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
    Recorded episode of GeneaBloggers Radio discussing occupations and genealogy.
  • Workday Wednesday – Pinterest
    Follow blog posts from members of GeneaBloggers.com 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.

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One Response to Of Occupations and Ancestors

  1. Jade September 8, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

    There are other obvious sources of occupational information:

    Wills and deeds often supply occupational identification. Sometimes land records include such items as a weaver’s loom house, or a “rope walk” sold by a rope maker.

    Tax assessment lists may state occupations, even where not specifically taxed (as in PA), if there were two taxables by the same name. The valuable 1798/1799 U. S. Direct Tax assessment had a section with descriptions of outbuildings, which might include a smith’s shop or loom house.

    From the last half of the 19th century, children’s birth records and marriage records may give occupations, especially of the male parent.

    Estate inventories / vendue bills may list specialty equipment and materials, such as staves for barrels, smithing tools, or a coverlet loom (or two looms, both indicating a weaver). One of my ancestors surprisingly had carriage-making tools. One of the appraisers was often specifically appointed because he was familiar with a tradesman’s equipment and able to describe and value it.

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