“What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. I

Deciphering the Handwritten Records of Early America

Since beginning my work with digitizing the General Assembly Session Records collection at the State Archives, I have had to do a bit of research on how to effectively interpret 18th century manuscripts in order create the appropriate metadata for the records and improve discoverability of these records in our digital collection. The following sections include a brief history of writing during this time period, characteristics of 17th and 18th century British-American handwriting, and some tips on deciphering the text found within these records. This is the first blog post of a series on how to read handwritten colonial documents.

As a skill most take for granted today, writing was not a widespread accomplishment during this time period; however, with the growth of commerce and industry, the need for this skill became more apparent.

According to Monaghan (1988), reading and writing were considered to be two separate endeavors, as the ability to read was not dependent on the ability to write. Initially, reading was simply a means to an end—a skill that provided direct access to the Scripture. The Bible was this era’s most popular book, so it comes as no surprise that it was the first text children learned to read. Thornton (1998) contends that “reading was taught first, as a universal spiritual need; writing was taught second, and then only to some.”

Abbreviations, shorthand, lettering

Oftentimes words were abbreviated by removing certain letters or all but the first and last letters of a word or name (see Fig. 1). Latin, being the chief language of record in the Middle Ages, introduced a system of abbreviations to simplify the copying of many repetitious portions of words (Yeandle, 1980).


Fig. 1: Common name abbreviations in the 17th and 18th centuries. (source)

Superior-letter abbreviations were also used, for example:

  • sd for “said”
  • prsence for “presence”
  • Richd for “Richard”
  • wch for “which”

Some writers simply shortened words and left no other indication of the missing letters, such as written phrases like:

  • “I am sir yr most obt and hble servt,” which reads as “I am sir your most obedient and humble servant”
  • “abt two hund wt of spare Cordage,” which reads as “about two hundred weight of spare Cordage”

In terms of lettering, special letter forms and symbols were often used to condense text, like the tailed s, the thorn, the ampersand, monetary symbols, and symbols used in place of names. The tailed s is often mistaken for an f, and two s’s together look like a p (see Fig. 2).


Fig. 2: Examples of the tailed s (as seen in “passed” and “session”) and arbitrary capitalization of words. (source)

The thorn, often mistaken for the letter y, represents the “th” sound (see Fig. 3); thus the word:

  • ye is “the”
  • yt is “that”
  • ym is “them”

Fig. 3: The handwritten versus printed thorn. (source)

This misconception of the thorn in particular has led to such visible modern errors as “Ye Olde Gift Shoppe.”

There are also several letters that need careful attention, as they are visually very similar to one another—particularly L and S, J and T, K and R, and several others (see Fig. 4).


Fig. 4: Colonial handwriting samples. (source)

Capital letters were also written in many different styles, and it is apparent when examining text from this era that words were often capitalized without any apparent reason and proper names were usually left in lower case (see Fig. 2).

Tips in Decoding Handwritten Documents

  1. It’s important to take time to study the handwritten text. Use context clues to determine the content of the message and better understand the intent of the writer.
  2. Use reference tools and resources: it may be necessary to consult geographical dictionaries to identify unfamiliar town names and/or understand town origins. In examining North Carolina records, a great online resource for this is NCPedia, which includes access to an excellent geographical dictionary, the Gazetteer.
  3. Getting a second opinion doesn’t hurt, especially from your friendly neighborhood reference archivist!

Recommended Reading & References

Jokinen, Anniina. (1996). Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618). Luminarium: Anthology of English literature. Retrieved from www.luminarium.org/renlit/ralegh.htm.

Kirkham, E. Kay. (1964). How to read the handwriting and records of early America (2nd ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company.

Kirkham, E. Kay. (1973). The handwriting of American records for a period of 300 years. Logan, UT: Everton Publishers.

Leary, H. F. (1996). North Carolina research: genealogy and local history (2nd ed.). Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Genealogical Society.

Monaghan, E. Jennifer. (1988). Literacy instruction and gender in colonial New England. American Quarterly, 40(1), 18-41.

Osborn, Albert S. (1929). Questioned documents: a study of questioned documents with an outline of methods by which the facts may be discovered and shown (2nd ed.). Albany, NY: Boyd Printing Co.

Tannenbaum, Samuel A. (1930). The handwriting of the renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.

The UK National Archives. Palaeography: Reading old handwriting, 1500-1800, a practical online tutorial. Retrieved from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/further_practice.htm.

Thornton, Tamara. (1998). Handwriting in America: A cultural history. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

West, Andrew. (2011). The rules for long s. TUGboat, 32(1), 47-55. Retrieved from www.tug.org/TUGboat/tb32-1/tb100west.pdf.

Yeandle, Laetitia. (1980). The evolution of handwriting in the English-speaking colonies of America. The American Archivist, 43(3), 294-311.

14 thoughts on ““What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. I

  1. Pingback: “What does that say” Deciphering handwritten documents. Pt. 1 – Surry County Genealogy Association

  2. Pingback: State Archives of NC Starts Blog Series on Interpreting Colonial-Era Handwriting | ResearchBuzz: Firehose

  3. Pingback: Craft Beer, Bing, Facebook Marketplace, More: Saturday Afternoon Buzz, August 19, 2017 – ResearchBuzz

  4. Terry Moore

    This is a wonderful column. Is it possible to download it to my computer so I can save it as a reference?

    1. Aquila

      Yes, you can have a PDF of the page by using Print Friendly which is a free app (https://www.printfriendly.com). Just remember that you should use this only for your own use. It also will allow you to print the article in hardcopy. I wish more websites/blogs would have the Print Friendly button, but you can have the link on your bookmarks page or toolbar.
      The articles are most helpful, even as a person who was taught cursive as a child, there are lots of odd things in old documents which were not taught and have left me with questions about what exactly was written. Transcribing is something that’s important to do for your genealogy or history projects, and accuracy is important as well.

  5. Pingback: “What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. II | History For All the People

  6. Pingback: “What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. III | History For All the People

  7. Kathleen Smith

    Thank you for this hint about Print Friendly! I volunteer as an indexer and arbitrator and wanted to save this article for use when I index and was wondering how to do so. While I have been volunteering for quite a while, you can always use some help with deciphering handwriting and it is always helpful to have extra samples to look at.

  8. Jim

    Just as easy, use the microsoft printer tool. For the article you wish to print, click print, then change your printer to microsoft pdf print. that spools a webpage to pdf. then use your favorite pdf reader to view the article.

  9. Pingback: Of Genealogy Interest | Siuslaw Genealogical Society blog

Comments are closed.