Jun 16, 2023

Finding an Ancestor’s Signature

June 16, 2023

A copy of an ancestor’s signature can be an interesting addition to your research. Most of us don’t look specifically for signatures, but we often run across them on other documents.


Deeds and Other Land Records


Unless you find an original deed, most of the signatures on deeds are not original. If the deed is part of a county’s deed books, it is almost always a copy made by the clerk. The clerk wrote the signatures on the copy himself.


In earlier eras many people were illiterate. If someone could not read or write, he or she would make a mark in lieu of signing a legal paper. This mark was often an X, but not always. Sometimes, the signee would write one or more of his initials or make some other distinctive mark.


If a deed on which someone wrote his mark was copied by the clerk, the clerk often attempted to transcribe the mark as it was written. It’s fascinating to see how creative some people were when signing “their” mark. If you find a mark instead of a signature, it’s probable that the ancestor making the mark was illiterate.


Governmental Records


Military records often contain signatures. Military Pension files are a source of signatures since they sometimes contain correspondence between the person receiving the pension and the government. Signatures are also often found on draft registration cards.


Homestead application records also usually contain signatures. Both homestead and pension applications may include witness statements in support of the applicant. These statements contain signatures. Even if your ancestor didn’t apply for a homestead, he may have made a deposition on behalf of a friend or relative.


Marriage Licenses and Other Legal Documents


Marriage licenses, divorce records and court case documents are sources of an ancestor’s signature.


Women’s signatures are more difficult to find than men’s signatures. That’s because women seldom held property, didn’t join the military, and rarely applied for homesteads. This makes marriage licenses especially useful for finding women’s signatures since these records are one of the only documents that women routinely signed.




Wills were usually signed if the person making the will was able to do so. If he or she was in poor health, even a literate person may have signed with a mark instead of a signature.



Letters and Journals


Handwritten letters and journals are a great source of signatures. Signatures on these documents are especially important when trying to prove or disprove the authenticity of a signature on another document.


Naturalization Records


Both the Declaration of Intent (First Papers) and the Petition for Naturalization may include signatures.


Almost any document can contain an ancestor’s signature. It’s always worth checking carefully to see if a given document was signed. Signatures of ancestors can make an interesting collection on their own or be a way to learn more about an ancestor’s life. Either way, they’re worth looking for.


Carol Stetser