Your ancestor’s occupation provides clues to your genealogy research. Explore how to determine what your ancestor did for a living!
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 his/her 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 beginning at sundown on Friday and running through sundown on Saturday, 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. He didn’t suddenly become a fisherman and spend his days at sea.
Why does understanding your ancestors’ occupations matter?
How your 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 or her life choices, the more clues you can extract from his/her records for future research.
Where to Find An Ancestor’s Occupation
You ancestor’s occupation can be found in a surprising number of record sources. 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.
- Newspapers – Newspaper research 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?
Occupational Based Directories and Databases
Some occupations actually have their own directories and 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.
More Occupational Databases!
FindMyPast also has 167 record collections when I searched for “Occupations” recently. Was your ancestor part of the Royal Household Staff? (Really, I’m hoping to find an ancestor or two in that collection!)
Perhaps you want to check the British Army Schoolchildren and Schoolmasters 1803-1932 for your ancestor. Do you have an ancestor who was a teacher in Chester County, PA? Check out Chester County, Pennsylvania, Poor School Children Teachers Bills Index, 1810-1842 . Yes, it’s at FindMyPast!
Sometimes you may discover your ancestor’s occupation only to not have a clue what they actually did! Many of the jobs our ancestors may have performed generations ago no longer exist or are needed.
A quick google search for “archaic occupations” will take you to a number of websites listing out those occupations. Or simply perform a google search for the specific occupation.
Below are examples of the more unusual or fun occupations I have come across:
- Accipitrary – A falconer
- Barker – A tanner
- Milesman – Someone responsible for keeping a specific section of railroad track in good condition
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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