Genealogy Studies Program

Deciphering Old Documents

One issue unique to the Genealogical Research Field is the common struggle to decipher old documents. While there is no solution for reading messy handwriting, we have compiled some tips to help you with some common patterns found in many older documents.

1. The letter Y
Many are familiar with the word “Ye” but do not know that the word actually means and is pronounced “The.” The letter Y was originally called a thorn, and pronounced as “th.”

2. Double “s”
Two “s” in a row used to be replaced with a letter that looked like a lowercase f or p. This can especially be confusing, because when reading words like “Tennessee” it could look like “Tennepee” or “Tennefee.”

3. Upper and Lower Case Letters
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between letters at the start of a word. For example, the capital letters “S” and “L” typically look very similar. One great way to address this is to find the same letter in another word for comparison.

4. Standardization and Spelling
Many words were spelled phonetically as the writer heard them, so if something doesn’t seem to make sense in context it is helpful to see it again through that lens. In one letter written by a Confederate soldier to his family, he stated that a friend had died of “new money” fever. He was referring to pneumonia or “pneumonie fever” as it was pronounced at that time.

5. Transcribing Errors
It is very important to transcribe documents exactly as they are written, spelling errors and all. If necessary, one can add footnotes to the parts of the document that are difficult to understand.