Sullivan archives director says centuries-old handwriting can be ‘like hieroglyphics’

Jessica Fischer • May 8, 2013 at 9:37 PM

Think your doctor’s handwriting is difficult to decipher? Try making heads or tails of some of the fanciful lettering found in marriage records, deeds and other documents dating as far back as the 17th century.

Shelia Steele Hunt has been doing just that for nearly 40 years, first as a genealogist and now as director of the Sullivan County Department of Archives and Tourism, where she encounters folks every day who need help reading old handwritten court documents and family records.

While the artistic flair these early writers lent to their hand-penned communications is a rare and beautiful sight these days, it can prove problematic for genealogists seeking to read and understand them.

“They embellished so many of the letters. While it was beautiful, it’s like hieroglyphics to us today,” Hunt said.

Hunt will give a presentation on “The Evolution of American Handwriting” at 7 p.m. on May 16 at the Sullivan County Department of Archives and Tourism, beside the historic Sullivan County Courthouse in downtown Blountville.

Admission is free, but seating is limited. Pre-registration is required by calling (423) 323-4660 or emailing info@sullivancountytn.gov.

The class is one in a series of genealogy basics workshops the Department of Archives and Tourism offers. Hunt will teach “Land Sakes Alive!,” a class focused on early land records, in midsummer, followed later in the year by classes devoted to understanding census records and military and pension records.

“My goal is to be able to share with them ways that they can interpret and make these documents easy to read,” Hunt said of the “Evolution of American Handwriting” class. “There are a lot of things that we’re going to cover. We’re going to take each letter in the alphabet and explain how it changed from the 1600s to the 1700s to the 1800s. We’ll also cover some abbreviations of given names, unique spellings for state names, the evolution of nicknames, and Latin terms and early records, so we have a mixed bag of things that we hope will help the general public learn to read those old handwritten documents.”

“S” is by far the most problematic letter in early American handwriting, Hunt said, and can be a major stumbling block for beginning genealogists.

“Sometimes it looks like a ‘t,’ sometimes like an ‘l’ and sometimes like a ‘c,’” she said. “To be able to differentiate, the person really needs to put it in context, but it also helps to see these early plates of handwriting that we’re going to display on our multimedia presentation.”

Participants will also see examples of tricky letter combinations — the double “s” in the name Jessee, for example, can easily be mistaken as the single letter “f” or “p” — and learn to ascertain a person’s given name when they only have their nickname to go by.

“For example, if a lady were named Sarah at birth, her nickname would be Sally, and you would find her as such in the census records and other legal records such as your early deeds and so forth,” Hunt said. “Mary was nicknamed Polly or Molly. There are a lot of nicknames that you just wouldn’t think about.”

Even the slant these early writers used can give genealogists important clues about the person’s life.

“Particularly when you get into a backward slant in handwriting, most people tend to think well, OK, we have a left-handed person, but that’s not always so,” Hunt said. “A lot of times that was indicative of someone of German descent or someone whose parents or grandparents were of German descent. You can see the different countries behind the writing, all depending upon the timeframe.

“One of the most interesting things I find is the fact that, when you see a person who couldn’t write his name and he would sign his name as an ‘x’, his ‘x’ was different from any other person’s ‘x,’ and you can trace him pre-1850 by tracing the way that he wrote his ‘x.’ You can tell a lot of things about them by the way they signed their names, and how they signed their names changed over the course of their lifetime.”

Hunt has also seen the consequences of misinterpreting the handwriting in historical documents.

“If one word is mistranscribed in an old document, it could change the course of history,” she said. “On many of the early census records, several of my genealogy students would have an occupation listed for their ancestor, and one of those would be a sawyer, but that s looked like an l. Who they thought was a lawyer was actually a sawyer, so you talk about changing the course of history, that really, really does.

“Even with the records we have here (in the archives), we have to be able to read these properly in order to catalog them and present them to the general public. We have patrons coming in every day who are wanting help in reading their ancestors’ documents or help in reading some of our county court documents, so we hope this will be beneficial to the general public and draw attention to the fact that we have a wonderful research center here at the Department of Archives and Tourism.”

For more information, visit the department’s website at www.historicsullivan.com or find it on facebook at www.facebook.com/historicsullivan.

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