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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill - 12/7/2005


Ancestral Signatures: Part II

Many readers responded to the recent column on ancestral signatures. Readers who missed this column can view it here. Additional sources of signatures were mentioned, including declarations of intent and autograph books. In a nutshell, any paper your ancestor might have written on could contain his signature. The difficulty is in finding that paper!

It was noted that your ancestor's occupation may have resulted in numerous examples of his signature. Census enumerators, county clerks, record keepers, justices of the peace, judges and others may have left their signature (and numerous examples of their handwriting) in many permanently recorded materials.

Uses of Signatures
Several readers wrote in with creative ways they use their relative's signatures. Some scan at least one signature of every ancestor and use it in addition to or in place of a photograph in their genealogical database. Others have created family trees using signatures instead of pictures. Additional ideas included creating chronologies of signatures showing the change over the years.

There are other ways to use ancestral signatures. From a research standpoint, signatures are often used to distinguish between two individuals with the same first and last name. The difficulty lies in obtaining information on your ancestor where the actual paper he signed was retained instead of being transcribed and recorded in that fashion by the clerk. In locations and time periods where it is impossible to obtain a precise date of birth for an individual, linking a "name" to a physical signature may be one way to separate out two seemingly indistinguishable people.

Our Ancestor's Handwriting
Most of the time the only writing we have on a document from our ancestor is his signature, but we often have nothing for comparison. Our ancestor probably did not actually write out his own will or fill in the blanks on his draft card. Someone else did. This reality increases the difficulty in reading the name if the handwriting is questionable. In many cases, there may be no other writing of the individual with which to compare the signature. A technique used by many genealogists with some documents is to read several pages of records written by the same person so that those writings can be compared to a specific entry or name that is questionable. Most of us cannot do that with an ancestral signature. Compounding the difficulty is that clerk may have been taught a different style of writing from our ancestor, if our ancestor even had formal schooling.

Time Plays a Role
Your ancestor's handwriting might have changed over his lifetime, especially if the signatures cover a fifty year time span. A marriage bond may have been signed when the individual was hale and healthy. A will may have been signed when the person in question was in very ill health. The result is signatures that may look very distinct. Perhaps even different enough that one suspects another person actually signed the record. As with any document, remember we are not privy to exactly what was transpiring when a document was written or signed or how healthy the signer was. All we have is the document; the circumstances under which it was signed have pretty much been lost to history.

Spelling, Schmelling
Our ancestor might not have known how to spell his name. He might not have cared if he spelled it consistently from one record to another. He might not have cared if it were spelled different ways on the same document, assuming he could even read the paper he signed. To some today the variations seem significant (and sometimes they may provide clues as to how the ancestor might have pronounced the name). However, the alternate spellings on the same document were likely irrelevant due to the concept of idem sonans.

According to Black's Law Dictionary, idem sonans means, "sounding the same or alike; having the same sound." A term applied to names which are substantially the same, though slightly varied in the spelling.

Your ancestor (unless he had a legal background) did not know what idem sonans meant. But idem sonans is why there was no problem when a man is deeded land under the name of James Ramply and sells the same land under the name of James Rampley.

Today most of us are pretty obsessive about having our names spelled correctly on various documents and in various databases. Our ancestors were not as concerned and even their own spelling might have reflected it.

Similar Signatures
There is always the chance that what you think is your ancestor's signature is not actually his signature. An early nineteenth century Fleming County court case contains the signatures of my ancestor Enoch Tinsley and his father James. The writing looks extremely similar. So similar that I think there is a reasonable chance that one person signed both names (I have joked that they had the same second grade teacher, but that is extremely unlikely). One person likely signed both names.

I have encountered this more than once. There are two separate occurrences of the signature of my ancestor Sarah (Gibson) Rampley in Harford County, Maryland, and several different instances of her husband James' signature. On a document where both sign, Sarah makes her mark and James signs his name. On an earlier document involving Sarah's inheritance, Sarah's signature appears. Interestingly enough, the "Rampley" Sarah made on the inheritance paper looks very similar to the "Rampley" James wrote on the document where Sarah made her mark. I am now wondering if the signatures were made by the same person. At any rate, they are extremely alike.

Remember that interpreting handwriting also requires you to know your ancestor's ethnic background. A native born German was taught a different style of writing from his contemporary growing up in rural Kentucky. Readers who would like to try their hand at reading handwriting can view twenty samples (with answers) that have been posted on my site.


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 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 mjnrootdig@myfamily.com or visit his website at www.rootdig.com, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005, MyFamily.com. Contact the author for reprint permission.

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