Book Review: Reading Early American Handwriting (Kip Sperry)

As a genealogist you might have deep knowledge of the history of an area, the laws and customs governing records and why they were produced.  You might have expertise in searching and locating records.  You might have superb analytic skills, able to piece together direct, indirect and negative evidence, resolve contradictions and make persuasive arguments for your conclusions.  But if you cannot read the original records your research will suffer.

Depending on your research specialty reading original records might require understanding one or more foreign languages.   But even those conducting research in American records, in English, must have facility with reading the handwriting of the time.  You must understand paleography.

If you are like me, and were educated in a time when cursive handwriting was still taught in the schools, you can probably read 20th and later 19th century writing without special training or effort.  But as you go further back in time, to 18th century and especially 17th century documents, you begin to encounter a style of handwriting that you cannot read accurately.  It is essentially a foreign language, and gaining facility in reading it will require an explicit attempt on your part to acquire these skills.   Working through Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting can help you gain these skills, helping you learn how to read and transcribe early American handwriting.

The book’s contents are as follows:

  • Around 50 pages of expository text, explaining the conventions related to making transcriptions, and giving many practical, insightful hints for how to decipher hard-to-read documents.
  • A list of common abbreviations and terms appearing in old documents.
  • 7 pages of sample alphabets, of various periods, showing the range of forms used for each letter of the alphabet.
  • A 45 page bibliography, focusing on other resources for paleography, including English and European.
  • Around 95 sample handwritten documents, with typeset transcriptions on the facing page.

The meat of the work is in the large selection of sample documents.   There is ample material here to train and test yourself, from a wide range of record types, including probate records, church registers, ship manifests, personal letters, pension applications, town records, etc.  There is also a broad geographic distribution, though understandably the earlier 17th century records tend to concentrate on Virginia and New England.


Altogether Sperry’s book stands practically alone as an approachable guide to the critical skill of paleography for genealogists, especially useful for those dealing with 17th and 18th century American records.  Strongly recommended.

Title: Reading Early American HandwritingAuthor: Kip Sperry
Publisher: Genealogical Publishing Company
Year: 2008 (6th printing)
ISBN: 978-0-8063-0846-3
Pages: 289
Format: Paperback
Level: Intermediate/Advanced
Coverage: American, 17th to 19th Century

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