Thursday, October 4, 2012

Paleo: Neither Diets or Dinosaurs

Photo from the Library of Congress
 Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs
Good morning class.  Our word for the day is "paleography".  Yeah, I'd never heard it before either.  According to the dictionary paleography is:

1. ancient forms of writing, as in documents and inscriptions.
2. the study of ancient writing, including determination of date, decipherment, etc.
As anyone who has ever tried to read a doctor's prescription can tell you (seriously, how do pharmacists do it?), reading handwritten text is often challenging. I discovered that firsthand  as a volunteer transcriber on the 1940 census project. Currently I'm trying to decipher some Civil War pension records in my Haworth line.  But when you think about it, in the grand scheme of things printed text is a pretty recent development. Therefore researching anything, especially family history, is going to require some serious deciphering skills.  Or a crystal ball. Or both.
Unfortunately I seem to have misplaced my crystal ball so here are a few online resources instead.

1. FamilySearch 
       As usual Family Search has the market cornered on "thorough".  They go beyond English handwriting and also offer tutorials for many other languages. I've been procrastinating researching my mother-in-law's French Canadian ancestry because it has always seemed nearly impossible to deal with not only the handwriting difficulties but the language as well. And I'm a big chicken. Hopefully this course will help.
Parlez-vous français y'all.

2. UK National Archives
      The paleography (or palaeography in Brit or Aussie) section of this site has some very cool interactive tutorials.  There are 10 tutorials ranging from easiest to most difficult.  There is also a whimsical Dunking Stool Game of which the object is to save the dunk-ee by correctly transcribing words. Make a mistake and she gets lowered ever further into the river.  Kind of like a 17th century version of Hangman.

3. Olive Tree Genealogy Blog
       Lorine McGinnis Schulze's post on 16th and 17th century handwriting includes some very helpful transcription "keys" showing different handwriting variations for every letter of the alphabet. They can be printed or downloaded and used side-by-side with the record you are deciphering. Genius. I think Lorine should list Handwriting Code Cracker on her resume.

4. Daily Genealogy Transcriber
          This is a fun blog from Michael John Neill (of Casefile Clues fame) that gives you a quick transcription challenge daily.

5. Cyndi's List and Family Tree Magazine both have great curated lists of handwriting resources.

Now all that being said, I love handwritten records.  In my humble opinion handwriting is second only to fingerprints in defining the uniqueness of an individual. After my mother passed away we found things around the house that she had labeled with our names on post-it notes.  When I saw my name written in my mother's handwriting I felt the exact same loss as when I looked at her picture. Her handwriting was her. It was as individual as her face. How many things had she signed for me during my life?  From my birth certificate to the Christmas present I opened a month after her death....all that she was and still is in my life was contained within the particular way that she formed words on a page. And its the same for every ancestor in my family tree.  Just because I wasn't connected to them in life like I was to my mother doesn't make it any less true.  Their handwriting reminds me that they were living breathing individuals with their own stories.  And isn't that why we are doing all this anyway?  We wander cemeteries, spend hours in libraries and go cross-eyed trying to decipher old records on microfilm just so we can catch a glimpse of the distinctive life they lived. It's right there for us to see.  In their own handwriting.
From an old textbook
Top signature is from her college days
Bottom signature is after her marriage and motherhood.

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