Literacy and Our Ancestors

There are some things that most of us take for granted today. Literacy is one of them. While some people might struggle with reading and writing, Americans have attained at least basic literacy and most are well above the basic level. We are very lucky.

Our ancestors, on the other hand, rarely took anything for granted I would guess. Family, health, food, shelter and survival ranked far above education for most of them, even into the 20th century.

I believe on my dad’s side that my grandparents were the first to have access to much schooling and that they were the first who were literate. My grandfather, George Kucharik,  completed at least the 8th grade in Passaic, New Jersey and Nana, Helena Scerbak, attended school through 4th grade in Udol, Slovakia. I have no evidence that any of the great grandparents attended school at all. Udol is a very small village where residents have struggled to survive for centuries. Most were peasant farmers and school wasn’t an option.

My mom’s side of the family brings in all of my colonial lines and a Scandinavian branch. My 2X great grandparents, Frits Wille Oscar Emil Jensen and wife Margarethe Bruun, emigrated from Denmark. I have no evidence either way regarding their abilities to read and write. I tend to think that Frits might have been literate, as he grew up in Copenhagen where his father was a career soldier. School would have been more accessible to him.

As for the rest of my family, I have to admit that I get excited when I find a piece of paper, whether in hand or online, that an ancestor not only touched, but he/she signed.

Here are some of my favorite handwritten papers, but I’m adding in crops of signatures from long ago family, too.

First, I love this paper. I have lots of examples of my dad’s cursive, but not of his printing. I think this might have been a draft copy of some note the kids all had to write in school, perhaps to a classmate:

Dad had very nice printing, although the writing slants to the left like a left hander might do. I’m a leftie, but Dad was right handed.

Probably my second most treasured item is a guest list to my great grand aunt Pearl Adams Chadwick’s house wedding reception. Nellie Adams (1856-1927) was Pearl’s mother and is my 2X great grandmother. Annie Adams (1874-1940) was Pearl’s sister-in-law; she is my great grandmother.

Also found two pages later:

Elizabeth Adams was the daughter of Nelson J. Adams (brother of my 2X great grandfather and Pearl’s uncle). Mrs. N.J. Adams was Nelson’s second wife, so not a blood relative.

Below her is Chas. E. Adams (1877-1922), my great grandfather, and the only example I have of his handwriting. Mrs. C.R. Tarbox was Nellie Adams’ sister-in-law and Helen was her daughter.

A 1905 land deed brought another unique signature, that of my 2X great grandmother, Elida Ann Hicks Stuart (1833-1914). I own the original deed.

Elida’s signature is the last one of the right by the big ink stain.

Aunt Pearl is the only one of these family members who I personally knew.

From this point backwards, I have only online screenshots of signatures, but I get just as excited when I discover those, as the handwriting was produced by a direct line ancestor.

I am sure there are more out there to be found, as I have so many colonial New England lines, but here are a smattering:

Henry Lunt (died 1662)

John Lynde (witness to will of Thomas Green 1667)

Benjamin Fenn (died 1672)

Thomas Bayes (died 1680)

Joseph Sayward (died 1779)

Here is one of my only signatures of a female ancestor. Nabby Hay was the widow of Revolutionary War soldier Joses Bucknam, who died i 1835. In 1838, Nabby applied for a widow’s pension and signed her statement:

Nabby Hay Bucknam (1768-1854)

Samuel Scripture (1760-1852)

Last is Reverend John Wise, who was not only literate, but was likely the first of my ancestors to attend college, graduating from Harvard in 1673:

Rev. John Wise (died 1725)

For each of the above captions that says “died. . .”, those signatures are taken from their wills. The other signatures came from probate files or Revolutionary War pension files.

Have you paid attention to the literacy levels of your ancestors? Who is the earliest ancestor for whom you have a signature?


2 thoughts on “Literacy and Our Ancestors”

  1. Aren’t those four small seals on the deed – the ones you called ink stain? They look too regular in size and form to be ink stains. Are they in color on the original deed?

    I have signatures on wills from the mid-1600s in Middlesex County, Mass. probate records. I also have a lot of Xes and other capital letters for the illiterate ones.

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