‘Paleography‘ or Palaeography’. It refers to understanding and interpreting handwriting. Usually it is a skill applied to reading medieval writings (1200 to 1600s). Since you might not have ancestral handwritten documents quite that old, even more recent writings over the last 250 years can be difficult to read.
If you have such document, use some of these ideas to help you to get further with these records, and to get those all important names.
Understand what the document is – related to a deed, Will, taxes, a journal, or an occupation can help.
Any word or phrase hard to understand, break the letters down / writing style and look for similar letters. If you can figure out that word with the confusing letter in another part of the document, it might help.
One method is to write out the undecipherable letters and leave space (or place a dash) and then fill in with different letters until a word is developed that fits. It can be a bit like solving a crossword, using some letters with a few missing. You could even try some ‘crossword solvers’ programs found on Google search engine.
If you have come up with a word, but are still confused, it may be that you don’t know its meaning. The terms and phrases have changed over the years. Such as ‘pettyfogger‘ which refers to someone who was bickering or quibbling over uninteresting matters.
Realize the older a document is the more difficult it can be. Handwriting actually became simpler over time.
After you have spent some time using these methods and if you are still perplexed, have someone else look at what you have, especially with the gaps for the missing letter. They might be able to figure it out right away.
Note that handwriting was an art form decades ago and only those with an education could write letters, journals, etc. By the 1860s and the American Civil War, more people could write and that is why there are so many letters, diaries and journals by soldiers from the war fields. See if you can get all those vintage documents completed figured out.
Here is a link to help figure writing of old English documents from the National Archives of the UK.
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