Deciphering Old Handwriting

Posted December 30, 2010 by Geni | No Comment

Reading old documents can be a great challenge for genealogists. Overtime, language conventions and handwriting styles have significantly changed. Time and patience are required when trying to understand your ancestor’s handwriting. Here are some quick tips on how to make deciphering old handwriting a little bit easier:

  • First read the document in its entirety and pick out any familiar words or phrases. Remember, be patient. You should read the document several times to get a feel for the handwriting style and abbreviations.
  • Transcribe the document into your own handwriting. Leave blanks for words or letters you are unable to make out. Once you have finished, read it over. Often you may be able to infer the missing pieces.
  • Read the document in context. Think about what kind of words or phrases would likely be found in that particular type of document.
  • Make comparisons within the document. Use the letters from the words you can read as a reference to help you decipher the words you are unable to make out. Once you have figured out some of the letters, make an alphabet chart that you can refer to.
  • Keep in mind there may be stylistic variations in the lettering and grammar. For example, well into the 19th century, rather than using a double s in words, scribes would use a long s, which often looked like an f or p. So don’t be surprised if you come across a relative with the name of Melifsa or Ulyfses.
  • Often you will find words misspelled in old documents. Look out for variations in the spelling of personal names and place names. Sometimes the same name can be misspelled several different times within the same document!

You might also want to check out some online tutorials for some practice on how to read old handwriting.

Once you are done, share what you have discovered with your relatives on Geni. Upload copies of your old documents and your transcriptions to your ancestors’ Geni profiles!