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Paleography: Interpreting Handwriting in Genealogical Research


There are clues to be found in every section of a historical document. Critical to its validity and authenticity is that piece, often at the close, where your ancestor provided their endorsement. The signature that proves their participation may itself be studied to confirm or deny their identity. And the very manner by which your ancestor set down their name – written out in full or indicated by a mark – provides perspective and foundation for further research.

Clerk's Copy vs. Original Records

When you are evaluating records, weighing evidence, and comparing handwriting or signatures attributed to a particular individual it is critical to determine if you are studying a true original record. In the days before photocopies, the only way to have duplicates of handwritten records was to write them again. Ancestors may have signed more than one document in order to provide a copy for each party involved or to file a copy at the courthouse. However, it is also very likely that many documents, especially court records written into docket books are duplicates written out by a clerk. In such cases, the clerk may have also copied out the signatures. This is one of several reasons, why it is important to request to see original paper files as well as docket books when examining records. The original paper files are more likely to contain documents with original signatures, as well as other items that may not be entered into docket books. One way to determine if a document was copied into a docket book by a clerk is to examine the pages preceding and following the record. If handwriting is consistent across unrelated records, it is likely the clerk's work as opposed to that of multiple attorneys or parties. You can also examine signatures against the body of the text. If the writing style is consistent all the way through without any variation in the signature, then it is likely all written in one hand.

The following web sites offer some excellent examples, history, and legal perspectives:

Mark vs. Signature

Official documents, such as deeds or wills that required the authorization of the parties involved, had to be signed by those parties to make the document legal. If the person who needed to sign the document was illiterate, disabled by age or illness, or subject to other circumstances that made them unable to sign their name, that person could make a mark instead. A mark is often an X, but may be another letter or symbol. When a mark is used, it is labeled clearly for legal purposes. The words his or her generally appear above the mark and the word mark generally appears beneath it.

Depending on the era, it is important to remember that literacy was not considered to be a necessary skill. Education was not available to everyone equally. Social structures and even laws, such as those that prevented enslaved people from learning to read and write, limited literacy. Making a mark was accordingly an accepted legal practice. On the other hand, if a person was literate they probably took pride in the skills that they had acquired and would be very unlikely to make a mark because they would want to demonstrate that they could write their name.

The following web sites offer some excellent examples, history, and legal perspectives:

Signatures as Historical Evidence

Genealogists collect the signatures of their ancestors as a way to prove that two documents were signed by the same person. A trail of signed documents may provide evidence that your ancestor moved or traveled during the course of their life, opening up new areas for investigation. Signature comparisons also enable researchers to distinguish between two individuals who have the same name. Distinctive handwriting or style may set the documents of one John Smith apart from another John Smith. Or one Jane Jones may have consistently used a mark, while another Jane Jones wrote out her name.

The following web sites offer some excellent examples, history, and legal perspectives: