Howell To Reed Difficult Handrighting

by Michael Pollock | Nov 3, 2011

Michael Pollock

Three words in the title to this article, "howell", "reed" and "handrighting", are intentionally misspelled to call my readers' attention to a point initially mentioned in my article "The Importance of Using Original Records", but left unexplained in the same. Too often novice genealogists "stumble" by imposing their own "values" upon records from the past, presuming such things as a "junior" was the son of "senior" because that is the primary use of those words today. Historically they signified not relationship, but relative ages, and because one was taught in school words can only be properly spelled in one way. A different spelling of a surname would be an entirely different person, when historically a person was considered "literate" if the only words he/she knew how to spelled was his/her name

Indeed, in the past, a clerk typically would not ask a citizen how his/her name was spelled, and if that citizen either did not speak clearly or had a marked accent, that clerk might "hear" Howell when "How" was actually said. No genealogist will get very far believing that "typos" never occurred in handwritten documents. Still, in the majority of instances where one has trouble reading a document which is not badly faded, torn or soiled, the reasons will likely be the result of: 1) an archaic spellings as such my not just using "Olde" rather than "Difficult", but specifically "Olde" instead of "Old", in the title to this article; 2) a lack of familiarity with a given word, such as not knowing "uttering" being a synonym for "counterfeiting"; or 3) more often than not a lack of familiarity with a style of writing, most commonly used in legal documents, that was not fully abandoned until the mid-1800s.

Dealing With Secretarial Script

This style of writing is called "Secretarial" script, primarily because it was used mainly in record keeping.

From being so widely incorporated today into business names and signs to emphasize either longevity or adherence to older practices, perhaps the aspect of Secretarial script with which most people will be familiar is a character, called a "thorn", because of its incorporation into , the proper pronunciation of which is "the", not "ye", as the thorn represents the sound "th". Thus, while it can also be used with other letters, in my experience, "ye" was the most frequent usage of the thorn. That said, in Frederick County Order Book 2 (1745-1748) "with" was often abbreviated wth rather than w and I sometimes wonder why

A similar "device" to the thorn used in Secretarial script is described in Cambridge University's on-line course "English Handwriting, 1500-1700" as an "ornamented 'p'". It presents the letters "p_r", with the aforesaid on-line course stating that how the "descender" of the p is crossed indicating what vowel would take the place of the underscore. ish, as an abbreviation for parish, is the specific usage I have seen the most frequently, but if is indeed an ornamented p, in my opinion it is recognizable as a p only by either a trained eye or from recognition of the context in which it was used and I have never noticed any obvious or consistent variants of the same that suggests a specific vowel to me.

Far more persistent than the use of the thorn was the use of an Old English I, "J", to represent the letter "J" in proper names, i.e., the "substitution" typically occurs only with capital letters and for that reason, there is perhaps relatively little "risk" that a name will not be "recognized" because I am unable to think of any instance where proper names begining with I and J are similarly spelled to the point that when written rather than printed, they are easily confused as Daniel is with David when a writer fails to close the looping base of the second d in David.

Two other given names that are often confused which each other due to the similarity of their spelling are Lemuel and Samuel, which illustrates an aspect of Secretarial script which still persists today, namely that the capital forms of both letters look similar enough that if there is no "separation" from the letter that follows, "L" can be mistaken for "S".

Another aspect of Old English script that persisted into the 1800s is stylized s 3.png, a stylized s that is quite often mistaken for an "f" or "p", the latter because it was most frequently used in a "double s" combination with a modern "s", though I have seen stylized s 3.png used as single letter both in the middle of a word and to begin it.

I find the frequency with which stylized s 3.png is misinterpreted puzzling because in most instances, that the character is actually an s is easily recognized from the context in which the word is used, to wit, it becomes nonsense when p or f is used instead of "s".

Secretarial script abbreviations can also presents problems for researchers because while modern English typically shortens words by eliminating syllables at the end of the word, though not necessarily in their entirety, e.g., doctor becomes Dr. and government becomes gov't, it was far more common in Secretarial script or at least in colonial era writing for a hash or pound sign (#) to be used where modern English uses an apostrophe, an example being dec#ed as an abbreviation for deceased--it was more common for the letter(s) which would otherwise follow the apostrophe to be superscripted, decd as another abbreviation of deceased being one example, and Dr an example of how Doctor might be abbreviated. I have also seen instances where what appears to be a tilde is used in the place of the hash/pound, most often when a double consonant is contracted to a single consonant, an example being stylized s 3.pngum~ons, an abbreviation for "summons". That said, I have seen instances where an apostrophe was actually used in colonial era writing, an example from Frederick County Court Order Book 1745-1748 being stylized s 3.pngay'd, an "abbreviation" for said.


Secretarial script also abbreviated by eliminating syllables at the beginning of a word, the word previously offered as an example of how an annotated p was used, ish, being an example of the same. Another example of such an abbreviation, though not specifically Secretarial in nature is "P'Pool", an abbreviation for Pettypool.

X Marks The Spot?

Actually, X is also an ancient symbol, derived from Greek, for Christ, and when I will admit that I have no specific knowledge of when it was first used, Xmas as an abbreviation for Christmas is a further example of a Secretarial abbreviation, though the Secretarial form would be Xmas. If one is mindful of that, it is easy to recognize Xopher as an abbreviation for Christopher and Xian as an abbreviation for Christian.

Another form of abbreviation is the acronym, though I am hard pressed to think of any acronyms I have encountered that I would specifically classify as Secretarial. That said, to the extent I stated earlier that Secretarial script was used primarily in formal records, I once encountered in a lawsuit what appeared to be a nonsense word as there were too few vowels--it was an acronym formed from the first letter of the words in the title of King George III of England.

I have also frequently encountered one specific acronym in order books--TAB, but unlike al. cap. and pl. cap., I was unable to find it in Black's Law Dictionary, which is perhaps the preeminent authority on not just legal terms and abbreviations. Ultimately, I was able to established that it stands for "Tresspass, Assault & Battery". How was I able to do so? Well, the slowness at which Courts typically move is not a particularly recent development and for a time I edited and published Frederick Findings, a magazine on the original area of Frederick County, Virginia, in which I transcribed the first order book for Frederick County during the process of which I noticed multiple instances where a plaintiff accused a defendant of Tresspass, Assault & Battery at one court, with the matter continued to the next court, and the charge stipulated as "TAB", or in other words, by paying attention to detail, I noticed that with a large enough "sampling", an abbreviation would eventually be written out in full. Ditto for a word that one might be unable to read, keeping in mind that in many documents, there will be some standard phrasing that will be common to a deed, wills, trial transcript, etc., so that when one is familiar with that phrasing, one can read an illegible word.

I believe that my skill at interpreting words is the result of my learning, while pursuing my degrees in Russian Studies first at William & Mary, then at Georgetown University, the Cyrillic alphabet in which there are multiple instances of letters that are identical in form, sometimes when printed, other times when written, to letters in the Latin alphabet we used, but are actually distinctly different. An example of just how different is "CCP", the lettering on the conning tower of a Soviet era submarine as seen in "Hunt for Red October" and other movies of that genre, as the corresponding Latin characters are "SSR". That "C" in Cyrillic is not only the same as the Latin "S", but also the Latin C is a phonetic "twin" of "S" also serves to illustrate that phonics can play a role in how a name may be spelled. My favorite example of this is the name of Russian playwright Denis Fonvizin (1744-1792) as his grandfather was a German artisan recruited to serve in the Court of Tsar Peter the Great during the latter's Grand Tour of Europe--the surname was originally von Wiesen. Though the German pronunciation of the letter "w" is more like "v" and of the letter v like "f" to an English-speaking ear, I have often wondered, as it is known that he was of German ancestry, why the original German spelling of his surname is not used?

Having noted that in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets there are a number of identical "symbols" that are actually different letter, I will state that the lower case "d" in both Cyrillic and Secretarial script are not actually the same letter, thus my knowledge of Cyrillic, which predates my work as a genealogist, allowed me to recognize the Secretarial "d" as a d.

It may thus follow, given that the X in Xmas derives, in part, from the Greek word for Christ and that the Cyrillic alphabet is also derived from Greek, that those with a working knowledge of still other languages may have advantages in being able to interpret a difficult "hand" or recognize a misspelled word.

Soundex As A Tool For Anticipating Spelling Variations

A brief digression to discuss soundex, as it is based on phonetics, the concept raised above in my discussion of the similarities and differences between the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. My own surname, Pollock illustrates the ability of soundex to anticipate spelling variations. Among the ways it can be spelled are with just one "l", with an "a", "e", "i" or "u" substituted for the second "o", without either the "c" or "k", and with an "h" substituted for the "k". It can even be "abbreviated" Pol'k, another instance where I have seen where an apostrophe was used in colonial era/Secretarial script. Robert Pollock of Somerset County, Maryland, the emigrant ancestor of, among others, U.S. President James Knox Polk, had the habit of writing his surname in this manner, and many of his descendants ultimately dropping the apostrophe to spell the name Polk, and I have even seen the spelling Paulk used in records in both Connecticutt and North Carolina.

All these spellings have at least one thing in common--their soundex code is P420. That said, Pollock also is an example of the "failure" of soundex to anticipate spelling variants, for there is evidence that the Scottish pronunciation (in addition to being a Scottish surname, deriving from a barony in county Renfrew southwest of Glasgow, particularly when "a" is substituted for the second "o", i.e., Pollack, it is a word for someone from Poland in virtually every language of Europe, and persons using that variant spelling are typically Jewish) sounds like "Poage" to an English ear (provable by the fact that while in 1770 [see Augusta County, Virginia, Court Judgments, M to Z] a William Kennady sued James Poage and his wife in her capacity as Administratrix of William Wilson, the implication being that Ann had been the widow of William Wilson before her marriage to Poage, on 17 November 1768 Ann, wife of James POLLOCK, had motioned for the appointment of Samuel McDowell and Pat. Martin as administrators of Wm. Wilson.

