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Through a grant from the NHPRC, the Center for Digital Initiatives at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has published online of the Papers of Governor Richard Yates Sr., the Civil War governor of Illinois. Now they are looking for volunteers to help transcribe the documents at Chronicling Illinois, the Center’s online archive. 


The project includes the digitization of nearly 50,000 pages of documents, comprising nearly 15,000 documents from his four-year term. The documents come from the Yates Family Papers and from the Wabash Yates Papers at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


Richard Yates (1815-1873) was one of the most consequential Union war governors. Known as the "Soldier's Friend," Yates worked tirelessly to ensure that Illinois recruit, organize, and supply troops. Thousands of people, both rich and poor, wrote to Yates about a myriad of subjects, including political campaigns, requests for jobs and favors, pleas to have sons released from military service and activity by Southern-sympathizing “Copperheads.” Among his more prominent correspondents were General Ulysses S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and, of course, President Abraham Lincoln.


Want to help transcribe those documents? Go to Chronicling Illinois at After creating an account, volunteers can transcribe handwritten documents through a simple interface or review the transcriptions of others to prepare them for online publication. Teachers can use the transcription process as a method of engaging students with primary source documents in a powerful way, while helping to improve the searchability of the archive through transcription.

Not every letter writer of the past had the clear handwriting of a clerk. This letter from L.N. Odell of the Odell Balloon Company shows some variations that you may run into.


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Take a look at "Dear Sir". This is a really useful part of the letter to use to get your bearings, because "Dear Sir" is used in a lot of letters and doesn't often have any spelling surprises.


23870545 dear sir.jpg


We can see that the lowercase "e" in this word looks like a mirror-image "3", sometimes called a "Greek e". Knowing that the writer of this letter makes his "e"s like this can help us to puzzle out some words that might not be very clear. We can also see that the "a" in "dear" is open at the top. Maybe the writer leaves a lot of his round letters open.


Here's a phrase in the letter that might not be terribly clear:


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Once we plug in "e" where those "Greek e"s are, it might be easier to see that the first word is "very". The second word starts with a clear "l", but the second letter could be a "u" or an "o" with an open top. "lowe*t" is more likely than "luwe*t". What word fits there? That second-to-last letter is just an "s" that's not connected at the bottom, making the second word in this phrase "lowest."


How about the last word? If the second-to-last letter is an "e", the third-to-last letter that looks like an "e" probably isn't. What if it's a "c" with a loop at the top? That first letter is a puzzler, though. Take a look at the examples in the Oddly-shaped Letters blog post. The "p" in that post is the same as the first letter in this word. The last word in this phrase is "prices".


Ready for another phrase?


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With our knowledge of the open top "a"s and "o"s, the "Greek e"s, the loopy "c"s, and those pesky "p"s, we can see that this phrase is "ascensions and parachute drops". Which is borne out by checking the red print in the letterhead: this company advertises "four parachute drops" and "night ascensions," so it would make sense that those words are in this letter.


Read the rest of the letter to see what other wonders the Odell Balloon Company offers, and if you want, add the transcription to our catalog!

One hurdle to using historic records is how handwriting has changed over time. Here are some tips for reading handwritten documents.


This Letter to Absent Senators from the Senate, dated 1789, has some great examples of letters that look weird to modern eyes, even if you're used to reading cursive. In particular, the lowercase "p" and the lowercase "long s" may give readers some trouble.


Let's look at the whole first page:


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"Agreeably to the Constitution of the United States, eight members of the Senate & eighteen of the houfe--" Wait, what?


This letter that looks like a lowercase "f" is an "s." You'll see these in handwritten and printed documents into the early part of the nineteenth century. Since the two letters look very similar, I tend to use context clues. I ask if the word or phrase makes more sense with an "f" or an "s."


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Since our options here are "houfe of Reprefentatives" or "house of Representatives," it's pretty clear which is correct.


Another letter that gives me trouble is that lowercase "p." The style here is to have a much taller ascender, or vertical line, than we use on our letter "p"s nowadays. The round part (called the bowl) of the "p" may also be open at the bottom, making it look kind of like an "h."


We can use context clues again with the "p." Looking at the word "Representatives" above, we can see that the "p" does have the tall ascender and the open bowl. We can apply this to the rest of the document, such as in the following word:


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That second letter is a tall-ascender open-bowl "p." The word is "opinion".


Ready to tackle this mess?


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Using our knowledge of the "long s" and the "p," we can see that this is a common English phrase: "as soon as possible."


I hope this is helpful to folks out there who are looking at historic handwriting! Anyone have other tips to share?