Ptolemy V had a problem. He was pharaoh, but was fighting opposition in parts of Egypt. Compounding the issue was the fact that he was only 13. On the first anniversary of his coronation, the priests issued a decree in support of young Ptolemy. To make sure everyone understood, they inscribed it in three languages: hieroglyphic (for the priests), demotic (what the literate commoner would read), and Greek (used by administrators).
As decrees are apt to do, it got lost in the sands of time (literally). The stone on which it was inscribed was rediscovered on this date in 1799 by Napoleon’s forces near Rosetta. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Rosetta Stone was turned over to Britain and eventually ended up in the British Museum.
What does this have to do with genealogy?
The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking a lost language. By taking something unknown (hieroglyphs) and comparing it to something known (Greek) and somewhat known (demotic), scholars could eventually reconstruct how that language worked. We can do the same thing today with the documents we use.
Take a look at this sample from the 1860 census. Is the underlined occupation “Lawyer” or “Sawyer”? Looking just at this word, you could argue for either one. The key is to compare it with known letters. The top occupation is “Servant,” the fourth one is “Livery Stable,” and the bottom occupation is “Servant.” Now we have examples of things we know are capital “S” and capital “L.” The capital “S”s all make a loop that ends within the letter; the capital “L” makes a loop that goes into the next letter. The occupation in question is “Lawyer.”
You can also take context clues. Besides comparing to other letters, see what makes sense in terms of the entire document. In the Lawyer/Sawyer example, knowing that it was Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 census record would be a good context clue! By 1860, Lincoln (another capital “L” we could compare to) was a lawyer living in Springfield, Illinois.
Context clues can also be found by reading something out loud, beginning at the beginning of the text. The word in this family Bible is hard to read on its own, but when you read it in context, you see that it’s “sun” (misspelling “son”) – “Gorge M. Gist was Born Aprile 15 1860 Sun of Mordecai W. Gist and Barbara Gist.”
When it comes to reading old handwriting, the key is to look more broadly than just the letter or word in question. Just like scholars did with the Rosetta Stone, compare what you don’t know with something you do know and look for those context clues.