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Deciphering Old Handwriting

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One of the major challenges facing genealogists is learning to read and understand the older language forms and handwriting styles commonly found in the documents and records detailing the lives of our ancestors. Learning to decipher the old handwriting techniques and characters of earlier times is a skill that needs time, practice and a lot of patience. As we look at old documents we often find ourselves with questions concerning the formation of specific characters, the meaning of particular abbreviations, or the spelling of certain words.

The best way to get good at reading old handwriting is to do it a lot. Get together some of those document copies you have sitting in file cabinets or boxes and plan to spend some time transcribing them in their entirety. The following tips will help you as you get started:

  • Don't assume. Read slowly and practice patience making sure that the words make sense as you go.

  • Use a good quality magnifying glass

  • Use letters from words in the document that you can read to piece together the letters in the words you are having trouble with. One trick is to start by looking for dates, which are usually present in genealogical documents. Then use the letters in the month, day of the week, etc. to help determine the writer's style.

  • As you figure out individual letters, you may want to consider creating an alphabet chart with examples of each letter style.

  • Keep in mind as you go that words were often misspelled in older documents - especially personal names and place names. You will often even find them spelled differently in different parts of the document. You can use other documents, atlases, etc. as sources to verify the correct spellings.

  • Transcribe the document exactly as it is written - misspellings and all. This will help to keep you from making assumptions that might trip you up in your research at a later date. Hopefully, as you go back through your records and documents, you will find new clues that were originally overlooked because the text was too hard to read. Happy hunting!

There are quite a few free old handwriting tutorials online which can help you get started reading these older documents with examples, including scanned documents, on letter and number formation, commonly used abbreviations and spellings, and even tips for making out faded, smudged or sloppy text.

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