We have all heard the expressions, “make your mark” or “put your X on the line”, but do you know where they come from? Chances are if you’ve researched for a while you’ve encountered a document where someone signed their name with an X. Legal documents such as land or will records frequently contain such signatures. Often the presence of an X is an indication that the signer could not read or write, an important clue when you are trying to determine the social and economic status of an ancestor. There are exceptions, however. It is not uncommon to find a literate but very elderly person signing with an X. This is particularly true with wills where the signer may have been too frail to sign their complete name.
While Xs were common in early American documents, there were also a host of unique marks used by Europeans. For example, a few years ago on a trip to Sweden I encountered an index of marks used by the farmer’s in Bergsjö, one of my ancestral villages. The mark was used in place of a signature on legal documents. While marks are personal and not passed from father to son, often the son’s mark would resemble his father’s. Perhaps a mark that looks like the letter A would lose one leg, or a mark that resembles a T would be shortened or lengthened. Still, to the townsfolk, that mark was as unique as a signature.
Signatures and marks are not only compelling for their visual interest but also because they can help us to distinguish our ancestor from others with similar names living in the same region at the same time. For instance, if two James Johnsons aged 40 were living in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1783, one a farmer, one a town clerk, how can you tell them apart? If you attributed the service of town clerk to your ancestor but your James Johnson signed his will with an “x”, it is likely he was the farmer and not the clerk. Many public offices and professions required reading and writing skills. Similarly, if you find the same two men served in the local militia or in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, it is likely that the James Johnson who could read and write would hold a higher rank than the man who could not.
Though being illiterate likely limited the public offices, military ranks and possibly the overall success (in today’s terms) of many of our ancestors, it was the norm for most of human history and is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. For an informative and fascinating project, try locating the wills, military pensions or land records of each of your direct ancestors and create a family tree that charts their educational progress through the generations. Instead of photographs, clip an image of their signature, or in the case of those that couldn’t read and write, their mark. Not only will this unique tree be beautiful to look at but it will being a tangible reminder of your ancestor’s achievements.