In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore ways of approaching terrible handwriting or damaged records in an attempt to determine “What it is not.” Sometimes that is all you need in your research. Then you can move on in your efforts.
Looking Through Holes in Pages
Whether age, fire damage, humidity, bugs, water damage, or a careless cigar along the way, old records can have missing pieces. This is especially frustrating.
In this case, you might have only a first name preserved. At other times you have a partial surname surviving. If you find the last (or first) three or so letters can be read, and they do not look like the surname in question; then you know what it is not. Move on with your research. In the case of a surviving first name, then other surviving pieces of the record may be the key to determining if the last name was what you are looking for. For example, in a church register, if you see the godparent’s names are readable and these are familiar family names, maybe from other family christenings, then you may be onto something. So while this scenario is frustrating sometimes you can reconstruct information.
Exploring Sloppy Handwriting
We have all come across handwriting so horrendous you want to scream. This happened to me with an 1870 Census of Panola County, Mississippi where the handwriting was almost beyond comprehension.
In this case, I simply identified the family and neighborhood in the 1880 Census, and then tried to find it again in the 1870 Census. I figured at least part of the households had stayed the same. I was right. Then it all made sense. I could then intelligently explore the 1870 Census “neighborhood” and determine if any of the names were the ones I was looking for.
Remember, even if you can’t read the handwriting or have a partial name your dealing with, the point may simply be to determine what it is not. That in itself may solve your problem.
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