Early American Handwriting Genealogy

by Lisa South, Certified Genealogist

At first reading, an early American document can sometimes be daunting. The earlier the records, the more difficult they are to read.

E. Kay Kirkham has written two good reference books on the subject; 300 Years of Manuscript and How to Read the Handwriting of Records of Early America.

I had the opportunity of taking a course from Mr. Kirkham many years ago and he began by saying "beware of the terminal loops and flourishes". In our family history research we often see-particularly in the first letter of a word-curly cues (these can be mistaken for "e" "a" or "o", etc.) I find it interesting that early Americans took such effort to add flourishes because a lot of the other problems we find are caused by the person trying to take short cuts as much as possible (remember the early pens were quills and had to be repeatedly dipped into ink.) The following are things we should be aware of as you attempt to read early records:

1. Abbreviations-usually the words are recognizable if you are aware abbreviations are being used, for example "do" for ditto and "chh" for church.
2. Termination-when a word was terminated a period or colon was usually placed at the end of the abbreviation. Sometimes a line was drawn through the abbreviated word for example "Tho" for Thomas. A line would be drawn through it and a person might think they were crossing it out when in reality they were indicating an abbreviation.
3. Superior letter-you will see this done often with the name William, "Wm" , but might not realize it is a hold over from earlier days. Sometimes the last two or three letters of the word were written above the line (the way we might write a small "c" above the line for a name like McClure).
4. Contracting-a contracted word was indicated by putting a curved line above the contraction.
5. The "long S"-the long "S" is something you will come across often. When a word had a repeated "s" in it, the first was often a "long s" (which looks like an F) and the second would be a regular "s". A "long s" was not usually used at the beginning of a word, or when there is only one "s" but you will find them occasionally, particularly in the very early records.

To add to the confusion, in early American records you will often find words capitalized in the middle of a sentence, a lack of punctuation, misspelled words and the use of Latin terms.

I approach a difficult record like I would a crypto quote in a puzzle book. I pick out all the letters and words I'm sure of and then try to fill in the spaces. I begin to figure out a word here or there and that helps. I might recognize that a word has to be "the" and see that the person has placed his "h" laying down flat - so I can fill in all symbols like that in the document, etc. Usually I will be able to decipher all or most of what has been written. As with all things, the more you read this early American handwriting, the easier it becomes.

Final thought: Why waste your valuable time working on genealogy that has already been done for you!? See what has already been done on your family tree and collaborate with others. Research your family genealogy easily with the help of OneGreatFamily.com. 7 day Free trial.

Ancestor Search

Enter Ancestor's Last Name:
Advanced Search
See what information we have in our database of over 190 million unique entries. Browse Alphabetically
  • Photos
  • Biographies
  • Histories
  • Country Origin
  • Alternate Spellings
  • Number of Generations
“...One person can't possibly do all of the work alone. They need help to speed up the work...The only way to do this is with your wonderful service...”
—Jeff Bagley
More Success Stories

Watch Demo

Use the buttons below to navigate through all four demos.

Previous Restart Next

Demo: Introduction

Learn More