Saturday, November 11, 2023

Getting Along With the Long S


It can be hard enough trying to track down an ancestor in previous centuries without having to consider changes in the everyday customs and conventions we take for granted. Handwriting, for instance, is one of those constants that we presume will always remain the same—but doesn't. In continuing my months-long pursuit of Tilson ancestors for everything from DNA matches to admittance into the Mayflower Society, I've run into a snag regarding that very detail: time-bound conventions of handwriting and what is called the "long s."

This all came to the forefront as I was reviewing the last of my Tilson DNA matches at's ThruLines tool. Less than a month ago, I was close to wrapping up confirmation of those matches descending from my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson. Having only a few more to review, I was working on the descendants of Peleg's daughter Mercy. According to the 1911 Tilson Genealogy drawn up by Mercer Vernon Tilson, Mercy had been born in Saint Clair, Virginia, and had married someone by the name of James Rigsbey.

Other than the instance of that one name, there were no further details provided in the Tilson book. At Ancestry, however, there was a hint leading to a register of marriages in Washington County, Tennessee, just over the state line from Saint Clair, Virginia, a location to which several of my Tilson ancestors had moved. The problem, though, was that the record for a groom named James Rigsby was coupled with a bride-to-be named "Mapy Gittson."

Looking more closely at the register, I noticed that the format included a preprinted "19—" in the section designated for the officiant's return. In other words, this was not the original document completed at the time of the August 7, 1807, marriage ceremony, but a modern transcription of older records.

I wondered whether handwriting might have been an issue for whoever had transcribed the record to the post-1900 register, and looked for the original document. As it turned out, the FamilySearch collection had several digitized versions of the transcribed record, but I finally found what appeared to be an original version (though labeled "Damaged Document(s)").

At first glance, it did indeed look like James Rigsby had married someone with the unfortunate moniker of Mapy Gitson. That, at least, was what the handwriting on the cover of the Washington County record seemed to read. Again, that could have been drawn up by someone at a later date, set to the task of organizing court records. But looking inside the cover, pulling up the actual document itself, the harried hand which drew up the record caused me to wonder whether something else was at play here.

In completing the document laying out the requirements of a marriage bond for the recently-formed state of Tennessee, the clerk seemed to be in a rush, judging from the scribbled first letter of each of the marriage parties' given names. Then, too, the "s" in the two entries of the surname Rigsby were so scribbled as to be barely distinct from the preceding letter.

Looking at the formation of the capital "T" for both the given name of the other man listed in the marriage bond—Thomas Rigsby—and the bride-to-be, the rounded cross stroke forming the top of the capital "T" in Thomas could have been the same stroke forming what had been interpreted as a "G" in the bride's maiden name. A stray stroke across what might otherwise have been the double "l" in an alternate spelling of Tilson—"Tillson"—could easily have been misinterpreted by a transcriber as "Gittson."

More than that, though, I wondered whether the convention once dubbed the "long s" might have come into play when the clerk filled out the blanks in the marriage bond form. The "long s" had a specific list of rules for usage, especially for typeset documents.

Admittedly, for the preprinted portion of the form, in not one instance was that writing convention included; for American forms of that time period, there was already a shift away from the decidedly British convention. For handwriting of that time period—which had a separate list of rules of usage than that of the typesetting norms—I have seen appearances of the "long s" well into the nineteenth century. Perhaps old habits die hard.

Basically, the "long s" was a letter quite similar in shape to the letter "f." The difference between the "long s" and a regular "f" was that the crossbar of the lower case "f" went entirely through the downstroke, whereas for the "long s" it only protruded from the left side of the letter. In addition, in the cursive format of the "long s" the bottom curve goes to the left, whereas for the regular letter "f" it loops around to the right before ascending to form the next letter in the word to be written.

Considering that, I wondered whether "Mapy" was actually a sloppily-contrived "long s" combined with a second "round s" as often happened in handwriting of that time period. It was already obvious that the clerk who drew up this document was rather rushed in forming the "s" in Rigsby, so it could be possible that he was writing "Massy" for the bride's name, mis-hearing the actual name, "Mercy." Or perhaps the accent of the time might have softened the "r" sound so much as to be less audible than we would pronounce it today, thus leading to a misspelling of the bride's name.

No matter what the cause for this odd rendering of the bride's name—whatever it might have turned out to be—the "long s" in handwritten documents was a convention that I have seen well into the 1800s in court records, long after it was considered outdated for printed formats. Still, that leaves me with the burden of finding records to support such a hypothesis. For any further written material referring to James Rigsby's wife by name, I can find none. So far, I've looked for his will, burial records, and other likely places where the woman's name might have made its rare appearance, without any results, positive or negative.

The only encouraging sign I can find so far is that this couple chose to name their son Peleg, a Bible name which, though not seen often in our current time, did make a showing during that time period. In fact, it was a name which appeared more than once in the extended Tilson family of that generation. More importantly, Peleg just happened to be the name of Mercy's father—an encouraging sign for those of us wondering just who it was that James Rigsby chose to marry in Washington County, Tennessee, back in August of 1807.

Image above from the collection of Washington County, Tennessee, Marriage Licenses, 1787-1950, Bonds 1787-1950, image 1784.

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