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Sometimes handwriting provides a genealogical brick wall

In previous articles, we have talked about the differences in the English language and the handwriting of Colonial times. However, even when looking at the later census records you will still come across some handwriting challenges.

You would think that the census records taken in the 1900s would pose no problems at all when it comes to interpreting the handwriting but that is not always the case. Even today you will find some handwriting that is virtually indecipherable.

If you are looking at a particular family group on a census page, but you just can't read it you need to broaden your scope a bit. Take a look at the whole page, or even several pages, to learn that census taker's style of writing. Even though the writing may be unreadable, the letters will be consistent. The easiest way to do this is to make an alphabet chart copying those letters that you can read. Pretty soon you will see patterns in the names and you will start recognizing more letters.

It is a time consuming process but an essential one. Guessing on the names just isn't good research technique. This is why you will find so many mistakes in transcriptions of census records and other official documents. Many people will have the good intention of transcribing documents so others can benefit, but they don't take the time to do it right.

Back in the days when the only option was looking at miles of microfilm this process was even more difficult. Now that we can view the census records on Ancestry or Heritage Quest Online things have gotten a lot easier. You can blow up the picture for more clarity. You can also compare the digital images between Ancestry and Heritage Quest. Some are clearer on one service than the other.

When you have an unreadable name or date you can indicate the questionable parts with underscores or question marks. You might record Ma _ _ _ showing that you can read the first two letters of Ma but the last three letters are unreadable. Showing the exact number of unreadable letters can be helpful later. If think you know what the name is, but you are not 100 percent sure, you can record it like this: John [?]

Whenever you insert a piece of additional information always use square brackets and not parentheses. If you were to write John (?) that would indicate that the census taker wrote the name with the question mark in parentheses, not you. Square brackets are always used for additional information inserted by the researcher.

Another thing you should do is make a copy of every census record you are using and put it in your files for further examination later. It is always a good idea to make hard copies to save you the aggravation of having to go back and find that piece of information again.

Web posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2005


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