Saturday, August 5, 2017

Now Indexing:
Some Really Old Handwriting

I'm back at my monthly attempt to pay back the genealogical world for all the good it has done me over these decades of researching. The simplest yet most meaningful way I can show my appreciation for all those years of help freely given is to spend some time indexing more of those digitized records at That way, maybe what I've helped get online will become the key to unlock a family history mystery for someone else.

I've been focusing on records from places where my family once lived. Selfish, I know, but I'd really like to find some more records about, say, our Tullys' immigration from Canada to Chicago. Lately, I've been indexing immigration and naturalization records for the state of Illinois. Who knows? Maybe one day, I'll index a record for one of our own ancestors.

This week's record batch was both easy and frustrating, all in one brief encounter. That the batch took such a short time to index would be reason enough not to complain—after all, I think it took first place for brevity. But it also had its down side: a pre-printed form for which only a few lines needed handwritten completion. The trouble was that whoever completed those few lines did so in an abysmal hand.

Perhaps it's not the clerk's fault entirely. This batch of records which was served up to me from the category, "U.S. Illinois Naturalization Records" just happened to be dated 1860. Being over one hundred and fifty years since the document was drawn up, some things have changed in the interim. Like handwriting styles.

Things to learn when tackling documents from other centuries (or other countries, as well): letters like m or n, for instance, look like u. Both d and b end in an upward flourish atop the stem. One thing that never seems to go out of style, though: some people have sloppy handwriting—was that an a or an o? And terrible spelling, which seems to vary with the mood, often on the very same page as yet another version.

Since the process for indexing is automated, by necessity the elements have to be formatted to include every possibility of field entries that might have been used over the years. Thus, for those relatively simple forms of the 1860s, there were only about three fields for which I could enter any information: basically the name and the year the document was processed. Depending on the instructions, for the other fields I had merely to keep track of the requirement to either hit tab to advance, or control-B.

At the close of the ten-item batch, I began feeling somewhat guilty for having blipped through my monthly obligations so easily. To make amends, I resolved to do another batch from the same record collection.

I jumped back in, right away. My thinking was, if I could get another set of these easy records, I could slam dunk three or four of the like in about the same time it usually takes me to struggle over the more representative collections. No such luck, though, for the next set—still, unfortunately, written in a near-illegible hand—was dated from 1910 through 1914.

What I loved about this set of naturalization records was that as devoid of information as the previous set was, this one provided information overload. Those forms that furnished the answer to how many children were included in the family gave details of names and dates of birth which, unfortunately, weren't captured in the indexing process in any way whatsoever. This is one reason, during the classes I teach, that I urge students to always look at the document itself, and not just rely on a transcription. What precious details might go missing, simply for want of the patience to take a look at the form itself.

All told, this batch took much longer than I had anticipated, but it was handily balanced out by the relative speed at which I was able to tackle the original batch. You never know what will be served up during an indexing session, even after having selected the collection you prefer. Things have changed so much over the years in standardized governmental records.

And even in handwriting styles. 


  1. I know I struggle with a's and o's and r's and n's penmanship is lacking in our everyday life too. My husband recently wrote a L down as a number...was it a seven upside it was a 4 without a leg.

    1. You're too funny, Far Side! But I remember those old typewriter days when we used to use an "L" for a one!


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