Family History

Deciphering the Ciphers: Reading Old Handwriting

Family History

Family History

Is that a d or a b? An M, or an N, or maybe a W?

Just when you thought there was no need for cursive in our tech-savvy computer age, you’re faced with an ancestor’s cryptic census entry or a marriage record to index that appears to be all sweeping flourishes.

Family historians thrill over every document chronicling their relatives’ lives, but if the handwriting isn’t legible it soon becomes a frustrating guessing game. And indexers might give up altogether, or determine to choose batches of typed documents only.

Copy of the 1920 U.S. Census for Nebraska  Photo by Valerie Ipson

Copy of the 1920 U.S. Census for Nebraska
Photo by Valerie Ipson

When we sit down at our computer screen, we find ourselves at the mercy of every census-taker and court recorder in history, even after 1850 when the handwriting should be familiar, according to BYU’s Center for Family History and Genealogy.

They submit, “If you conduct research in documents produced since 1850, many of the letter forms will be familiar, if not precisely like today’s letter forms. But as you move back in time, the letters grow increasingly foreign, even in your native language. It is at this point that you need the skill of a paleographer.”

“Paleography,” they define, “is the study and interpretation of ancient or old handwriting and manuscripts. It is part art, part science, part puzzle-solving, and part decoding.”

Fortunately, there’s help for the amateur paleographer.

Remember that it’s easy to make the mistake of focusing too much on the word that’s giving us trouble. The key is to broaden our attention to the context surrounding the word. Now we can begin comparing the word in question with what else this particular scribe has written. Common words and surnames will be more easily read, and once we’ve figured out how a capital S or a capital F was written, for example, we can apply that understanding to other more difficult script.

Also, it’s important to remember that much of the old writing is “phonetic.” Recorders wrote the name the best they could by how it sounded.

Google ‘reading old handwriting’ and myriad sources pop up. Both FamilySearch and Ancestry have long lists of tips, techniques, and tutorials on the subject. On FamilySearch, click on ‘Search’ to access the Wiki; for Ancestry, go to

These helps aren’t just for English either, but for a wide variety of languages. is offering a free online class titled, “AHA! Analysis of Handwriting for Genealogical Research.” It will be presented on October 5th and all a participant needs is the internet and speakers. Register at

And, finally, BYU’s Family History site offers an online Script Tutorial at

Family historians and indexers need not fear the cursed cursive handwriting of yesteryear anymore.


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