Friday, June 26, 2020

Deciphering the Illegible Hand

The bane of the serious family history researcher may well be the oft-encountered illegible hand. While I understand nineteenth century clerics did not perform their record-keeping duties with twenty first century genealogists in mind, I do wish they had taken a bit more care in attending to their daily routine.

In searching page by page through centuries-old baptismal records this week, I've discovered one thing about that Falvey surname I've been seeking: there are more ways to write it than I would ever have thought.

From uncompleted loops for the "a" to overzealous flourishes for the capital "F," I've witnessed several transcription traps which have beguiled their unsuspecting indexers to misread what I suspected I was looking for. All I wanted to do this week was uncover a few baptismal records for mothers whose maiden name was Falvey. And I run into records like this:

Guess how it was indexed? Not as Falvey, I assure you.

After a while, I guess we researchers get a sixth sense of how others might misread handwriting, so I succumbed to taking a peek at search results which I otherwise might not have pursued. The example above was actually indexed as "Lealvey," though I could see how it might have been mistaken for "Hulsey." I saw another Falvey entry listed as "Furrey." Cute.

Exposure to great variety in handwriting samples may strengthen a researcher's resistance to succumbing to the first guess offered. I've seen my fair share of capital Fs which look more like they could be read as "H." Likewise, I can understand why someone might have read the leading letter in that example above as an overzealous L. The search for correct record matches goes downhill from handwriting's slippery slope. That's why I take to searching, page by page, through handwritten records. Especially old ones.

What opens up new venues for searching is coupling the surname Falvey with that of the other half of the marriage party. In the case above, my research partner and I have been examining the family connections of a DNA match who recently shared his tree. It includes the County Kerry surname Cullinane. While that, too, has its spelling pitfalls, chances are much better that the most egregious of indexing errors there would be the dropping of the final "e" or the misreading of that first "u."

Even so, I've taken to reading all three, five, or more pages of search results, as well, hovering over each choice to allow the rest of the entry to pop up for review. Any misreading which seems likely to correctly be rendered with the surnames I'm seeking gets a second glance. It's worth the effort, judging by the number of records I'm finally finding.

Once those records are located, on to the next step: looking for the telltale baptismal sponsors who, remember, should be either siblings or in-laws of the parents in those old Irish Catholic records. That is the point at which we can build a hypothetical family tree for the parents and associated family members—more than we've been able to do so far with the limited records we've already found.


  1. Good you are making some headway!~ Slow but sure! Yes I wish records were all readable:)

    1. Well, I'll take a scan of an unclear document over only a transcription of one any day, but sometimes my bleary eyes think otherwise!


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