Archive | Genealogy

This blog is about genealogy and family history. From the beginning of time, people have sensed a need to belong – to be connected with others. Genealogy is a unique and personalized form of history, transferring photos, documents, medals, personal letters, and oral history from one generation to the next.
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Of Occupations and Ancestors

Blacksmith and his forge - Ancestors and occupations

[Editor’s note: Genealogy expert Thomas MacEntee looks back at the various occupations of our ancestors and how work records can assist family history research.]

Do you know what a farrier is? Until I started researching my own family history, I had no idea (it is someone who specializes in hoof care for horses, including horseshoes). Work and occupations were an important part of the lives of our ancestors and believe it or not, even the simplest trade left a trail of records and objects just waiting to be discovered. Not just around Labor Day, but every day, why not investigate how your great-greats made a living and what attracted them to certain occupations? You’ll not only gain a better picture of their lives, but also be able to produce a more comprehensive history of your family.

Commemorative Objects Related to Employment

BofRT-pins Ancestors and occupationsFamily historians should always be on the lookout for items that are related to how, when and where family members earned their living.

  • Pins commemorating workplace anniversaries or awards.
  • Pins noting membership in a union or work social group.
  • Tie tacks and cufflinks with company or union emblems.
  • Watches and other items such as silver trays awarded upon retirement.
  • Fabric ribbons worn at union meetings or other gatherings.
  • Union membership cards and employee identification cards.
  • Newsletters and other paper ephemera such as menus for company holiday parties.

On larger items, check for inscriptions and note the dates, names and locations. Most of these items can be scanned easily using the Flip-Pal mobile scanner and then added to your genealogy documentation files.

Occupational Record Types

There are many types of records, some obvious and others not, that provide clues as to the types of occupations for your ancestors.


  • Trade Association Records: Check with your local historical society for access to records, as well as on Google Books and the Internet Archive. The association may still exist, so it is worth researching on the Web and finding out if they provide access to records.
  • Union Records: While unions are in decline in the 21st century, check to see if the union still exists. If not, check online for any history of the union and if records still exist. Research newspapers for stories about the union and also check Google Books for any newsletters or yearbooks produced by the union.
  • Retirement Records: Some lines of work, like railroad occupations, had independent retirement boards on the federal and/or local levels. Check for records.

Not So Obvious

  • Federal and State Census: Starting in 1840 for the US Federal Census, occupation information was tracked, but only for head of household and only in specific categories. Starting in 1850, when each individual was enumerated, any occupation could be listed for each person over the age of 15. For state census records, occupation data varies from state to state and the year the census was taken.
  • Nonpopulation Census Records: A variety of supplements to the US Federal Census were compiled for specific years. These include agricultural and manufacturing schedules as well as mortality schedules.
  • Vital Records: Many vital records, such as death certificates and marriage licenses or certificates, would note the occupation of a person or persons.
  • City and Business Directories: Very often a person’s occupation was listed in the directory. Also locate the business in the directory and check for any advertisements for the business.
  • Military Draft Records: In the United States, for World War I and II, an occupation was listed on draft registration cards.
  • Accident Reports: Some trades, such as coal mining, were heavily regulated and all accidents had some reporting requirements.
  • Newspapers: General news might include the announcement of a new business or a relocation of an existing business. Also look at the advertisements for businesses. Obituaries often listed an occupation for the decedent as well.
  • Church Bulletins: Local employers took out advertisements in bulletins and newsletters. Also many announcements about parishioners might include an occupation.

Ways to Use Ancestors Occupation Data

For many researchers, finding out about an ancestor’s job is merely a data point that is entered into genealogy database software. But there is so much more that a family historian can do with the information!

  • Look for others on nearby census sheets with the same occupation and look for connections between them and your ancestor.
  • Determine the name of the employer or company and the address. Use Google Maps to plot the workplace in relation to your ancestor’s address on the census.
  • Look for any social groups created by other employees. Around the turn of the 20th century it was common for such groups to go on outings such as picnics and boat excursions.
  • Research the history of the employer or company. Look for mentions in newspapers. Use state and local government repositories to research corporate records.
  • Contact the local historical society to see if they have files on local businesses. Sometimes when a business shuts down, they will donate certain records to a local society.

