Reading Old Script

Those 17th Century Documents were can Scarcely Read

17th century dress.

When reading old Colonial records, it is helpful to know how to translate the script. All court house documents have the same dialog throughout. Rather than try to read every page, it is a good idea to be able to recognize surnames. This Chart will serve as a guideline to learning how to write your surnames in old script. Now, when you recognize them on the page, that is a page worth deciphering more fully. Here is how to do it:

  1. A deed record is headed “THIS INDENTURE”. The county and state follow along with the date and names of the grantee and grantor. The description of the land in 17th century America is going to be vague, as it is often land grants and acreage without neighbors. However, it is important to look for the acreage involved as you can follow this tract in tax digests and later deeds. The key element here is where the grantor or grantee resided when he signed the instrument because that is a big clue of where to search next. There are Gift Deeds wherein lands and other goods were left to the children before the death of the father. One also finds Marriage Contracts which deal with marriages to widows and what was to become of her properties. In Jamestown, they sent back to England for women to marry the men. There always seemed to be a shortage of women, and it was not unusual for a widow to receive a number of proposals. A remarriage could mean that her young infant may have been given the name of the stepfather. So many situations to think about here!

  2. “BY ALL MEN THESE PRESENTS” is recognizable as a bond, usually on an estate. The first paragraph contains the names of the securities, usually relatives and neighbors. The second paragraph contains the name of the deceased. The date at the end of this bond provides the approximate death date, usually when within several days. If no record of the estate is found in the Wills, Inventories, etc., then bear in mind that old newspapers published news of estate sales and you might find an obituary somewhere in there.

  3. “IN THE NAME OF GOD AMEN,” is the heading for wills. The date is either in the first or last paragraph but mostly the first paragraph deals with the funeral, name of executors and the wife who inherits the full use of the estate until her death. The second paragraph usually names the eldest son who inherits the home place. Most planters had several tracts of land, sometimes in different counties, and these tracts were passed down to the younger sons. It is not uncommon to notice that the youngest son disappeared from the region. That is because he settled on western lands, or moved further southward in search of better soil. One has to remember that tobacco was the major money crop, yet even before the American Revolutionary War, the soil was worn out.