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The Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker…….
Or if I am are looking at the occupations of my ancestors the popular children’s rhyme would go something like this:
The Farmer, the Farmer and the Farmer……. Not as catchy, I’ll admit.
What did your ancestors do to make a living? What was their occupation?
A visit to the Tenement Museum in New York a few years ago, opened my eyes to the impact an ancestor’s occupation could have on genealogical research. I was particularly interested in learning information about Jewish immigrants in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I had noticed most of the ancestors in this line were tailors or peddlers. In fact, so were their neighbors!
A fantastic tour guide gave me insight why this was. In order to observe the Jewish Sabbath, the Jewish immigrant needed a job that allowed them to be able to do just that. As tailors or peddlers, they could do piece work in their home or sale their wares and still observe their Sabbath.
For farming ancestors, land was of utmost importance! Their moves and migrations were often dictated by land. They needed land to raise a family, so they went to where they could obtain land. Interestingly, farmers would often pick land typical of what they were used to. If a farmer grew up growing tobacco and was skilled in that, he often farmed tobacco if possible in his new location.
Why does this matter?
How our ancestors made a living impacted where they lived, who they associated with and what records their life generated. While knowing your ancestor’s occupation does not necessarily provide information on other generations, the knowledge does add color and depth to his/her life. The more you understand your ancestor and his life choices, the more clues you can extract from his records in future research.
Where to Find An Ancestor’s Occupation
You ancestor’s occupation can be found in a surprising number of places. Depending on the time period and location being researched, the occupation may not have been recorded. As you plan your research, familiarize yourself with the record sets.
- The Census Records of 1850-1880
- WWI draft cards – Draft cards also recorded an employer’s name if applicable.
- Obituaries – Often a deceased’s occupation is stated.
- Wills and estate records – A deceased’s job is not usually stated, but take a look at the items in the estate inventory. John Seagraves of Surry County, NC was a farmer by all accounts, but he left his hat maker tools to his nephew John White. In addition to being a farmer, John Seagraves created additional income as a hat maker.
- Marriage Records – Based on the location and the time period you are researching, an individual’s occupation will be listed.
- Death Certificates – Information about the deceased’s occupation is asked for.
- Newspapers – Newspaper can provide a variety of information on an ancestor!
- Passenger Lists – If your ancestor appears on a passenger list, look to see if their occupation is listed.
- Photographs – Do you have a photograph of your ancestor at work?
- City Directories – Directories may even provide a business address sometimes. Notice the occupations listed by these Lisson family member in 1915 Rochester, New York: bookkeeper, tailor, salesman…..
Occupational Based Directories and Databases
Some occupations actually have their own record databases. Examples include the New York Teachers Association Members, 1888, the Pennsylvania, Coal Employment Records, 1900-1954, and Post Office Records. Here’s an example of the Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 (on Ancestry.com).
Did your ancestor own a business? Check the state’s business directories.
Start exploring your what your ancestors did for a living. What clues can you glean to help move your research forward?
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