Given Name(s) Last Name

from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 5/3/2000

In Their Own Hand

Genealogists love to locate pictures of their ancestors. But we cannot always locate a picture of each ancestor. Signatures of family members provide a different glimpse of our ancestors and sometimes serve genealogical uses. And sometimes they are easier to come by than ancestral photographs or paintings. There are several places to potentially locate the “John Hancock” of your John Smith both in and outside your house.

Home Sources
Letters, diaries, and other home sources are excellent places to look for signatures of various family members. Unfortunately, many of us do not find letters and diaries left by our ancestors. Cancelled checks and other “non-traditional” sources may also contain the handwriting of your ancestor. The family Bible may contain handwriting of family members, but without other samples, you may not be able to determine who wrote what.

Sources Outside the Home
Bear in mind that many records containing ancestor's names were not written by our ancestor. Vital records and census records were filled out by office clerks or actual census takers. In early courthouse records, the handwritten copies of wills, deeds, and other records are in the handwriting of the clerk (an early “copy” machine). A will record may contain a handwritten transcription of your family member's will and show his or her signature and “seal,” but that signature is only a “copy.” In some cases the will and other original probate material may be kept in a separate file.

The following are some places to obtain copies of ancestral signatures. Please do not consider this list to be comprehensive. To learn more about these sources, consult The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretto Szucs and Sandra Luebking.

Pension Applications. If your ancestor received a military pension or a widow's pension, records of this pension might contain a signature of the pensioner. My great-great-grandfather's Civil War pension file contains the only available copy of his signature.

Marriage Records. An initial caveat: Marriage records vary greatly from state to state and from one time period to another. However, your ancestors' marriage record might contain the signatures of the bride and groom. If there are consent bonds, the signatures of the fathers may be contained in the file. If one of the parties was underage, there might be a letter of consent. Unfortunately, in many cases, there will only be a note indicating “parental consent” that does not even name the parents. Later marriages may include signatures of witnesses who may be siblings of the bride or groom.

Birth Records. Some records MAY contain the signature of one of the parents. The most likely signature is that of the doctor. More modern records may contain the signature of the mother, and possibly the father. The birth certificate of my wife and myself contain our mothers' signatures and not our fathers'. I had to sign my oldest daughter's birth certificate before she could leave the hospital, but did not have to sign my other daughter's certificate two years later. Laws and forms change over time.

Death Records. Your ancestor hopefully did not sign his or her own death certificate. However, this record may contain the signature of the informant (if recent enough), which in some cases is a relative. Keep in mind that hospital record clerks are the informants on a large number of death certificates.

Court Records.

If your ancestor was involved in a court case, the packet of original papers (if available) may contain ancestral signatures. I obtained a copy of the mark of my fourth great-grandmother Susannah Rucker Tinsley from a Fleming County, Kentucky, court case in the 1820s. The only copy of her son Enoch's signature was obtained in the same way. Your ancestor may have signed a document or provided testimony in a case in which he was not directly involved.

Naturalizations. Your ancestor's declaration of intent or final naturalization papers could contain his or her signature. Keep in mind that before 1906, any court could naturalize a citizen, and some immigrants filed their declarations of intent near where they landed and most likely completed the process where they settled. They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins, by Loretto Szucs, provides an excellent tutorial on naturalization records.

Probate Records.

The probate record of William Gibson from Harford County, Maryland, in the 1790s contains the only known copy of the signature of his daughter, Sarah Rampley. The will of Ulfert Behrens in Adams County, Illinois, in the 1870s contains the only copy of his signature. The estate settlement of Michael Trautvetter, also from the 1870s, contains receipts signed by his twelve or so heirs. This was an excellent place to get copies of signatures for these individuals.

Petitions. Did your ancestor sign any petitions? The Isaac Rucker listed on an early Virginia Religious Petition dated November 10, 1779 in Amherst County is a likely ancestor of mine. John DeMoss signed a 1768 Maryland petition regarding the moving of the Baltimore county seat from Joppa to Baltimore. The originals of these petitions are housed in the respective state archives or libraries. County facilities may also have records of this type.

Siblings and Extended Family Members. Your ancestor's signature may appear in a record for one of his or her siblings. Some quick examples from my own research illustrate this:

Witnesses on the marriages of three of my great-grandparents were relatives, including siblings of the couple and in one case the bride's mother. My second great-grandmother testified for her sister-in-law's Civil War widow's pension and signed her statement. Another ancestor signed the marriage bond for his sister in Kentucky in the 1820s.

Neighbors. John H. Ufkes witnessed the will of his neighbor in Basco, Hancock County, Illinois in the 1890s. Many wills and other documents were witnessed by neighbors or relatives. The will of James Rampley from Harford County, Maryland in 1812 was witnessed by relatives and neighbors. Foche Goldenstein's homestead claim from Dawson County, Nebraska in the 1880s contains testimony (and signatures) of two witnesses who staked claims near his.

Comrades. The Civil War pension file of Riley Rampley contains a signed affidavit from Wilford Manlove. Wilford served in Riley's unit and was there the day Riley collapsed on the battlefield due to sunstroke. At the bottom of Wilford's statement is his signature. For service in earlier wars such testimony may have been even more crucial due to the destruction of records or poor record keeping. After all, during wartime, keeping records for later pension claims is not a high priority.

Census Taker, County Clerk, Judge, Notary, etc. If your ancestor was employed by or involved with any organization that created records, his or her signature (or at least handwriting) may be available on numerous pages. Census takers signed the returns, county clerks (be careful as their sub-clerk might have signed some documents for them), county office clerical staff, sheriffs, doctors, lawyers, and others might have signed any of a number of official records.

But Is All This Necessary?
Obtaining copies of your ancestor's signatures can be done partially for the fun of it. There are more of my ancestors for whom I have signatures than for whom I have pictures. This is especially true in earlier years. But signatures can serve other purposes as well. In some cases, a genealogical “case” may partially hinge on using a signature to “document” that two people with the same name are in fact the same person.

Also, by comparing the handwriting in a family Bible to other handwriting samples (ideally more than just a signature), you may be able to determine who made the entries. This can substantially impact the value of the Bible's information. If the entry was made by someone who was most likely present at the event, the information is more likely to be accurate than if it was made a generation or two later.

I like to collect signatures of ancestors. I don't have all that many pictures, and only one couple had their portrait painted. Signatures are a little bit easier to collect and sometimes lead to new and unexpected information.

Good Luck.

Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy , edited by Lou Szucs and Sandra Luebking.

Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, edited by Alice Eichholz

This reference provides specific information for each of the fifty United States.

Copyright 2000, Michael John Neill. Michael John 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 the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: or visit his Web site at:

Used by the Author on his website with permission.


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