Reading old handwriting can be tough. Start by looking for a familiar word. Once you’ve picked out a word or two, the rest of the writing will start to take on familiar shapes. Work on one word at a time until you’ve transcribed the entire manuscript.
When reading old handwriting, an f that drops below the line is really an s. That is way the s was written then. A double ff in a word also means an s. However, a double ff at the beginning of the word is an F. The best rule, be flexible whenever you see any f.
Names were often spelled as they sounded and each man responsible for recording those names had a different idea how to spell what he heard. An example is Orbaugh being recorded as Arebaugh.
Keep a record of all nicknames, middle names and initials for men and women. Men may be known by their middle name until they reach maturity, then switch to their first name. People also used nicknames instead of their first names, even for legal documents.
Jr. and Sr. aren’t always used only to indicate a father and son with the same name. They were also occasionally used to differentiate between a younger and older man with the same name living in the same region, even if they weren’t related. If men with Jr. and Sr. are listed on consecutive lines on a list, I indicate this in my records and make a note that they are probably son and father. If they are listed far apart, I note the adjective in my file with the information that it may not indicate a family relationship but merely an age difference with another man with the same name in the community.
The Federal Census is a great resource, but transcribing its information can be a nightmare without pre-printed forms. You can download these forms for free (see Census Forms in Links on the right.)
Alphabetical listings aren’t always accurate. A name starting with T might be listed in the W’s or in the K’s. It’s random and strange. I read the entire list to be certain my ancestor hasn’t been misfiled or that his name hasn’t been misspelled.
If you’re researching a surname that begins with I, it is frequently included with H’s or J’s in alphabetical listings.
In lists organized by months, such as marriages or births, check at the end of the year to see if anything was added that was filed late. Also check at the beginning of the following year for the same reason.
Extra names were added at the end of lists for people who filed their taxes late, so check after the Z’s to see if there were any late additions.
Men who jointly owned property would be listed together in tax records, such as Maggart and Jones. If you are researching Jones, you’ll miss him unless you search the entire list.
Ordinaries, or pubs, were listed at the very end of the annual tax records. Check there to see if your ancestor was in the bar business.
When you visit courthouses for research, they may offer the service of photocopying some documents, such as deeds, marriage records, etc. Check the copies before you leave to be certain they are correct. Yes, I made this mistake once.
Photocopying old documents should never be attempted and is in fact not allowed in many repositories because of the damage caused by the machine’s light. The flash on cameras also damages documents. However, certain types of digital cameras take excellent photos of documents in low light without a flash. Test your camera before attempting this. Remember—you must be able to completely disable the flash.
Record everything you find in a document. My personal exception to this rule is deeds. I don’t record the measurements (Starting at the white oak and extending . . .) I only note references to neighbors, rivers, mountains, etc, contained within the measurements. You’ll need to decide about this issue yourself.
On documents that are impossible to read because they’re too dark or too light, scan them into your computer. Adjust the grayscale brighter or darker. Turn it into a negative image. If you can find a way to view it in ultraviolet light, this technique will bring up very faded script. This scanning method is usually only found in high-tech labs, however, at museums that restore valuable old manuscripts.
When using a microfilm machine at a library, the area allocated for taking notes is usually limited. Have paper and pencil on hand in case there’s no room for your computer.
Most microfilm machines allow patrons to print selected pages of the film they are viewing. However, recently I was able to download my selected pages onto my flashdrive. So now, in addition to bringing paper, pencil, and computer do to your research, remember to bring along your flashdrive in case your library has gone high-tech.