Reading Ancestors’ Old Records: Problems to Watch Out For

By Diane Haddad

When I look back at the letters my grandma wrote to me when I was in college, I’m in awe of her beautiful handwriting. Most of us would agree that handwriting isn’t what it used to be. Thanks to computers and email, we’re all out of practice.

But that doesn’t mean all the old, handwritten records you’ve discovered through your genealogy research are a piece of cake to read. Old writing styles, unfamiliar characters and abbreviations, fading ink, and individual writers’ idiosyncrasies can make the documents extremely difficult to understand.

In our Tricks for Reading Old Handwriting webinar, taking place Thursday, June 26 at 7p.m. ET, professional genealogist D. Joshua Taylor will show you strategies for understanding those hard-to-read old records—including these letters and other characters to watch out for:

  • u, n, w and m; a, o and u; v and r: These letters that can look alike in lower-case form.
  • as, os, us: These letter combinations often appear similar in lowercase form.
  • i, t: Undotted is and uncrossed ts can resemble each other, or an e or an l. Also watch for misplaced crosses and dots (in the name below, Miller, the dot is over the e, making it look like an i).
  • I and J; M and N; S, L and T; T and F; U and V: These capital letter groupings may look alike.
  • ?: A double-letter formation may be abbreviated as a single letter below a horizontal line.
  • do or : These abbreviations for “ditto,” common in records formatted in rows (such as a census) mean “same as above.”
  • ? or ƒ: The s, especially in a double-s formation, may have a long flourish. This “long s” is easily confused with a p or an f. (This word is “blessing.”)
  • : This character, called a thorn, occurs in very old texts and looks like a y. It represents th, so the example here (from the 1620 Mayflower Compact), with an e over the thorn, means “the.”
  • 3, 6, 8: These numerals may look alike. If the record has page numbers, copy pages one through 10 to use as reference samples.

Got old, handwritten records you’re having a hard time reading? Check out our Tricks for Reading Old Handwriting webinar in Family Tree Shop.

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