Wednesday, July 3, 2013

X is for x - Family History Through the Alphabet

An x was the mark my illiterate ancestors used to sign documents.  I remember being appalled when, as a beginning family historian, I learned that one of my great-grandmothers was illiterate.  No, not possible, I thought.  Then I learned that it was common for people of earlier centuries to be unable to read and write.  I learned that more and more of my ancestors had been illiterate.

The image below is from a deed in Jefferson County, Ohio, Deed Book No. 67.  The date the property was sold was February 20, 1892.  I doubt that this is Elizabeth's x.  I think the records in court books are usually transcriptions.  It must have been impossible to distinguish between signatures.  Witnesses must have been relied upon to verify that they'd seen an individual sign a document.

Illiteracy seems to have been familial.  Neither Elizabeth nor her father, Abel Armitage, could read or write.  My great-great grandmother, Lydia Bell, nor her father, Jacob Bell, nor her husband, John Thompson, could read or write.  My great-great-grandmothers Catherine Saylor Froman and Rebecca Smith Bartley were both illiterate.  I'm sure I'll learn of more as I continue research. 

Sometimes I try to imagine what it must have been like for them but I find myself imagining them in my time and place instead of in their own situations.  I remind myself that illiteracy was more common then than now, that books and newspapers were probably not available as readily as now, and that they may have had little time to sit and read.  I can't imagine not being able to read and write but I'm sure their lives were filled with living life instead of reading about it.

This post was written to contribute to Alona Tester's Family History Through the Alphabet challenge on her blog, Genealogy & History News.  Thanks, Alona.


1 comment:

  1. I found that my great grandfather (Patrick O'Rourke b. 1852) was illiterate. But, my dad said Patrick's wife, Ellen Mortel b. 1852 would read the newspaper to him. My father said Patrick would say "Humph" as a comment.

    Now, where did Ellen learn to read and write in an age where most people did not know how. I have yet to find information about Patrick and Ellen.


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