Promblems With Reading Old Records




If you've ever looked at records that were created several decades ago, particularly before the turn of the century, you know that they aren't always easy to understand. Handwriting styles were different and people weren't always particular about spelling and punctuation. You'll find that some words had different meanings, and when you go back a couple of centuries, even dates were different. If you are planning to look at older records, skim through the topics listed below so that you will know in advance what to watch out for.

Calendar Switch and Double Dates

Beginning in 45 B.C., many parts of the world used the Julian calendar to mark the passage of time. By the Julian calendar, March 25 was the first day of the year and each year was 365 days and 6 hours long. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII determined that the Julian calendar was incorrect: each day was just a little bit too long and the human calendar wasn't keeping up with nature's calendar. To solve the problem, Pope Gregory XIII created what is known as the Gregorian calendar. This new calendar changed the first day of the year to January 1 and also jumped ahead by 10 days to make up for the lost time.

The practice of double dating resulted from the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Not all countries and people accepted this new calendar at the same time. England and the American colonies didn't officially accept it until 1752. Before that date, the government observed March 25 as the first of the year, but most of the population observed January 1 as the first of the year. For this reason, many people wrote dates falling between January 1 and March 25 with both years, as in the following examples.

Julian or Old Style             Gregorian or New Style          Double Date                     
December 25, 1718               December 25, 1718               December 25, 1718               
January 1, 1718                 January 1, 1719                 January 1, 1718/19              
February 2, 1718                February 2, 1719                February 2, 1718/19             
March 20, 1718                  March 20, 1719                  March 20, 1718/19               
March 25, 1719                  March 25, 1719                  March 25, 1719    

By the time England and the colonies adopted the new calendar, the discrepancy between the calendars was eleven days. To resolve the discrepancy, the government ordered that September 2, 1752 be followed by September 14, 1752. Some people also added 11 days to their birth dates (a fact which is not noted on their birth certificates). You should also watch for dates that are recorded as double dates even after all calendars had officially switched. People sometimes accidentally wrote double dates.

Marriage Banns and Intentions

Church records often list the date on which a couple makes the announcement that they intend to marry. These are called marriage banns. In addition, you can find marriage intentions, which were non-religious public announcements of the couple's intention to marry. Don't misinterpret the dates of marriage banns and marriage intentions as the actual wedding date.

Death and Burial Dates

Church and cemetery records often contain the date of the funeral in addition to the date of death. Don't confuse the burial date with the date of death.

Date Formats

When you look at records from other countries, you should be aware of the date format that they use. In the United States, we normally write dates with the month first, the day second, and the year last. For example, we write October 15, 1970 as 10/15/70. However, many other countries reverse the order of the month and day. They write October 15, 1970 as 15/10/70. Since there are only twelve months in the year it is often easy to tell which date format was used because one of the first two numbers is greater than twelve, as in the example above.

If neither of the first two dates is greater than twelve, it is harder to tell which format was used. For example, April 3, 1970 can be written as both 4/3/70 and 3/4/70. If you run into this problem, take a few moments to look at other dates in that group of records. You should eventually run across a date where one of the first two numbers is greater than twelve, and then you'll know the answer to your question.



"If only the typewriter had been invented a few centuries earlier!" That's often the cry of people trying to read older records. Old fashioned handwriting often gives older documents charm, but it also can be difficult to decipher. Below are a few clues that may help you out.

First, read slowly and with care. Make sure that the words make sense, and don't assume anything.

Watch out for double S's. The first S in a pair was often written to look like a lower case F.

The following capital letters often look the same: I and J, L and S, L and T, M and N, T and F, and U and V.

Don't forget the possibility of abbreviations. Names were abbreviated quite often, as well as common words. For example, you may find "sd" for "said," "decd" for "deceased," "do" for "ditto," "chh" for "church," and "rect" for "receipt." Double letters were often written as single letters with a line or tilde above them. Name abbreviations usually consist of the first three or four letters plus the last letter. Both name and word abbreviations are normally written with the last letter of the abbreviation raised.

If you're having trouble deciphering a word, try saying it out loud in several different ways.

If you can, read the remainder of the sentence and try to figure out what word would make sense.

Find other words in the document that you can read, and use the letters in those words to piece together the letters in the words that you can't read.

Use a handwriting book to help piece the letters together. Two books that you can use are The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years, by E. Kay Kirkham and Understanding Colonial Handwriting, by Harriet Strykker-Rodda.

If all else fails, you may need to consult a handwriting expert.


Word meanings

Some of today's most familiar words had different meanings previously. The change in meaning usually occurred in words referring to social relationships. For example, the word "cousin" often meant niece or nephew; and the title "Mrs." could show high social status, not necessarily marital status. There are a few other relationship terms that you should look out for:

The terms "niece" and "nephew" spring from Latin words which meant "granddaughter" and "grandson," so you may find them used in that context.

When we use the words "junior" and "senior," we normally think of a father and son relationship. However, in the past, these words were used much more liberally and could refer to an uncle and nephew, or even to two people with the same name who were unrelated.

