Home History Mysteries History Mystery: 1790 Unknown Language

History Mystery: 1790 Unknown Language

Print Friendly
Share Button

MSS91_Box1_FF13_1_2_dmcccIn the McDowell family papers (MSS 91), there’s a letter from John Stuart to Andrew Reid, written in 1790. The contents of the letter is fairly mundane – Stuart has enclosed some promissory notes from people living in the same county as Reid, and wants Reid to deliver the notes to the sheriff for collection (and in one case, to bring a lawsuit agains
t the individual). On the back of the letter is about a paragraph a text written in an unknown script.

The KHS Special Collections & Library staff has made guesses as to what languMSS91_Box1_FF13_1_2_dmcage this text might be, but without success.  Upon first glance we thought it was Greek, but in looking at the Greek alphabet online, the characters do not seem to match.  We went through the same process with Hebrew.  We even considered Phoenician, which was in use from about 1000 B.C. to 200 A.D. and which is a parent alphabet to Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin.

One of our first inclinations gravitated toward shorthand, but this document pre-dates several common forms of shorthand used in the U.S. at this time. If you consider the various common forms (Pitman, Gregg, etc.), this looks similar, but something is not quite right.

Do you have any idea what this script might be?  Why would someone have written a message like this on the back of an ordinary letter? Even though the writing appears to be period with the overall letter, perhaps it was added at a later date? Even a few decades from 1790 could make a huge difference in shorthand availability. We would love some more information! To view the full letter, visit the Digital Collections Catalog: MSS 91 Letter from John Stuart to Andrew Reid, 3 March 1790


free sample just need to keep in mind that the that nothing will transform.

Share Button


  1. wrote on July 24th, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    sunday noone

    My grandmother was a stenographer and this reminds me of her shorthand.
    Maybe have a stenographer look at the note.

  2. wrote on August 11th, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Leila Lynette McDaniel

    Shorthand was my first thought too. However I do not think it is Gregg (which I learned) or Pitman that is very similar. There is a third type, Teeline, but I am not as familiar with that. I think having a stenographer look at it is a very good idea. You had better hurry though, shorthand is rapidly becoming a lost art.

    • Profile photo of Cheri Daniels
      wrote on August 12th, 2014 at 11:36 am

      Cheri Daniels

      You’re right Leila! This is quickly becoming a lost art! You noted that you learned this once upon a time. You might want to take a look at the writer’s guidelines – sharing your story about the experiences you had while learning short hand would make a great addition! Even if it is just a small piece, we’d love to hear more!

  3. wrote on March 21st, 2015 at 12:17 am

    Cole M Karcyzk

    Hello, I just wanted to give little input as I stumbled on this site. Without getting into to much speculation, I also write just like these characters and have been since around 1984. One day when I was sitting and taking a rest I started to sing to the Lord in my prayer language and my hand started writing and I had to just let it go and write, when I tried to think or take control I would stop. I do not believe this is “Automatic” writing as I believe it is my spirit writing to the Lord. Within a few months of this writing, I started taking Hebrew in college( not for the writing) but, to go to Israel to finish my schooling in Archaeology. My Hebrew teacher brought my writings to a DEPARTMENT HEAD at UCLA in Aramaic and crazy thing she became my girlfriend 16 years later. Both in 1986 and later when I spoke to her( Aramaic teacher/girlfriend) she said that it is a Aramaic but, a primitive form. She could tell it had Aramaic letters but to decipher the writing would take a long time because when I write it is like practicing letters for the first time. Anyways just FYI…
    Thank you,

Add a comment

Time limit exceeded. Please complete the captcha once again.