When looking through handwritten records, I found a document. Some fields are legible and matched information I already knew. However, the name is written illegibly. I cannot read it for the life of me. Because I can't read that, I don't know for sure if this is the record I'm looking for or not.

What should I do now? In general, what actions should be taken when illegible handwriting is encountered?

Here is an image: Record picture

It is the second entry pictured (number 136).

  • Thank you Luke. Do the entries otherwise on the page appear to be in rough alpha sequence?
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 22:08
  • No, they don't. If you want to look at the original, I included a link.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 22:45
  • Inaburg is probably an American mishearing of Ingeborg. By comparing with the rest of the handwrite, I've excluded all the letters of the alphabet as possible starting letters for the lastname. :-) You have no hints, like her fathers name, or something? Commented Sep 6, 2013 at 10:58
  • No, I don't have any other leads. She could have been the mother of one of my direct ancestor's brother's wife. I haven't done much research on her because she's not directly related.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Sep 6, 2013 at 15:33

6 Answers 6


One thing I was going to suggest was to hire a forensic handwriting analysis expert. But I really think that's a last resort. Instead, here are some tips that may help you learn how to interpret handwriting on old documents. These tips were taken from Genealogy.com - Guidelines for Reading Old Documents:

First, it's important to be patient. You're going to need to go through the document and locate words and letters that you can read, and then use these as a key for determining what letters you can identify in the illegible or hard-to-read portions. The key, according to Genealogy.com, is to compare:

One of the most important fundamental principles in reading old handwriting is that it is always necessary to compare: compare and match unknown letters, characters, or doubtful words in the same document to determine if they are the same. Compare with words on the same page, and then look on the pages before and after the one in question. Compare with letters and words that are familiar to you. For example, if you think a letter looks like an i, see how the scribe makes the letter i in other words on the same page and surrounding pages. Look through the record to determine how the writer forms the letter(s) in question in words you can read. Continue comparisons until you recognize the letter(s) you are studying. Look backwards and forwards in the record for similar words and letters. An unusual looking letter, word, personal name, or place may occur in the record more than once.

As an example of words to use to help you form your key, you can look for months and dates. These are likely to be easier to identify out of context, especially if you already know the month and year on the document:

Compare any letters in question with letters in the months of the year or other familiar words in the record. Most of the records used by genealogists and historians contain dates and months of the year. For example, if you find an unusual looking letter that may be a capital A, look for the months of April or August. Months are usually easy to read and contain many of the letters of the alphabet.

It's going to be easier to interpret and read documents that are newer than documents that are older, so if the document you're trying to interpret is older than nineteenth century, then it may be helpful to start with something a bit newer. This will get you some practice and build your confidence in learning to interpret older documents:

For those just beginning to read old handwriting, start your research in the more recent nineteenth-century handwriting and work backwards in time toward the colonial period. This way, you will gradually become familiar with the older handwriting and abbreviations. With some practice, you will eventually be able to read seventeenth-century records with some ease. For records that have been microfilmed, this usually means beginning your research at the end of the roll if it contains more recent and easier to read handwriting.

One thing to also watch for is differences in spelling. We didn't always spell things the way we do today. Even today, some cultures spell "theatre" this way while others spell it "theater". So keep this in mind when trying to determine what something says.

Check out the link for even more guidelines on how to decipher old documents. What I would probably do, to make this easier, is make a copy of the document on a copy machine, then you'd be able to make notes on it and write down words as you discover what you think they mean, without damaging or defacing the original.


I may be crazy, but this looks like a girl's name to me - from Sweden. Could this demonstrate a clerical error?

Inaburg Otendatter perhaps 'Altesdatter'?

Juaburg! Ostendatter! This is the best I can do :) [the scribe has two ways of making a J, so the J in line 138 does not match, but the J's in Julia-140 and Johan-142 do]


Like most things in genealogy, illegibility is context dependent. We rarely have trouble reading a word that we expect to see. (That can be a problem in some cases if it leads to unwarranted leaps of faith.)

In this instance, the suggested strategies for interpretation shifted when people realised that it was a name that was being sought and then when that name could be associated with a geographical area or ethnic background.

Those contextual clues change the probabilities that a particular cluster of dots represents one grapheme rather than another. They also serve to define the type of sources against which tentative readings can be tested.

Since the challenge comes from a US immigration record from a nordic country, it may be possible to find a different record of that type which will have similarly shaped words for comparison. This is particularly useful in those times when handwriting tended to be standardised for a given locality by being taught in schools.

This image from an 1898 Ellis Island record suggests that canadian-girl-scout is probably on the money in https://genealogy.stackexchange.com/a/1429/70

Extract from an 1898 Ellis Island record


I read the handwriting as "Inaburg _t_ndatter" where underscores represent letters I can not make out.

To read the excerpt/image, I used a magnifying glass.

On a separate sheet of paper, I made a record of the letters I could make out. I did this several times, including that one or more times, I started with what seemed the last letter in each name and worked to the first letter.

