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The X-Mark Signature

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

Genealogy requires a lot more than simply clicking the wiggling green leaves on, saving the predetermined information, and, to paraphrase a wise genealogist from a recent class, tracing your family back to Charlemagne over the course of a single weekend. If this is the extent of your genealogy journey, let's talk! I might be able to give you some tips to build on your current research.

As genealogists, we must read and analyze every single document, correlating information, and resolving conflicts. Sometimes this analysis also requires translation. This may be a language to language translation or possibly finding a current equivalent to an old or obsolete word or term. Often these translations lead to new discoveries about our ancestors and their stories. The prompt for Week 10 of the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks writing challenge is, "Translation."

My third great grandfather, Wolf Singer was born in Bakałarzewo, a village in Suwałki County, Podlaskie Voivodeship, in north-eastern Poland on 10 March 1832.¹ He and his wife emigrated from Göteborg, Västra Götaland, Sweden on 30 October 1891 and arrived at Ellis Island in New York on 18 November 1891.² With the exception of the arrival record, these documents required me to find someone able to translate Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Swedish to American English. Fortunately, Facebook has a group, currently with over 15,000 members, designed to help with this very thing.

Six and a half years after his arrival, Wolf applied for a United States passport on 26 April 1898.³ The person who filled out the form prepared the document for an "X-mark signature." This was typically done for instances of illiteracy or disability, where the signer was unable to affix their full and actual signature to a document. The signer's name would have been written (or typed in more recent documents) by the person completing the form, often leaving space between the first and last name for the signer to mark an "X," or a cross, in lieu of their signature. The words "his mark" or "her mark" may also be written above and/or below the signer's "X" or cross.

Examining Wolf's passport application, we can clearly see the parentheses between his first and last name and the words "his mark" written above and below what is typically just an "X" or a cross. However, there is a lot more written than a simple "X" or a cross! Translating the markings, it became clear that Wolf Singer actually signed his US passport application with his full and actual signature, in Yiddish!

Clip from Wolf Singer's Passport Application. Red box added for emphasis.

Why this document was prepared for an X-mark signature but signed with a full and actual Yiddish signature, is a matter of speculation. Wolf Singer has not been located within the 1900 US Federal Census, perhaps because he was traveling abroad with his recently obtained passport. This specific census asked if a person could read or write and whether they spoke English. All of those answers would have provided insight into better understanding the anomaly on Wolf's passport application.

If Wolf didn't speak English, it's possible he brought an English-speaking family member, associate, or neighbor (in genealogy, we call this a person's FAN club) to help him with the passport application. Accordingly, he may have been incorrectly perceived as illiterate or disabled.

Yiddish is primarily written in the Hebrew alphabet. Not recognized as the English Alphabet, this too, may have caused the recorder to prepare this document for an X-mark signature. Reexamining the document, it's even possible, perhaps even likely, that his name, the parentheses, and the words "his mark" were added after Wolf affixed his full and actual signature.

We will likely never know the events, thought processes, or mindsets which led to this deviation from a traditional X-mark signature, but the detailed examination of this particular record and the remarkable translation of Wolf's Yiddish signature, allow us to witness a rare happening in a moment of one ancestor's life.


1. Suwałki County, Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, Register of Births, Wolf Zyngier, 1832; database with images, ( : accessed 08 March 2023), Microfilm No. C 853.

2. Göteborg, Västra Götaland, Sweden, Forteckning [Emigration Index], 1891, pg 517, Wolf Singer; database with images, Ancestry ( : accessed 08 March 2023), "Sweden, Emigration Registers, 1869-1948," image 864 of 971; citing ArkivDigital. Also, The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, database with images ( : accessed 08 March 2023), "Passenger Record, " entry for Singer, Wolf, age 59, arrived 1891 on State of California; citing passenger ID 9012267670442.

3. Wolf Singer application, 1898; database with images Ancestry ( :accessed 08 March 2023), "U.S., Passport Application, 1795-1925," image 533-680; citing National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Passport Applications, 1795-1925, Roll 505; 18 Apr 1898-30 Apr 1998


Disclaimer: Each blog post is created and presented for marketing and entertainment purposes only but are based on larger research which adheres to the standards of The Board of Certification of Genealogists® as set forth in Genealogical Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry Imprint, Turner Publishing, 2014).

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