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Value of Petitions/Memorials (Signature Lists)
Among the most important information petitions and name lists (including censuses)
can provide is the location of residence of individuals. Once the location
of a person has been determined, a researcher can then study available records
for that locality to find out more information about ancestors. But, in addition
to residence, many other things can be learned.
- Much information about an individual can be obtained from the signature
The text of the petition may provide details about the person(s) that signed
it such as:
- A wavy signature may be a sign of old age or potential health problems
such as palsy.
- A signature with spelling or syntax problems (such as not capitalizing
the beginning letter) may indicate the level of education of a person.
- Signatures that show skill in handwriting may indicate a higher level
of education and social status.
- A slow deliberate writing may indicate age, health problems, and/or limited
- The spelling of the name may provide a clue on how the name was pronounced.
Possibly the pronunciation will indicate an accent that could suggest a
country of origin. Using the Gothic script when signing one’s name
suggests the person was from one of the European countries such as Germany.
- Using an “x” or other character by the name sometimes with “his
mark” or “her mark” usually indicates the person is illiterate.
This information can be useful when trying to decide between individuals
of the same name.
- Sometimes additional information is given with the signature perhaps
as a means of identifying persons of the same name. Occasionally the occupation,
military rank, civic officer, name of father, marital status of female
signers, etc., may be identified.
- Comparing the handwriting of a signature on a petition with signatures
in other localities can identify individuals because their handwriting
is similar. This is especially helpful when common names are involved.
- Using handwriting analysis (Graphology) one may be able to determine
some personality traits of an individual.
- Persons with the same surname in close proximity on the petition may
- Family history details may be include such as the following quote from
an actual petition dated 10 Nov 1773: “. . . for in ancient times
when our Ancestors Settled the Town of Bergen they was under the Necessity
of Settling Together on account of the Natives of the Country and their
Lands laid out in Such Narrow Lotts in general from fourteen to Eighteen
Dutch Rods in width In all running about A Northwest Course So that a road
as aforesaid would Cut those Narrow Lotts Cattecorners and make A vast
many of So little value to their Proper owners that it would be hardly
worth their while to keep them in fence” . (New Jersey State Archives, R.
Group: Legislature, Series: Petitions re Bridges, Canals, Dams, Ferries
and Roads, 1765-1835, Loose Papers Relating to Roads, Box 4, Folder
3.) Not only does this statement provide historical details about the challenges
experienced by the first settlers of Bergen, New Jersey, it also indicates
that those who signed the petition descended from those early pioneers
implying that they and their ancestors have lived in the area from the
beginning. Thus one may not need to find a place of origin for many that
signed the petition because it should be the area in and around Bergen.
- By tracking names in petitions over a period of time one may be able
to determine migration patterns of family members especially if an individual
shows up on an earlier petition in one area, and somewhere else on a later
- Insights into personal feelings, cultural settings, literacy, hardships,
and historical details about an individual.
- Information about individuals who lived in the area prior to its becoming
a part of the United States. Petitions may also be available to help replace
records destroyed in courthouse fires, etc.
It is important to realize that the variety of spellings for names from signature
lists is unusually large. Often these people who signed the petition were so
creative in spelling their name that one may miss important entries when relying
on traditional ways of alphabetizing. To correct this weakness, sometimes it
is necessary to go through every entry. But, that can be very time consuming.
On www.censustrail.com we provide
a “soundex” search feature that overcomes many, but not all of
these problems. With the added wildcard (“%”) searching capability
on our website most entries should be found regardless of the spelling challenges.