“What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. III

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 third blog post of a series on how to read handwritten colonial documents, see the first blog post of this series on abbreviations, shorthand, and lettering, and the second post of this series on writing styles.

Phonetic Spelling

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a standard of spelling was introduced. Until then, people would often write what they heard (using what is otherwise known as phonetic spelling) and not necessarily what was said, so pronunciation was particularly important. Inconsistencies in spelling, according to Leary (1996), were attributed to one of four tendencies:

  • Adding letters
    • “wee” for “we”
    • “doe” for “do”
  • Dropping letters
    • “puding” for “pudding”
    • “begining” for “beginning”
  • Substituting letters
    • “heyrs” or “hairs” for “heirs”
  • Substituting sounds
    • “wine” for “vine”
    • “prosuant” for “persuant”

Phonetic spelling is reflective of regional accents, personal speech patterns, and inconsistent pronunciations of the same word by different people (Leary, 1996). I have noticed this to be especially true while working with the General Assembly records, as it’s evident that spelling proficiencies depended on preference or education level of the clerk and/or public official.

On a related note, family surnames that differ in spelling but share a common pronunciation are taken to be variants of the same name (Leary, 1996). Surnames are said to continue to be contested to this day by the descendants of some of the more distinguished early Americans. Most notably, Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh were known to have changed the spelling of their names over time. Shakespeare is said to have spelled his name 15 different ways over his lifetime, and, according to Jokinen (2011), “[Sir Walter] Ralegh’s name can be found spelled in over 70 different ways in contemporary documents. Ralegh himself signed it variously, finally settling on ‘Ralegh’—it is to be noted, however, that Ralegh himself never spelled it with an ‘i,’ as ‘Raleigh.'”

Fortunately, Noah Webster published The American Spelling Book in 1783 and America’s first dictionary in 1806, which has since helped significantly in bridging the spelling gap.


Three editions of Noah Webster’s “blue-back speller” (source)

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.

5 thoughts on ““What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. III

  1. Pingback: Deciphering Colonial-Era Handwritten Documents | ResearchBuzz: Firehose

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    Unless I read too quickly, I did not notice a symbol for the ampersand in early American documents. I am transcribing a will from 1817 and I believe the writer (not the deceased but the court clerk, I believe) seems to use a symbol that looks much like a modern capital P with a curl going up. Have you seen this, and am I correct?

    1. Sara Post author

      Hi Susan! I’ve noticed a lot of variation in the style of ampersands, actually! I found a couple of examples, though I’m not sure if I’ve seen what you’re describing. Let me know if you see it in the following examples.

      Here is one example of different styles of ampersands used in one letter. I found this particular example on page 302 of an article in The American Archivist. Here are another two examples on page 9 of this paleography guide. And finally, a few more examples from a Scottish paleography guide (look specifically at #4), which notes that ampersands “can easily be confused with the letters x, p, or the secretary hand h.”

      That last guide also suggests that ampersands were often stylized to the preference of the writer, which makes it difficult for interpreting later on! I hope these examples were helpful!

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