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Tips and Pointers In Deciphering Old Documents

Every geographical area and, to some degree, the time period captures a unique style of favored writing.


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Recently I have been pouring over some copies of indentures dating back as far as 1798 from Person County, North Carolina, in hopes to find out more information about the Owen family. Each document started out with "This Indenture" which means a deed or contract made between two or more parties.

Other documents I had found in other parts of the country were sometimes called Warrants and Grants, which mostly showed a governing body giving credence to the ownership of a piece of property. For example, a Warrant was often given to a Revolutionary soldier which was in payment for service to his country. It did not necessarily have a particular piece of land in mind, but gave the owner a right to certain government tracts of land. These Warrants were often sold from one person to another.

Every geographical area and, to some degree, the time period captures a unique style of favored writing. For example, the term indenture was not used in very many documents I read from Ohio, and yet every property document I got from Person County, North Caroline did. If you don't struggle with the legalized style they use, and you can make out the tight handwriting which got smaller and smaller as they neared the bottom of the sheet, then you may get hung up in the nomenclature.

Legalized Style

A large portion of our early ancestors could not read or write. They often had to print an "X" as their mark instead of a signature. Naturally, someone who could write and was a lawyer or who, at least, was legal-minded was needed for drafting documents. Documents normally include the date and the county and state where the contract is being held. Dates such as 1839, were sometimes written as "one thousand eight hundred and thirty nine." The prevailing style is confusing with many lines duplicated over and over. The good news is that if you can decipher one line, often you have deciphered many repeating lines. In particular, I have often seen the line "hath granted bargained sold." I don't know why they use so many words with similar meanings in succession, but it can be confusing, especially with no commas or visible separation used. Another line which is used frequently after referring to a person by name is, "his heirs and assigns forever." Sometimes the document is quite filled up with these two phrases.


If you are lucky, the writer of the document has a scroll with open loops and readable text. The quality of the handwriting differs greatly from document to document. As one researcher noted, paper was valuable and scarce. In reviewing these old documents, one can see how many authors tried hard to remain on one single page of the large courthouse books. The closer to the bottom, the more often the writing got smaller and smaller until it resembled more of a squiggly line than writing.

Symbols and Nomenclature

The nomenclature can be easily overcome with a dictionary of Old English and a few specialized dictionaries on legal terms and old farm tools. Sometimes the author abbreviates words and compounds the problem with poor handwriting. It can be hard to figure out. Some authors like to precede a person's name with "the said" which is then abbreviated as "Sd." So a line would often read, "to the Sd William Owen his heirs and assigns forever." Other abbreviations found on these documents were JP for Justice of the Peace, and Clk. for Clerk. Despite all the duplicating lines, authors of many documents would use "aforesaid" or "above" to refer to names, dates, and places instead of repeating them.

Then there are the odd symbols they used like what appears to be a handwritten f which my computer cannot reproduce. This cursive f placed in a word can indicate a double s. In which case, the word assigns would appear as afigns or access would be accef. Such wording can really throw you off if you don't recognize the usage.

And it's hard to appreciate the lives your ancestors had without understanding some of the basic tasks and tools used in their daily lives. Legal documents are inventories of possessions such adz, sickle and cradle, a draw knife and various axes for specific tasks. You may not realize that a "sickle and cradle" refers to a sickle with a wooden cradle attached to the handle which cradled the stocks of grain as they were cut. You may not know how an adz or draw knife were used in the carving of timber for cabins and other carpentry. I just happened to have a father whom collected old tools, and he had both old museum books and the real items sitting in a shed.

Then there are the symbols which represent the long practice of placing a seal at the end of the document. More than not they wrote the word seal and then circled it in a cloud-like shape, because few clerks or individuals actually had official seals.

Finally, the earlier the document, the more often the use of English and European terms were used in the writing of property descriptions and descriptions of how the land was purchased and secured. For example "rent of one pepper corn on Lady next". is an interesting phrase. In this example, the definition of a "pepper corn" is "something insignificant or trifling," and "Lady" refers to Lady Day which is a church festival on March 25th each year. Interpreted, this phrase indicates a small amount of rent would be due by March 25th of the next year.

Measuring Devices and Property Descriptions

As our ancestors began to spread out across North America they were faced with more and more sophisticated ways to document ownership of property. Prior to a 1785 Land Ordinance, our ancestors used a system called 'Indiscriminate Metes and Bounds." The ordinance did not include the initial 13 colonies. A Metes and Bounds system is simply a description of one's property line starting and terminating at a tree, a rock, or previously designated point. For example, in Virginia in 1794 my fifth great-grandfather, Adam Smith Sr., used neighboring properties, geographical points and natural living trees which were indigenous to the area to describe his property. Lines such as "Beginning at a black oak and a chestnut oak on the side of a hill to Isaac Jane's land" were common. Distances were measured in poles such as "ninety-three poles to the white oak." A pole which is sometimes called a perch, is a unit of measurement equals to 16.5 feet. So 93 poles would equal 1,534.5 feet. In Person County, North Carolina I found descriptions using chains instead of poles. A chain is a survey tool of a series of 100 links. The total length of a chain was 66 feet or four rods. A rod is described as a measurement of 5.5 yards which happens to be divisible by 16.5 feet.

In 1785 the government implemented a system called the, Township and Range System. This system began to survey and plot lines running from east to west, which are called base lines; and lines running north to south which are called meridian lines. The lines create grids like checker boards. A township was a 6-mile square area. Each of the 1-mile squares in a township was called a section, and they were numbered from 1 to 36, starting with the upper right-hand corner. Descriptions of property smaller than a mile square are then described as quarter sections and even smaller portions. For more information on the Township and Range System, visit For a better understanding of Metes and Bounds System, I recommend These sites will help a researcher better understand the above two methods when looking at deeds.


In transcribing, old documents should be copied word-for-word, and any unreadable sections should be left blank with an underline or question mark in place of the unknown word. If the author's spelling was phonetic or otherwise non-standard, like one I came across who spelled sugar as Shugar, the word should be copied exactly as it appears, followed by the (sic) notation, with the correct spelling in parentheses. The (sic) notation means "spelling is correct," as written. For a true interpretation of records, it is extremely important that transcriptions precisely duplicate the original documents. And documenting your sources, indicating where the originals may be found, is also vital to future researchers accessing your records. I hope these tips help in your adventure of gaining an insight into your family's history.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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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