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The Handwriting is on the Document

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for genealogists is reading the writing on early American documents.


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One of the biggest stumbling blocks for genealogists is reading the writing on early American documents. The writing itself is beautiful and shows much time and care, but,unfortunately, it creates difficulties for modern day researchers. It is important to have a rudimentary understanding of early American writing when researching family history, especially in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Early American documents often feature some odd punctuation. Some documents will have complete sentences, but one of the most common features of early documents is the absence of periods. The sentences flow together. Sometimes commas will be included, but more often than not, no punctuation is used. The absence of different use of punctuation forces the researcher to read the document carefully.

Another interesting feature of early American documents is the use of capital letters. Often capitals are scattered throughout the document with no rhyme or reason. The only explanation for this type of lettering is the attitude of the person who wrote the document. When transcribing, go ahead and put the letters in capital.

Spelling is one of the biggest problems in early American writing. In early America, many people could not read nor write. Even if people could read and write, they often wrote phonetically - the way they heard the word. This type of phonetic spelling was further aggravated by local accents which may have pronounced vowels and consonants differently. Another problem which aggravated correct spelling was the variety of accents. Many people had just arrived on American soil, and their English was heavily accented.

Sometimes several spellings of one name occurred in one document. Record every spelling of the name. By doing this, you have a baseline to use when looking at the county records because your ancestor may be listed under any one of the names. Often your ancestor may be in the county, but you overlooked it by only looking at one spelling. An example of this occurred with a Confederate soldier, Harren Pittman. It was a fact that he served in the Civil War, but he never showed up in the muster roll until someone looked under the name Hiram Pittman. The pension was then checked, and the Hiram Pittman was Harren Pittman. The other interesting fact was that the pension was filed under Herring Pittman.

When using indexes or census records, always be conscious of the different spellings. I literally passed over my third grandfather's name for years on the 1860 Marion County, Georgia census because I was looking for Jesse Fowler, and it was spelled Jessie Foller. Another important spelling to consider is when the name Mc is used. For instance, McGinty may be MacGinty, Maginty, or MacGintee, to name just a few possibilities.

If you are looking for a name on the Internet, it often helps to click on the Soundex function. By using this tool, all the variations of the name that may sound alike are displayed. This is an important consideration when you are hitting a brick wall, and you need some new ideas.

When transcribing these early documents, do it slowly and carefully. Go ahead and take it a sentence at a time. One tip that helps with transcribing is to do a portion of the document, then study carefully the form of the letters. Letters such as f, j, g and w are prone to misinterpretation, so it a good idea to understand how the particular writer formed these letters. Be aware of the key words or phrases that are repeated throughout the document. These will help you in understanding and deciphering the letters.

Another important aspect to consider is that many of the documents have already been transcribed. If that is the case, then these documents suffer the same problems as the ones you transcribe. People may have been in a hurry and made mistakes in transcription. This problem also occurs in indexes because the indexer may or may not interpret the letters in a certain way.

Early American handwriting is beautiful, but it requires some time and effort to unravel its mysteries. It is well worth the time and the effort of the family history researcher to study handwriting in an effort to come up with an accurate portrayal of a former life.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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