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!