Tuesday Tips

Tuesday Tips #2

How can I tell if my ancestors were Illiterate?

First, let’s define Illiterate, Illiterate means “unable to read or write” (Oxford Dictionary). Many of our ancestors were illiterate, especially if you have non-western ancestry, Eastern European ancestry, or poor ancestors. Historically public schools didn’t exist and even when they did not every child attended. Some children and adults learned to read and write at a place of worship like a Synagogue, Church, Mosque, Ect. In 1900 in America, the illiteracy rate was ten percent or one in ten (, and it was lower in the past, it’s very likely one of your ancestors were illiterate weather 100 years ago or 200 years ago.

But let’s go back to the question. “How can I tell if my ancestors were Illiterate?”, there are many ways, one common way is contextualizing our ancestors in their world. Was your ancestor poor? An Immigrant from a Non-Western European Country? These are just a few questions to ask yourself. But this isn’t a definite way to prove that your ancestors were illiterate, we can only do this with records.

One of the easiest ways for an American researcher to find out if your ancestors were able to read and write is the Census, particularly 1850 through 1930 Census. 

“United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 5 August 2014), Arkansas > Arkansas > ED 1 Arkansas & Chester Townships > image 11 of 53; citing NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

But not everyone has ancestors in the USA so another way to figure out if your ancestors were illiterate is if a record has a signature, if your ancestors were illiterate then they would have written their Mark and not their name. As you can see in the records below Wojciech Myszak was illiterate, but his wife Katarzyna was Literate. 

“Pennsylvania Civil Marriages, 1677-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 30 January 2017), Philadelphia > Marriage licenses, no 334900-335499, 1915 > image 1416 of 2075; citing the Register of Wills Offices from various counties.

What other ways do you find to tell if your ancestors were literate or literate? I’d love to know! 

By SlavicGenealogy

A Polish-American Genealogist. Member of The Hidden Branch, NextGen, TheirVoices Podcast. Student of The National Institute of Genealogical Studies. My Field of specialty is Western Slavic research (Polish, Czech, and Slovak). Dabbles in Irish, Romanian, Italian, and German Research. Massive lover of immigration research and always willing to step outside of my research field.

One reply on “Tuesday Tips #2”

Another great post. The 1911 England & Wales census is the first one we can see people’s own writing. my grandmother’s Auntie Kate filled the form out on behalf of her husband and signed it. She then crossed out her initials and put his instead – he should have completed it as head of household. A very clear sign he was almost certainly illiterate. I also have a photograph of him holding a book – this is a catch, the studio photographers often gave people a prop such as a book to hold for interest. It doesn’t mean they could read!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s