We genealogists are often faced with handwritten records that are a challenge to read. Sometimes the writing is cramped and tiny. Sometimes the letter formations are unfamiliar. Sometimes the document and ink is faded. Sometimes it is simply bad handwriting and looks like nothing more than a scribble! What's a genealogist to do?
When you are trying to decipher challenging handwriting there are a few simple methods you can use.
1. Compare other words and letters in the record. You may have to look a few pages ahead or back to get a good overall comparison of letter formations used. If you think a letter is a “C” for example, check for a “C” word you recognize and compare the formation of that letter to your unknown letter.
2. Put a blank white paper over the words on your screen or on the page and trace it. Do this several times. Then look at your tracing. Often the words or letters become clear when isolated from the rest of the document.
3. If you are using a microfilm reader, place a pastel sheet of paper over the screen. Pale yellow or pink seem to work best to make the writing more legible.
4. Consider the record source. What country is it for? That will help you figure out possibilities for locations. It is best if you know a specific area. For example if I know a record is for the County of Simcoe in Ontario, Canada and not for Kent County in England or New York State in the USA I can narrow the possible location names in the record. Also different countries wrote their letters in different ways. German writing for example is very different from American or British.
5. Determine when the document was written. Handwriting changed over centuries and thus a word written a certain way in 1630 for example will not be written the same way in 1730 or 1830 and so on.
Letter formations changed greatly over time. For example during the mid 19th century, any word with a double "s" was formed in such a way that to our eyes it appears as if it is "fs"
Image courtesy of Etobicoke Historical Board, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
In the image above, written ca 1860 in Quebec, Canada, the text reads "Married Wm. Massey". Note how the double "s" in Massey looks like "fs"
Also, if the document was written in a different language and country, it is wise to familiarize yourself with that country’s letter formations over the years.
This next example is the church entry of the baptism record of my 11th great-grandmother Martha Barrett in England in 1598. I knew the recording of her event was somewhere on the page of church baptisms but where? It took me awhile to find her on the page but by scrutinizing the handwriting of all the entries I was eventually able to recognize her first name Martha and the surname Barrett.
Image courtesy of FindMyPast.com
The baptismal entry reads: 28 of October was baptised Martha ye daughter of Henrie Barrett
A Handwriting Tutorial is online from FamilySearch
Book: Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry
Examples of early (16th & 17th Century) Dutch letter formations at Olive Tree Genealogy