Become an expert

I did not learn to spell properly until I learned to type at the Katharine Gibbs School. This may have had something to do with my less-than-perfect handwriting. Seeing a word in type instead of scribble helps me spot the errors.

In genealogy, of course, we run into all kinds of spellings, and it is hard to decide whether we should use the literal spelling from the record or modernize and standardize the word or name. I have had to standardize words for clients who simply could not deal with “misspellings.” Also, in the case of documents where superscripts and abbreviations are used, like “ye” for “the” or strange letters, such as “ff” for capital F, converting to typed text is all the more complicated.

Then there is the problem of old handwriting that changes from clerk to clerk and from decade to decade as writing styles evolved. A very good source on handwriting is Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting (first published in 1998, fifth printing in 2005; it is available as a Google Play Book for about $15). Also, David Dearborn’s introduction to English Genealogy contains bibliographic sources on handwriting.

A few other on-line sources include:

Board for Certification of Genealogists

Brigham Young University

As useful as these sources are, however, I usually end up using the good old “immersion” method of study. Because each clerk’s writing is different and they all tended to use different abbreviations and short hand, spending time reading as many of an individual clerk’s records as possible works best. It took me a while to crack the clerk in Plymouth County who wrote his “8’s” lying down, but I did it!

As useful as these sources are, however, I usually end up using the good old “immersion” method of study.

I personally prefer the archaic language of the originals, so I do not modernize the text, although I do omit repetitive legal phrases if they are not pertinent to understanding the document. It is important to me that the reader gets as close to the original as possible, so I try to transcribe as literally as I can, allowing for subjective decisions such as whether or not a letter is capitalized or if there is an “e” on the end of the word, and so forth.

When I compare my transcriptions to those done by others there are always differences, but they usually mostly involve punctuation. Many transcribers insert modern punctuation, which can be helpful but can also cause unintended confusion. If I insert anything in my transcriptions, even a comma or period, I put it in brackets so that the reader knows it was not in the original.

You can’t expect to become an expert on seventeenth-century handwriting without some effort, but “real” genealogists never back down from a challenge! Try it, you’ll like it.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

26 thoughts on “Become an expert

  1. These days, high school students can’t read cursive script – let alone write it. Good luck with your transcriptions – future generations will be thankful!

    1. Carolyn, there seems to be a resurgence of interest cursive in the bullet journal hobby, at least, though in my case, everything is still scribble.

  2. People who have the patience to do these long transcriptions are heroes. I’m lucky to have a sister who’s interested in family history and who dives into these projects. She has tracked and picked through centuries of old German script in Bohemian and German church records, and is currently deciphering manuscripts from 17th-century New England. She does it through immersion and picking out patterns as well.

    1. Hooray for your sister. I have enough problem with English and aside from a miserable year of High School French never broadened my education to a second language.

  3. Alicia, I, like you, prefer to copy as written and use brackets as you do but a word of caution. Silly me, I was gleefully adding information to several records when I discovered that spell checker had followed behind me and “corrected” my supposed errors. I’ve since changed my spell checker settings and corrected the “corrections.” Just thought I’d give a heads up to others like me who blithely trip along, never thinking of the computer’s helpful tools that are so commonplace they go unnoticed. On the up side some of spell checker corrections did add unexpected humor to an entry.

  4. Alicia, I would love to know how much of the text of deeds you leave in–or eliminate–when you transcribe them. I deal mostly with early-to-late 18th century deeds.
    Can you tell from the “boilerplate” language whether a deed is a mortgage–or, perhaps, as I am beginning to suspect, actually rental agreements by tenants? Deeds of gift are usually pretty obvious.
    And I am guessing sometimes that the amount that the property is sold for when expressed not simply in pounds, but in pounds, shillings, and pence, indicates a mortgage–even though it doesn’t say “mortgage” and there’s no release later added in the margin around the text. Any thoughts?
    [I prefer the “copy-as-written” too. And brackets]
    Thanks–love your stuff.