Don’t Forget Volunteer Work!

Offering up your time and labor towards community causes is a hallmark of family history for many of us. When an ancestor volunteered with a group they often brought a specific set of skills with them that they donated freely. Look for clues by researching the type of volunteer work performed, the group or organization focus and the committees in which your ancestor worked.

Another important yet overlooked aspect of volunteer work is that many women participated in such work as a way to socialize with other women and to break up the monotony of keeping house. Research every aspect of your female ancestor’s volunteerism and you may find some interesting information!

Occupation Data – Work It!

As you can see there is far more occupation-related data out there, both online and in-person, than most of us realize. Use this information and put it to work as you document the history of your family. Having an occupation or trade was more than just survival; it also provided our ancestors with ways to connect with others in the community. The paper trail left behind is out there and waiting to be discovered.

Resource List

  • The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians, by Barbara Jean Evans
  • Cyndi’s List – Occupations
  • Glossary of Old Occupations and Trades
    Many occupations we recognize today had different names in the past and some occupations no longer exist!
  • Nonpopulation Census Records
  • The Way We Worked – Genealogy and Labor–genealogy-and-labor
    Recorded episode of GeneaBloggers Radio discussing occupations and genealogy.
  • Workday Wednesday – Pinterest
    Follow blog posts from members of related to occupations and ancestors.

Photo #1: Blacksmith and his forge. The Pocahontas Corporation, Mines 33-34, Bishop, Tazewell County, Virginia. Taken by Russell Lee, 27 August 1946, for the US Department of the Interior. Public Domain.

Photo #2: Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen pins, photo courtesy of Patrick Johnson.

Independence Day

Thomas MacEntee of High Definition Genealogy investigates the origins of Independence Day and how our families have celebrated the holiday.
Patriotic family

Recently, I went through some old photos of my family celebrating Independence Day and it was interesting to see some of the same traditions from past generations still hold true today. Naturally I had to do some research as to how some traditions got started and why we mark this national holiday in certain ways.

The Declaration of Independence – Read Wide and True

The first printing of the Declaration of Independence was made late in the afternoon on Thursday, July 4, 1776 by a local Philadelphia printer. Since the Continental Congress had mandated that proclamations of the document be made throughout the nation, copies were dispersed on horseback to each colony. While the Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote (German language) newspaper was the first newspaper to announce news of our nation’s independence, it was the Philadelphia Evening Post, which printed the declaration in full on July 6, 1776.

When Was the First Independence Day Celebration?

The first celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 was a year later in Philadelphia, the same city where the congress was held. Festivities included music, parades and fireworks. The first official recognition of Independence Day as a holiday was by the Massachusetts legislature in 1781. The oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration is in Bristol, Rhode Island, where it has been held since 1785.

It wasn’t until 1870 that Congress made July 4 of each year a national holiday to recognize the start of this nation. And in 1941, it became a paid holiday for all federal government employees.

July 2 – The Real Independence Day?

Did you know that originally there was quite the controversy over which day to celebrate our nation’s independence? The original resolution put forth in the Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee, the delegate from Virginia, was adopted on July 2, 1776. It was that same day that John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”

Adams was so adamant as to the “correct” date for celebration that he supposedly refused to attend events related to our nation’s independence if they fell on July 4. Ironically, he and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826.

United States Flag as Photo Identifier

Many of the old photos of your family marking the Fourth mostly likely show them holding small flags or have flags displayed. If you know the history of our country’s flag, and when the configuration of stars was changed, you have a handy clue to help you date a photo.

Visit the Flag Timeline at and you’ll see that the U.S. flag had 45 stars as of 1896 (when Utah became a state on January 4)and then had 46 stars after November 16, 1907 (when Oklahoma became a state).

