19 September 2013

Signatures -- is it the same person?

SC, 1807One of two signatures for an individual with the exact same name
Copyright 2013, Diane L Richard

MS, 1824
Second of two signatures for an individual with the exact same name
Same person or not?
Copyright 2013, Diane L Richard

Given that some families loved to use the same names generation to generation and across generations (e.g. it seems that every cousin, uncle and great-uncle has the same name), how do we tell them apart?  Do recognize that even for names that seem highly unique (e.g. Hezekiah Farrow) and/or where a middle initial is used (e.g. Wm S McKoy), there can and often is more than one person with that name.  It wasn’t just the Smiths and Jones who liked to use a common forename surname combination in their family tree!

Sometimes we can connect them definitively to wives and children through records or to land via other records or to in-laws and associates through yet other documents and sometimes we just cannot seem to make those linkages through documents.

What else can we do?  It might be time to look at their signatures.  Remember, that though many documents were written by others, our ancestors did sign them.  Sometimes that signature was a an “X,” sometimes it was a “mark” and sometimes it was a “signature” (as we think of today, first and last name).  Be very, very careful to determine whether you are looking at a copy of a document or an original document (e.g. a will book versus an original will, a deed book versus an original deed, court minutes versus loose court papers, etc).  Otherwise, the signature that you “save” may be that of the court clerk and not of your ancestor.

Know, for your area and time period, which types of documents were typically “signed” by a person.  Some examples include:
  1. One’s will or as witness to the will of another
  2. Administrator or executor of an estate
  3. Bonds – estate-related, marriage, court (e.g. appearance), etc
  4. Land grants (e.g. in NC, Granville grants bear original signatures of the grantee)
  5. Original deeds
  6. Petitions
  7. etc

Collect as many signatures as possible through time.  Remember, that our signatures don’t remain the same.  And, as a person was dying, they may have “signed” with a signature their whole life and just use an “X” on their will as they are too enfeebled.

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell – see the McCoy/McKoy signatures pictured above – the same or different?  My colleagues and I think they are “different” though the differences except for the C/K change (most people don’t change “how” they spell their name and can we guarantee they didn’t?) are subtle – the curve of a letter, the use of tails or not, loops, and more ...

Read the following for more about this topic:

Have you used signatures to separate out like-named individuals?

What are other 19th and earlier century sources for original signatures?

What resources on this topic have you found particularly helpful?

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