The words "brother" and "sister" also were used in different ways. Members of the same church often referred to each other as brothers and sisters, and a married couple would refer to their brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law just as brothers and sisters.

The term "in-law" can also cause problems. In the past, "in-law" relationships could be either step relationships or the regular in-law relationship that we think of today.

Misunderstanding and misinterpreting these terms can really twist the branches of your family tree, so when you're reading older records it is important to be cautious. When it is possible, verify information with other records. This is the best way to make sure that you have the correct information. In addition, look at the rest of the language in the document. The more arcane terms and spellings you find, the more careful you should be.


Location names and boundaries -- what to watch for

Many cities, counties, and states didn't always have the names that we associate them with today. For example, New Amsterdam is now called New York City. In addition, the boundaries of a city, town, county, or country may have changed over time. Your ancestors may have moved to another county without ever packing their bags!

It is boundary changes that can make locating your ancestors' records difficult, because the records almost always stayed in their original location -- the county seat of the parent county. This means that if a boundary change caused your ancestors to make a "move" that you don't know about, you may be looking in the wrong place for their records. You may also find it difficult to locate someone born in a territory before it became a state -- a person's records could be in any one of the states that that territory became.

In short, it may be helpful to learn the history of boundary changes in the area where you suspect that your ancestors lived.


Name and word spellings

As you read through older records, you'll often find words and names spelled in a variety of ways, even in the same document. Even in more recent records, you may come across typos and other inadvertent spelling errors. While misspellings of words may only be slightly bothersome, spelling problems related to names can make deciphering records and tracing families difficult for today's genealogists.


Why Do Spelling Inconsistencies Exist?

First, name spellings weren't standardized several generations ago, so many people spelled even their own name in a variety of ways. In addition, many people couldn't write, and those who wrote for them when the need arose sometimes had minimal spelling skills and just spelled phonetically, writing down what they heard.

More drastic name changes often took place when a family immigrated to the United States. The family may have Americanized its name by dropping syllables or difficult letter combinations, translating their name to English, or changing it completely. In addition, immigration officers often made mistakes or had to guess at more difficult name spellings, doing their best to spell out what they heard. You can find similar problems in census records when the enumerator interviewed newly-arrived immigrants.

Finally, spelling mistakes exist simply due to human error. Record-keepers and transcribers aren't any more perfect than the rest of us!

Problems with Pronunciation

All kinds of records were prone to spelling mishaps, including vital records, church records, and of course the immigration and census records mentioned above. Throughout all of these documents, the following letters were often confused due to verbal miscommunication: B and P, D and T, F and P, F and V, G and K, J and Y, S and Z, V and B, V and W, and W and R, depending on the accent of the person who was saying the name and the person who was writing it. In addition, C and S could become CH and SH. Also, double letters, such as RR or LL, could turn into a single R or L, and vice-versa.

Vowels were prone to change as well. I, IE, EY, and Y were often interchanged and the same happened with O and OE, A and AY, and other similar vowel combinations. E could be added to or dropped off of the end at will (and the same goes for S). Vowels could also be dropped out of the middle of a name, leaving several consonants in a row. These are all letter changes to keep in mind when you are looking for a family name in a record set. Let's take a look at an example.

Current spelling: Grover

Alternate spellings: Grovr, Grober, Groeber, Grower, Krover, Krober, Kroeber, Krower, Crover, Crober, Croeber, Crower.

Try saying all of these different spellings out loud. They all sound fairly similar, and with the right accent they could sound virtually identical. You might want to try the same exercise with some of your family names. The idea is to find new spellings of a surname that sound similar to the current spelling.

Errors Caused by Handwriting

Other types of ancestor-hiding "mistakes" to watch out for have to do with handwriting. Older styles can be difficult for us to read today, and there are some styles that were not even taught in schools, but by notaries or others to their helpers. The secretary hand, the court hand, the italic hand -- each had distinct letter forms and abbreviations.

In some older handwriting styles, capital L and capital S often were written so similarly that it was difficult to tell the difference between the two. The same is true for capital I and capital J. In addition, rounded lower case letters such as A, O, and U could also appear identical, especially when the A or O was left slightly open at the top or the U was almost closed at the top. One final handwriting problem is the SS. This letter combination was often written as SF, and even a single S was occasionally written as F.

Remember, you can run into these types of errors not only when looking at handwritten documents, but also when you are looking at records that have been transcribed from older original documents. When reviewing a record with an unfamiliar handwriting style, it is important to record all the letters of the alphabet on a sheet of paper and list the variations that you come across. This self-training takes very little time and saves a lot of errors and forgetting.

Just Plain Typos

Here are a few of the more common ones to watch for:

Letter transpositions -- "Grover" becomes "Rgover" or "Smith" becomes "Simth"

Adjacent letters on the keyboard -- "Grover" becomes "Grober" or "Smith" becomes "Wmith"

Dropping a letter -- "Grover" becomes "Grver" or "Smith" becomes "Smit"

Word spellings most often are just an inconvenience, but changes in name spellings are much more significant. It is important to keep different possible name spellings in mind when you are researching, so that you don't overlook records that might refer to your family.



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