With my recent discovery of the Civil War history of a great great grandfather, I have an inner drive to learn more. So with renewed inspiration, I began a search for further information on my ancestor. Few records have been found, but one document provided stunning details of my ancestor's military history. It is the U.S. Southern Claims Commission for Union sympathizers. In the early 1870's, the government passed a series of laws, providing an avenue for southerners who aided the Union, to file claims to the federal government for reimbursement of property damage caused by Confederate armies. The documents are filled with genealogical information including written testimony from the claimant and corroborating witnesses. I was struck by the wealth of information; certainly comparable to the Civil War Pension file.
With the discovery of the record, I quickly printed off the 23 pages and began gliding my magnifying glass across the handwritten document. Attempting to make out each word, squinting as I labored through every sentence, I laid the papers down and began transposing the document to my computer. Typing each word just as I saw, leaving blank spaces for illegible words, and placing words of question within parentheses, I completed the entire manuscript. I then walked away, taking a much needed break.
Picking the typed document up later in the day, I read it through once more, filling the blank spaces with words newly discovered with fresh eyes. And as a result, I had a typed document of an amazing story told by my ancestor of his personal tragedies during the Civil War. The story was gripping and although much time was consumed on an otherwise lazy Sunday, I was left with a treasure once unknown. The experience has given me pause, reminding me that time should be taken for each newly found record, and the task of transposing can provide a deeper understanding of an ancestor's life experiences.
Gaining a better understanding of handwriting practices prior to the 20th century can help the family historian decipher genealogical documents. Here are some things to keep in mind when reviewing records:
*Many times, upper case letters were used more frequently in sentences, especially to begin nouns.
*The lower case s can be mistaken for a backward, lowercase f if it is in the middle of a word, or if it is the first s of a double s. (Such as Mississippi)
*Some words were shortened or abbreviated, starting the word in regular sized letters and ending in superscript letters with a line drawn beneath or above the smaller letters. This was sometimes done to save paper.
*Uppercase K, P and R can look similar, as can J and T, and L and S.
*Many words prior to the 18th century were spelled phonetically.
And what steps can you take, as the family historian, to interpret your treasured documents?
*Transpose the record just as you read it, misspellings and all. By doing this, your eyes will begin to recognize words and the letters will be easier to identify.
*Understand what the document is. Is this a legal record and are there certain words expected of such?
*As you transpose, leave blanks for unidentifiable words to be filled in later.
*Identify letters known and use them as your guide to compare with others.
*Read the words out loud. They may be spelled oddly but they phonetically sound out an identifiable word.
*Place your guesses inside brackets to be reviewed later.
*After transposing the entire document, read it out loud to someone else. Fresh eyes and ears can provide new insight.
To view my sources and obtain additional help with deciphering old handwriting, I suggest the following websites:The National Archives UK, Script Tutorials and Moonzstuff.
Keep searching for answers,