Hold Still Grandpa! As you may have already experienced in your own research, some of your ancestors rarely stayed in one place. They migrated to new countries, moved from county to county, or the lure of the plains of the open West was too much to resist. If you are fortunate, you can identify two families as the same if you find church records, obituaries, county histories, or deed records that state that the ancestor had been “late of…” somewhere you knew he was. But if those records cannot be found, then what?
You may find some success in connecting migrating family by collecting your ancestors’ signatures. Remember to make a citation of where each signature was taken, when it was taken, and under what circumstances. Let’s see an example of signatures above.
In the picture above, how many men do you find named John/Jonathan Lewis? All of these signatures were taken from men who lived sometime in Garrard County, Kentucky, from about 1800 to 1830. Do you see more than three signatures? Now compare that with the image below.
So many men named John! Do you agree with the analysis? I believe there are seven distinct signatures for seven different men. What about number three, why include that? It is a clerk’s copy of a “signature” from a deed, which means that the document I saw was not the original, but a handwritten copy by the county clerk. Clerks will “sign” for the ancestor, but is rarely the ancestor’s actual signature. Why include the clerk’s copy of number three? The answer is that now you know that this man named Jonathan Lewis can be distinguished from the others because of his illiteracy.
When looking for ancestral John Hancocks, try these ideas:
- Search a variety of records. The records above came from many different sources including deed records, marriage bonds, original wills, and chancery (equity) records. Try also: military pensions and bounty lands, draft registrations, oaths of allegiance, coroner’s reports with jury signatures, voter registrations, court bonds, backs of photographs, letters, journals, marriage licenses, death certificates (signatures of the informants), occupational records, stocks and bonds, flyleafs in books, yearbooks and autograph books, family bibles, and many more.
- Try a variety of locations. I mentioned that all these men lived at some time in Garrard County, Kentucky, but that isn’t where I found all of their signatures. As they migrated to nearby counties, visited state courts, or moved west, I followed their migrations and picked up signatures along the way.
- Seek out records of family and friends. Your ancestor may not be indexed by name in the record of an in-law or neighbor, but the record itself may contain your ancestor’s signature as a witness or bondsman. You have to love those ancestors who worked as the court clerk, and personally signed every deed in the county book!
- Be aware of age and language differences. Your ancestor’s signature can change over time. The confident hand of a newly married 25 year-old man in a marriage bond may change from the shaky pension application for bounty land of the seventy year-old man. Literate immigrant ancestors accustomed to the Cyrillic alphabet characters may be less “literate” in the Americanized Roman alphabet. Watch for phonetic name spelling changes, and newly adopted Americanized names.
- Not all ancestors signed with an X. A few of our predecessors were more creative with their “mark.” While many illiterate persons signed with a simple X, some had a more personal notation, such as a specialized cross or first letter of their name.
- Check out a book on handwriting. Your local library has books on handwriting comparisons if you are not sure you have a match between two names. If that doesn’t work, ask your genealogical buddy for an extra set of eyes, or hire a handwriting expert.
Our ancestor’s lives were as complex, busy, and emotional as ours today and they left their marks in so many places. Our job is to follow their trail and pick up those crumbs that together become the genealogical bread of life. Tell us about a brick-wall breakthrough that you’ve had using signatures while following your ancestors through time.