Edited: I previously had written, "I read the handwriting as Inaburg _t_ndatter; I should have appended that information to include the caption, "[where underscores represent the letters I did not decipher]."

Additional information: Luke wrote, "Now what?"

Source and information are subject to error--add (or include) the further limitation/ability to correctly decipher, interpret and apply the information correctly in historical context.

Use care in working with each document and work with and come to rely upon a variety of source materials to develop a body of evidence. Know that all this is changeable over time as yet new evidence is discovered or existing evidence is better understood/interpreted. The work over time requires keeping evidence, information and sources in context.

Make a record of the source so that you will always be able to interpret the information in the context of the source. Records and record groups have their own history and story to tell, so this process usually represents something more that the record of a book and page number or URL. The process of making the record of the source often involves consulting material other than the record itself. You may have to locate and review a record group description even the history and customs of a place, people or event type.

Record the information and fully develop your citation. In this case, there are several levels of reason and logic that apply. Because Luke wrote, "I don't know for sure if this is the record I'm looking for or not," he has introduced the concept of certainty about the decipher. As well, Luke no doubt has access to a more complete set of materials--only he knows the context in which he can or would use the information from this source—thus there is the more important concept of certainty in a genealogical sense.

Luke has the option of deciding whether his confidence is such that he has a degree of certainty in this record of if the information only warrants a research note.

If he has a degree of confidence in the record, then he can let his "Ps" shine with skillful application of words like possibly, perhaps and probably.

  • Patricia Law Hatcher wrote, "The process of expressing our findings in our writing—including proper use of terms such as probably, possibly, likely, and maybe—is the most valuable tool we have in our research kits. Unfortunately, it is also the most neglected."[1]
  • In a January 2008 editorial, Henry B. Hoff wrote, "With all genealogical articles, the specter of the 'P-words' (possibly, perhaps, probably) hovers overhead. When can we say a connection or identification is definite? When do we have to use one of the 'P-words'? And if so, which word?" Hoff goes on to suggest that one of the best ways to learn how to apply the "Ps" is to read genealogical articles that are published in scholarly journals.
  • In her work, Evidence Explained, Mills provides her insight and description about five levels of confidence. She provides a range--decreasing in level of confidence as certainly, probably, possibly, likely and apparently—and she describes each level. [3]

[1] Henry B. Hoff CG, FASG, Editorial, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 162 (January 2008): 3.

[2] Michael Leclerc and Henry Hoff, editors, Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century: A Guide to Register Style and More, 2nd ed. (Boston, Mass.: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2006), p 1.

[3] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, electronic ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), p. 19.

  • Stares long and hard again. Hmm, I can see Inaburg now, but can't see a middle initial or "ndatter".
    – Luke_0
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 22:47
  • Hi Gene, I've a suggestion: The question is "What should I do now? In general, what actions should be taken when illegible handwriting is encountered?". My thought is you could maybe use an edit to describe any techniques that you used to come up with that name. The name you put down could still be useful, and is awesome, but an explanation of your technique would really solidify your answer, IMHO, and make this great! :) Hope this helps!
    – jmort253
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 4:00
  • Okay, I updated this, but frankly the change since yesterday in the title to the question has changed the question quite remarkably, indeed. I don't plan on reworking the answer again.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 16:06

One simple technique is to examine a different form of the image of the words you are struggling with.

If you have the file in a digital image editor look for a command like Negative, Invert or Reverse Colors, depending on your software. This change can give you a different perspective as black-on-white squiggles become white-on-black shapes.

  • 2
    This sounds good in theory, and it may actually work, but it never has for me.
    – user47
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 2:20
  • 2
    For the purpose of decipher, I've used this technique (negative, invert, reverse colors) and other similar steps using mostly Photoshop or Gimp, where you can exclude or emphasize a particular color. Magnifying glass is the fist tool I seek out, though.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 11:24

Some techniques I use when dealing with a document similar to your example.

  1. If you have the physical document, try to scan it into the computer using different options, such as b/w, grey-scale and color. Often the 'clutter' disappears leaving a better image to read.

  2. If you are working from an image (as your example appears), I would use a photo editor and try different options. One time I used a 'posterize" option and got excellent results (other times it was no help). I have Microsoft Office Photo Manager which has a mid-tones adjustment option. That often removes the "patina" the microfilm captured of the aged document. Of course, read the word(s) at 200% or more to see if the lower loop from the cursive "J" on the line above may be obscuring the letter that appears illegible otherwise.

  3. As mentioned by others, look for names/words that you can recognize which use the same cursive letters. The first name probably is an "I". Looking for other names known to start with an "I" will help decipher the name/word. Keep in mind that the writer may have used a phonetic spelling. My paternal grandfather for everyday business used his middle name which was Hjalmar (pronounced Jal mar). The 1900 census shows Almar and the census index shows Alma.

  4. In some countries surnames have similar common endings; e.g., Sweden 'sson' or 'dotter'. Or other common endings like 'berg' 'back' or 'strom'. In those cases try working backwards from the end to the front. An illegible "Andersson" might be solved if you recognize the "dersson"-- especially if the first letter seems like a "A".


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