Sometimes even good handwriting is hard to read. If you have access to Ancestry.com, take a look at the 1860 U.S. Census enumeration of the Jacob M. Miller family of Buchanan County, Iowa (Liberty Township, p. 28, dwelling 196, family 188). Jacob and Ann Miller had a 14-year old Ohio-born apparent daughter. Other apparent children included 11 year-old John S. and 9-year-old Hamilton. The enumerator's handwriting was very clean and the quality of the digital image was unusually good, but the child's name presented a puzzle. A first glance, the 14-year old's name appeared to be Lester -- unusual for a girl.
What was going on here? Students in the Minnesota Genealogical Society's Beginning Genealogy class and their instructors (Lois Mackin, David Suddarth and John Schade) set out to solve the problem. The instructors suggested looking up and down the page to see if we could find the same capital letter used at the beginning of a recognizable name.
So, that's what we did. One person thought the name might be Hester, but we abandoned that idea when we noticed the "H" at the beginning of Hamilton's name was formed entirely differently. Perhaps, the name was Lester, but the first letter of the name was clearly different from the L's at the beginning of names Lucinda and Laura further down the same page. Another person was sure the first letter was an "S"and the name was "Sister." Alas, the first letter of Susanna and and Sara elsewhere on the page were formed differently.
We realized that we needed to confirm the name from another source. A 14-year old child should have been about four years old in 1850, so we searched for John and Ann Miller in Ohio in the 1850 U.S. Census. There, in Plain Township, Wayned County was Jacob and Ann Miller, with a 4-year old daughter Celeste and an infant, Hamilton. Apparently, the first letter of the 1860 name was an "L," but we will never know for sure why the name was recorded that way. Perhaps, the family called called Celeste "Leste" for short, and the census-taker thought he heard "Lester."
This short exercise points up two things. First, although most writers form their letters in a consistent manner, some people don't. Second, it always pays to look at a second source. Happy ancestor hunting to all!