There are numerous examples of how an English spelling of foreign words can differ radically from their "indigenous" spelling, but my favorite, perhaps because my mother's parents were both natives of what is the Slovak Republic, once part of Hungary and I also have Hungarian relatives, is the Hungarian surname "Nagy" because most English speakers seeing the same in print want to pronounce it "Nagee" when the Hungarian pronunciation is "Naj".

This would perhaps be a suitable point for a digression to note that spellings are not necessarily "standardized" even within a single language. My favorite example of this is Allegheny, that being the spelling of the county in Pennsylvania where the city of Pittsburgh (and most "burgs", at least in the U.S., do not include an "h") is located, and also the default spelling used in most "computerized" spell checkers. However, there are also counties in Virginia, Maryland and New York whose names are pronounced the same way as Allegheny, but the proper spelling of the county in Virginia is Alleghany and of the counties in Maryland and New York it is Allegany. While the pronunciation of all three spellings is identical, there is a difference between them in the "context", specifically, the states in which they are each located.

The context in which something is written can be important in properly interpreting handwriting, as I indicated in my earlier statement that an ornamentated p would likely be recognized as a p only by the context in which the word containing it was used, but context can take many forms. I recall a colleague showing me a page of a tax list (it was a Virginia personal property tax roll, but I no longer can recall the locality, the year much less the district, though the same is unimportant for the purpose of this example), asking me if I could make out one specific surname on the same. What I saw made no sense to me because I was seeing the initial letter of the surname as "Q". In most such situations, I will look at other words on the page to see if I can recongize in any of them what I am unable to recognize in the word which is my focus, but in this specific instance, though the list was not alphabetical, every surname on the page began with "Q". Or did they? Going to the next page, the initial letter of each surname was clearly "H". In the opposite direction, the initial letter of each surname on the preceeding page was "F". Though what I was seeing did not look to me like a "G", the surnames made sense if "G" was the initial letter.

Expletive Deleted

The preceeding header is not meant to shock my readers, but illustrate that a further context to consider when trying to interpret difficult writing is whether the usage of a word is not just expectedd, but even "appropriate", to the intent of the record.

While on the genealogical staff of the DAR (1974-1977), I was presented with an application for membership which was noteworthy because while an affidavit from the official state records of Maryland submitted as proof of service did indeed establish the applicant's ancestor John Grumbles had belonged to the Somerset County, Maryland, militia, it also stipulated that Grumbles made a practice not to appear when his captain called drill (trainining) musters. It happened so often that Grumbles' captain summoned him to his office to explain his behavior. Though Grumbles did appear, he did not respond to his Captain's initial request for an explanation, so the Captain asked for an explanation a second time and again, Grumbles failed to respond. To the Captain's third request for an explanation of his absenses from musters Grumbles replied he didn't make a habit of carrying a day planner in his pocket so that he knew where he needed to be at all times. Exasperated, the Captain answered by levying a fine and ordering that it be paid to the company clerk.

Up to this point, my account of the exchange between the two men has clearly been to paraphase using more "modern" language than was actually written in the actual affidavit, but I will "quote" you Grumbles' response to the fine--"ki?s my a?s" and he also accused the captain of being drunk on duty. The profanity is not only something that is unexpected in an official government record, but many people would no doubt refuse to believe that specific phrase was actually used during the Revolution.

While the affidavit the woman had submitted with her application established Grumbles had service, and there was no question of her descent from him, it also established that he was guilty of being AWOL (absent without leave), insubordination, and (verbally) assaulting a superior officer. Thus, under Society rules, a subequent record of service, to establish either that he was ultimately found "not guilty" of the charges levied against his by his Captain if not by a higher ranking officer overruling/dismissing then, then by a transcript of an actual military trial, or that he ultimately paid his fine and was allowed to return to duty would be necessary for her to be admitted, for otherwise, descendants of Benedict Arnold would be eligible for membership. Not only was I unable to find anything to "exonerate" him, but I did locate him in the 1790 census a short distance from his former home and across the state line in Delaware, suggesting to me he had left, if not "fled", Somerset County, Maryland, simply to avoid having to pay the fine his captain levied against him. I informed the applicant that she would have to provide a record of some subsequent qualifying service for her application to be approved, but her response was to stipulate that the specific words AWOL, insubordination, and assaulting a superior did not appear in the affidavit, so she saw no basis for refusing to approve her application.e. She also apparently had support among the leadership of the Society at the time because I subsequently learned my initials, signifying I had confirmed both the lineage and service acceptable, had been forged on her application.


Though I have included a chart showing examples of colonial era/Secretarial script, no chart can possibly incorporate every conceivably example of any given letter because some writers will not just have a steadier hand or simply be too rushed to close a loop or open a loop fully, and I have not touched upon all the variables the attached chart shows, yet I have discussed in this article devices that I have never seen on any such chart.

Many times the fact that a specific type of document will almost invariably contain certain standard phrases helps to interpret a difficult hand, but as the example of John Grumbles shows, one should also be open to the "unexpected" and I would include in what I would characterize as "unexpected" the tendency of many people to interject their own biases and experiences on the past, thus into their genealogical research. It should thus follow to my readers that I am NOT a believer in political correctness.

To read the original article with full secretarial script click here: Howell To Reed Difficult Handrighting

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