It isn’t always easy to count the stars due to folds etc., but look at how the edges of the field are laid out and there is a difference between the versions. Also keep in mind that although some families didn’t replace their flags right away, you’ll at least know that a 46 star flag had to be after 1907, etc.

Fourth of July Ephemera and Memorabilia

As you sift through your family archives and mementos, you may come across a variety of items related to the Fourth of July: old photos, postcards, programs for concerts and readings of the Declaration of Independence.

These items offer a glimpse at how our families celebrated this holiday in years gone by. Look closely at what people wore, what activities they attended and, if you’re lucky enough to find letters and diaries, how they felt about the holiday. Many of these items are easy to scan using the Flip-Pal mobile scanner and the digital images can be incorporated into your family history research.

* * *

No matter how you choose to celebrate this year, capture those memories through photos, stories and writing. Preserve a snapshot of how you and your family mark this, and other holidays, so future generations can better understand the importance of Independence Day.


Shall Our Gratitude Sleep? Remembering Our Veterans

RobertSAustin[Editor’s note: Genealogy expert Thomas MacEntee discusses how you can memorialize the military service and achievements your ancestors.]

“When our perils are past, shall our gratitude sleep?” (—George Canning) represents the sentiments of many when it comes to honoring those who gave their lives in military service. We often feel a duty not just to remember our military ancestors, but also to make sure future generations never forget their sacrifices.

Most of us will mark Veterans Day or Remembrance Day on November 11th in different ways: attending a memorial service at a military cemetery, watching a parade or simply noting the day with our own thoughts and memories of family members who served.

And some will take time to work on projects devoted to memorializing the military service and achievements of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and generations on end.

Gathering Records, Photos and Mementos

Before you create any tribute, take time to gather as much information about the veteran as you can. Here are some obvious and not-so-obvious hiding places:

  • Photos: Family photo albums and scrapbooks; also ask relatives if they have any related photos. These should be scanned using your Flip-Pal mobile scanner and digitized so you always have a secure copy.
  • Medals and Patches: Medals awarded in combat during military service; patches worn on jackets and other items of clothing; dog tags and other ID items. These can be scanned as well and incorporated in digital or online tributes.
  • Letters and Diaries: Letters from the veteran sent home and vice versa, from loved ones to the veteran if they were saved. If the veteran or people mentioned in the documents are still alive, make sure you get permission to use the items. And again, don’t forget to scan these letters and diaries!
  • Interviews: If your veteran family member is still living, take time to conduct an interview about their service. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress has sample interview questions on their website: Record the audio or video interviews and transcribe the text as well.

Create a Lasting Tribute

There are various creative ways you can remember family members past and present that served in the military. Many of these projects involve photos—both printed and digital—as well as the use of medals, ribbons, patches and even written diaries and letters. Some inspiring ideas:

  • Create an Online Memorial Page: There are many sites such as Fold3 where you can create a multi-media online tribute to a veteran. Most are free and don’t require a membership or subscription.
  • Build or Fill a Shadow Box: If you have several 3-dimensional items such as medals and patches or dog tags along with photos, you might choose to build a shadow box, which is basically a deep-framed box with a glass door. You can also choose to purchase a shadow box and then fill it with various items you’ve collected.
  • Publish a Memory Book: Once photos and documents are scanned, they can easily be uploaded to various publishing vendors to create a quick and easy photo book. Include quotes and scans of medals as well.
  • Create a Military Family Tree: Many families have generations of veterans who served in various wars and engagements. Consider creating a family tree chart listing names and dates of service along with photos.
  • Write A Story: Use letters, diaries and interviews, as well as other items gathered through research, to write the story of a veteran. Make sure you include ways to share your written tribute including blog posts, a printed book or even an e-book.

Any tribute you create will help tell the story of that veteran and their service and allow you to pass the story down to future generations.

Image: Robert S. Austin, abt. 1918. Photo in possession of Thomas MacEntee. Used by permission.