Genealogy 101: I Can’t Read That! Deciphering Old Handwriting

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega discusses (and provides links to) several free online tutorials to help you sharpen your skills at deciphering handwriting. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

One topic that elicits strong opinion is the demise of cursive in schools. Genealogists worry that children will grow up to be adults who can’t read the handwriting of previous generations. Genealogists know only too well what it’s like to not be able to read the writings of past generations. Anyone whose research takes them into the 19th century or earlier may experience difficulties reading letters that are formed differently or are non-existent in today’s writing.

Photo: letter from Ulysses S. Grant to his father, from Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, 21 April 1863
Photo: letter from Ulysses S. Grant to his father, from Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, 21 April 1863. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Have you come across a document in your family history research that you are having trouble reading? Not sure what that old will, notation from a handwritten census record, or ancestor’s letter, says? How can you overcome the difficulty in reading older handwriting?

Online Tutorials

Learning more about historical handwriting, and then practicing reading that handwriting, is a must for any family historian. Online tutorials are a great place to start learning about handwriting. The great thing about the tutorials mentioned below is that they are all free and provide you with the tools to sharpen your skills at deciphering handwriting.

The State Archives of North Carolina’s blog post series What Does That Say? provides help with colonial American handwriting, including samples, common name abbreviations, and resources. I highly recommend these posts to help build a foundation for understanding terms and writing from the 17th and 18th centuries.

One of my favorite websites is Do History, based on the research conducted by author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich for her book A Midwife’s Tale. The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785 – 1812. An added bonus to this website is the addition of documents used in the author’s research into Martha’s life. By accessing the website’s History Toolbox, you can learn tips and see samples of 18th century writing. One tip found on the website’s page, How to Read 18th Century British-American Writing states:

“The lower case s was written in elongated form at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and when written twice, as in pass. The elongated s can be mistaken for an f, and ss can look something like a p.”

The UK National Archives web page Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting 1500-1800. A Practical Online Tutorial is great for learning to read English handwriting from the 16th to 19th centuries. In addition to tips and resources, you have the opportunity to work with an interactive tutorial consisting of 10 documents that provide historical background, word definitions and more. Don’t forget to click on the Quick Reference link to find information about money, calendars, numbers, measurements and counties.

One website that might be a surprise in relation to handwriting is Stephen P. Morse’s One-Step Webpages. Most researchers are familiar with Morse’s tools that help search Ellis Island and Castle Garden databases as well as the federal census, but he also provides language tools you can find by clicking on the Foreign Alphabets link. For those with German research, the One-Step Webpage includes a “Converting between Old Germanic Print and Cursive in One Step.” Using this tool, you can type in a word or phrase and change the uppercase or lowercase printed or cursive letters to Fraktur, Kurrent or Suetterlin. This is a great tool to help you learn how to read old German script.

Keep Practicing!

To become proficient at reading and transcribing difficult-to-read handwriting, you must practice. The more documents you read, the easier it gets. One way to do this is to volunteer to help with a transcribing project. FamilySearch has numerous indexing projects that may or may not include difficult-to-read handwriting. Family historians find that these indexing projects not only help them become better at reading older documents, but participation also enhances their research skills. To learn more, see the Indexing page on their website.

The Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcribing Transcription Center includes numerous projects that have historical and even genealogical value, including transcribing the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers. These projects are another great source for practicing your older-document reading skills.

Finally, to learn more about how to read early American handwriting, see the book Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry. It is a must-have for any family historian’s personal library.

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