    1. Thanks Eileen. It differs with every deed. Most of the boilerplate sections do not include names, descriptions, etc., so usually easy enough to omit, but still necessary to read. The amounts can be mysterious, and some may involve the principle plus interest owed on a mortgage, but other times they may have simply valued that land more specifically. They did not use the word “mortgage” in these earlier deeds as far as I’ve seen. Just more fun to make us figure it out!

  5. This is a timely piece for me. I have recently come into many old family letters and some of them are a real bear to read. I guess I am a person who wants the modern spellings when typing them up because they will be much easier for me and others to read. But I can see the case for keeping the old spellings and punctuations (even if they drive me crazy). My 2nd great-grandfather randomly capitalized words when there was no good reason. To top it off, his handwriting is difficult to read. Then there’s a great-aunt who thought nothing of putting the first letter or two of a word and then flat-lining the rest of the letters. Many say it’s a shame that children no longer learn cursive, but I am eternally grateful for the development of typewriters and, now, computers because most people don’t (and didn’t) have legible handwriting.

    1. Janice, yes, indeed. In the case of family letters where your audience is family, then modernizing or quazi-modernizing may be the better way to go, particularly regarding capitals and shorthand. At the same time, the letters may have a quaintness to them that is better kept intact. All part of a transcribers’ quandary.

      1. Thanks Alicia! As someone else mentioned, I may have to do both – once for historical purposes and the modern way for family. I guess my work just doubled – lol!

  6. I love these early handwritten documents. They are a fun challenge. Alicia’s tip about reading many of a clerk’s documents is great, as you see the same handwriting but at different times. It helps clarify his spelling and letter formations. Another thing I have learned is when you are not sure about a word, take a break – even days – and look again. Comparing other combinations of letters in other words can help solve it. I had one with what I thought really was the word Coir or Coin, but after studying the whole document, it turned out to be Cow. Seems pretty obvious here, but on that handwritten item, it was not apparent at first.

    1. Carol, good tip. Also, sometimes with a difficult image, printing it lighter or darker or photocopying can help to make something easier to see.

  7. i like to have two transcriptions. One without correction, and one with my corrections in modern-day English spelling and punctuation. How many times have you seen someone’s transcription as a 7, because the writer put that little uphash before the one? So I certainly understand the 7, but if the document makes no sense unless it is transcribed as a 1 (one), doesn’t it make sense to have both transcriptions? (and get some credit to boot for providing the correction solution to a genealogical problem)

    1. James, that is good for the reader, although you can include the corrections in brackets or footnotes within the literal text, rather than go through a long document twice.

  8. I was interested in your example of “ff for capital F” as my maiden name is Ffolliott. It has caused confusion over the generations not only in spelling but also in pronunciation. One branch uses ff today.

  9. I commend you for your transcription work. I also transcribe articles from late 1800 – early 1900 from our local newspaper for the local Genealogical Society newsletter. I always include a notice at the top of the column that this is the actual spelling, punctuation, etc, from the Newspaper and that grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc, have changed through the years. If I add or change anything I always include it in parentheses, with “sic” added so they know it is my addition. Of course, I’m not sure younger readers know what “sic” means either.

  10. I finally broke through one of my brick walls by deciphering “Massey”. It had been transcriped and indexed as Mapey, but I could find nothing else on a Sarah Mapey in 1860;. I finally zoomed in as tight as possible on one of the census records and wondered it it was a double S with a swoop and a tail. Once I searched for Sarah Massey my brick wall crumbled. After I solved it, I came across an article on archaic calligraphy and sure enough the double S is swooped to look like a P just like it was written in 1860.
    I’m also an advocate of the bracket method. Additional information may shed new light on the transcription and with the brackets you know what the original looked like. The bracketed info might need editing for a more accurate transcription.
    Love reading your posts.

  11. Alicia, this is so helpful that I have sent your article to everyone on the Partnership of Historic Bostons Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for mentioning Gibbs, which has a place in both our hearts.

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