you go, the more difficult the handwriting will become.

The further back in years you go, the more difficult the handwriting will become.

Understanding Handwriting

Just as with other aspects of genealogical research, there are rules to the handwritings we will find ourselves trying to read. There are certain aspects to the writings of the time that affect the penmanship and the ease with which you can read the record. Some of those include:

  • Writing Implements
  • Inks Used
  • Type of Paper
  • Handwriting Styles

You may be sitting there saying that handwriting is handwriting. But how many of us remember sitting through penmanship class? The letters were supposed to be made a certain way. My youngest daughters are this year learning yet a new way to make those very letters. So even today there is not a constant in handwritings.

Is It Chicken Scratch?

There are times when we first look at the pages in one of those older books and none of the words seem to make any sense. In fact, you need to plan more than a few minutes time to search these documents. Just as you need to get familiar with records in a foreign language, likewise, you need to immerse yourself in the writing of the time period. However, reading these older records also requires that you be able to interpret both the value and significance of the record. You will need to analyze the record to fully understand its importance.

A Dying Art?

With all the advances in technology being used by genealogists today, there are many genealogists who are not expecting and therefore are not prepared for what awaits them when they have to turn to original records. The fact is that the further back you go the harder the handwriting is likely to become. I can remember being in school and having one of the kids in class ask why there were so many misspelled words in the Declaration of Independence.

When you get back into the records of the seventeenth century, many of the letters are transformed. One of the most noticeable is the letter S. In the handwriting of the period it looks more like an F. Another common word you are likely to see is ye. While we tend to read this as yee, in reality, the Y took the place of the letter combination th. So in fact the word is actually the.

In Conclusion

Once you find yourself working in these records, it is always useful to have a aid that you can refer to. An excellent guide with many samples to help you become familiar with the different styles of handwriting is Kip Sperry's Reading Early American Handwriting, published by Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc. in 1998.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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