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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Some Tricks to Deciphering Old Handwriting

Ken asked Olive Tree Genealogy a question about hard-to-decipher handwriting in an 1892 marriage record

I wonder if you could help me. I have attached a small portion of  marriage registration document that occurred in Dresden in 1892. I cannot decipher the word for the grooms residence which appears under "24years" in the image. It looks like Tp Davis or something similar. Can you relate to this location at all and tell me what and where it is?
Ken's question and his effort to read the word in this old document points out the dangers in struggling to interpret letters and character formations without having some clues to help.

My first tip is to look for other words in the document that you recognize. Carefully study the letter formations. Does this unknown word really look like "Davis"? Does the last letter truly look like an "s"?

Next, you can see that the word in question is shadowed. That makes it more difficult to read. It's also a good idea to isolate the word you're struggling to interpret so you can see it without distraction.
My next step was to take a look at the entire page (which I found online on in Ontario Marriages). It was easy to spot another instance of the same word, but in a more legible format. I would have extended my search to pages before and after to try to find another similar or identical word.

It's starting to look pretty clear now that the word might be "Dawn".  "Tp" of course is the abbreviated word "Township". We need to find out if there was a Dawn Township in Kent County in 1892.

Next step is to check Kent County, which is where the marriage took place, to find out what the names of the townships are. Off I went to the Kent County Ontario Genweb site And yes, Dawn Township used to be part of Kent County.

So there we have it. Any time you're faced with a challenging old document that is difficult to decipher, follow these tips:

1. Isolate the word/letters you are trying to read.

2. Try to find the same word or letters on the document or on other documents written at the same time in the same hand. Compare any that you find.

3. Study the word/letters and come up with various ideas for what they might be. Write down all the possibilities.

4. Look for other clues to help narrow down the possibilities. Other clues might be the geographic location as in the case above.

5. Last resort - try tracing the word you're struggling with. Sometimes the letters will suddenly become much clearer.


  1. Ahh... "tracing the letters" as a last resort. That's an excellent tip. Thanks very much Lorine. Cheers, Catherine.

  2. I neglected to mention another trick (which I used for this document) and that is to see if there are other records that will aid in the deciphering especially if it's a residence/location entry you're struggling with.

    For example this document took place in 1892 so if I checked the 1891 census I might find that his place of residence was the same as the 1892 document.

  3. do you know of any where on line that you can upload the writing that your stuck with so that others may help ?

    Marcelle (uk)

  4. Marcelle - At first I thought you were joking with your question.... but maybe you didn't realize that the post you commented on has a graphic sent to AskOliveTree and I helped decipher it. So there's your answer :-)

  5. Can you please help me in reading and understanding the handwritten medical records or any documents written by a doctor or a nurse, thank u in advance :)

  6. Marcelle, if you are using a Windows computer, you can use the SNIPPING TOOL to clip a copy, then past the copy into an email, on Facebook, or anywhere else you can comment or post.