signed with a flourish, scribbled out a scrawl, or literally made his
mark, seeing your ancestor's "signature" provides a different
perspective especially when pictures and images are not available. This
week we look at some places where you might find traces of your
ancestor's handwriting among the records.
If your relative left a last will and testament, the original document
may have been filed for record along with other loose papers. These
materials are usually grouped together in a packet or case file. The
actual will should contain your ancestor's signature (or at least his
mark). In some areas, the will record is actually a transcription of
the will which unfortunately also contains a transcription of your
ancestor's signature. If the handwriting of the will looks an awful lot
like your ancestor's "signature," then you are probably reading a
transcription of the will.
In 1861, Melinda Newman relinquished her right to administer the estate
of her deceased husband. She signed the document. Another paper from
the estate file contains the signatures of several of her children who
were acting as either administrators of the estate or bondsmen.
Receipts and other documents in the file could contain signatures of
heirs or others with an involvement in the estate.
Was your ancestor involved in a court case? If so did he sign any of
the documents in the case file? Early court records usually consist of
transcriptions of various records, but later materials should contain
the actual papers filed while the case was active. If the legal action
dragged on over several years, you may find numerous copies of your
Did your ancestor sign any petitions? State, regional, or local
archives may have copies of various petitions, such as ones to build a
new road, establish a new county, remove a county official, etc. The
difficulty is that many of these records are unindexed and locating
them requires diligence. My own ancestor signed a Maryland petition
during the Revolutionary War protesting the selling of real estate by
the colonial government. The property being sold was owned by a British
subject and rented by my ancestor.
Your ancestor's marriage record may contain his signature, if the
record is relatively recent (early records frequently just list names
and dates). If your ancestor served as a bondsman on his relative's
marriage bond his signature as bondsman should be included. If your
ancestor gave consent for a child to marry, the consent may be simply
noted as "parental consent" without even a name specified. If you are
lucky, the parent’s signature has been scrawled on the record. Consider
marriages your ancestor could have witnessed as well. My own ancestor’s
1907 marriage contains a sibling of the groom and a sibling of the
bride as witnesses. Both signed the marriage license.
Did your ancestor loan money to someone else? If the loan was secured
by real estate, a mortgage should have been recorded in the
jurisdiction where the property was located. A release of mortgage may
have been recorded when the debt was paid, filed in a separate series
of documents or perhaps recorded right on the mortgage copy itself. The
transcriptions recorded separately likely do not contain your
ancestor's signature, but the notation made on the copy might. In this
case, the clerk writes a note in the margin of the recorded mortgage
indicating that it has been paid. The holder of the note signs under
the clerk’s note, right in the record book indicating that the property
is now free and clear. Antje Fecht signed such a release on a mortgage
to her son-in-law in Illinois in the 1890s. It was a great place for me
to get my third great-grandmother's signature.
If your ancestor filed for a pension, there's a good chance his
signature is on one of the application papers. In some cases, there may
be many copies of his signature throughout the file. If his widow later
filed for a widow's pension, her signature may also appear in the same
set of documents.
World War I Draft Cards
Was your ancestor of an age to register for this draft? If so, his
signature should appear at the bottom of his card. All of these cards
are available to the public via microfilm and are now indexed and available to Ancestry.com
World War II Draft Cards
Was your ancestor required to register for the World War II draft?
Cards are available to any interested person for men born between 28
April 1877 and 16 February 1897 and were mentioned in an earlier
column. Draft cards after that date are available subject to
restrictions from the Selective Service Administration and were also
mentioned in an earlier column.
If your ancestor completed their own SS-5 form (Application for a
Social Security and Tax Account Number), their signature should be at
the bottom of the form. These forms are available from the Social
Security Administration for any deceased individual with a social
security number. More information about obtaining copies of the SS-5
forms can be obtained here.
If your ancestor’s birth was recorded in a timely fashion, she likely
did not sign the record, regardless of how precocious she was. However,
you may find that your relative's parents signed the relative's birth
certificate. It happened. This signature will not be obtained if you
receive a transcription of the record instead of an actual copy. My
birth certificate has my mother's signature. The copy I obtained when I
first started genealogy is a copy of the actual record, including Mom's
signature. The copy I obtained as proof of citizenship is simply a
transcription of the document (minus Mom's signature). My oldest
daughter's birth certificate has the signatures of both her parents,
not just the mother. Recordkeeping practices do change over time (I did
not have to sign my youngest daughter's birth certificate, but was
required to sign the oldest one's because I was named as the father).
If your ancestor obtained a delayed certificate, his own signature
likely is included. Signatures of other relatives may also appear in
delayed birth recordings.
If your ancestor signed his own death certificate, I'd love to see a
copy! The more likely scenario is that a family member was an informant
on a relative's death record and signed the document. Knowing the name
of the informant on a relative's death record is usually enlightening
as it puts the information provided in perspective. It is even better
when the signature is that of one of your ancestors.
Letters, diaries, and other materials in your home (or your relatives'
homes) may contain the signature of your ancestor and even more of her
handwriting. Greeting cards are another good source of more recent
Extended Family Approach
It has been hinted at in some of the record sources mentioned, but
records on your ancestor's siblings or cousins may contain her actual
signature. This is particularly true for those records where siblings
might have had to provide testimony or signed an affidavit. Some
military pension files are full of signatures of other family members
(in addition to neighbors, justices of the peace and other
We have scratched the surface of places where your ancestor may have
literally "left his mark." Considering searching for your ancestor's
handwriting. You may learn more about her than just how she crossed her
Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid
America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on
the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is
currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical
Societies (www.fgs.org). He conducts
seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and
computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications,
including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing.
You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit his website at: www.rootdig.com,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
John Neill will be speaking at the following upcoming events:
County Genealogy Workshop, Ft. Myers, Florida, 28 January 2006
Computing Workshops, Galesburg, Illinois, 6-11 March 2006
Trip to Salt Lake City Utah, 17-24 May 2006
information on these events can be linked to from www.rootdig.com/schedule.html.