Job Hunting: Finding Employment Records

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Once you’ve learned what an ancestor did for a living, what can you find out about him from occupational records? The answer varies greatly, depending on his line of work. Some careers of yesteryear simply generated more paperwork than others. Here’s a look at some of the genealogical goodies you might uncover, based on your ancestor’s occupation:

Railroad ties

If your ancestor worked in railroading — as did some 2.25 million Americans in the early 1900s — you’re in luck. The spread of trains across the continent created an even more sprawling system of paperwork, much of which has been preserved.

If you know which company your ancestor worked for, you often can find surviving records in the company’s archives or in papers that have been donated to some repository. For example, the California State Railroad Museum Library in Sacramento, Calif., <> has employment cards from the Southern Pacific Railroad dating back to 1903. Chicago’s Newberry Library archives records from the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Co. The Minnesota Historical Society <> holds the records of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific lines.

The South Suburban Genealogical Society in South Holland, Ill., has indexed nearly a million Pullman Co. records dating from 1900 to 1949 and covering 200,000 employees. Though the Pullman Collection isn’t open to the public, you can request a quick search for free using an online form at <>. If you find an ancestor, the society will send you a copy of the employee file for $10.

If your ancestor was a railroad company official, you might find him in The Biographical Directory of the Railway Officials of America, available in some libraries and archives, including the California State Railroad Museum.

The company your ancestor worked for may have merged with another railroad, requiring a sort of genealogical search of railroads’ corporate “family trees.” Moody’s Transportation Manual, found in most large libraries, can help, as can the Family Tree of North American Railroads at <>.

Retirement records for ex-railroad employees represent another treasure trove. In fact, your ancestor’s Social Security number can help you determine whether he worked for the railroads in the first place: Until 1964, railroad employees were given special numbers, with the first three digits (ordinarily designating geographic area) falling between 700 and 729. The Social Security Death Index, online in several spots including <>, can give you a deceased ancestor’s Social Security number.

The Railroad Retirement Board <> will search its records for a $27 fee. Searches are limited to the deceased, and your ancestor must have been working for a railroad after 1936. You may need to know the Social Security number in order to narrow the search adequately.

The union label

Regardless of the industry, if your ancestor belonged to a labor union, you might find him in union records. Many of these are archived at Wayne State University in Detroit, home to the Walter P. Reuther Library <>. It maintains the archives of the United Auto Workers plus unions for government employees, teachers, farm workers, flight attendants and many others.

If your ancestor’s union records have been turned over to some other archive, you can track them down using the Library of Congress’ National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), which indexes manuscripts of all sorts placed in repositories nationwide. Earlier catalogs are in print at major libraries; editions from 1986 to date are online at <>. Besides union records, NUCMC should be a first stop for almost any kind of employment record you might be seeking — don’t let the term manuscript limit you.

Federal (and local) cases

In addition to union records, ancestors who worked for the government at some level likely left as much paperwork as you’d expect from any bureaucracy. You can find federal employees — both civilian and military — in The Official Register of the United States, a listing Uncle Sam first published in 1816, then every other year from 1817 to 1959. Major libraries and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <> carry these handy volumes.

If your ancestor delivered mail for a living, read up on the history of the US Postal Service at <>. NARA keeps records of postmaster appointments, which have been microfilmed on four rolls for pre-1832 appointments (publication M1131) and 145 rolls covering 1832 to 1971 (publication M841). See <> for more on these records. Some amateur postal historians also have delved into postmasters past: Check out Jim Wheat’s Postmasters & Post Offices of Texas, 1846-1930 Web site <>. Many postmasters were actually postmistresses, so you might find your great-grandmother here, too.

On the local-government level, try historical societies and municipal archives for pensions of employees such as firefighters and police officers. Many major cities have archives dedicated to these public servants, such as the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive <>. At Cyndi’s List <>, you’ll find more links for researching public employees.

License numbers

Governments also generated records for all sorts of private occupations that required a license. As that Arkansas archive of barbers demonstrates, a wide variety of vocations had licenses over the years, from saloonkeepers to peddlers. Though you can’t count on finding photos in these files, license applications often asked for personal information — age, birth date, residence, previous residence, marital status, education — that can fill the blanks in your family tree.

Local governments granted most licenses, so you’ll find these files in municipal archives or historical societies. Some have been relocated to state repositories, so the Pennsylvania State Archives, for example, has tavern licenses from 1750 to 1855 and peddlers’ licenses from Philadelphia for 1820 to 1838. The federal government also issued some licenses, such as those for operators of marine vessels; these are stored in NARA’s regional offices.

Doctor in the house

Ancestors with medical occupations also required licenses, of course. Licenses for doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists and the like typically were issued on the state level, and thus have wound up in state archives or historical societies. The Pennsylvania State Archives, for instance, keeps records for medical and dental licenses. Occasionally such licenses were issued municipally, so the St. Louis Board of Pharmacy, for example, has an archive covering 1893 to 1909. Some medical licenses slowly are being added to the vast trove of genealogical records available online: The Washington State Archives’ Historical Records Search page <> lets you browse records of more than 9,000 physicians licensed in that state.

You also can turn to national professional organizations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA) <>, whose archives cover more than 350,000 physicians who practiced as early as 1804 (records before 1907 are not complete). The AMA’s records of physicians who died between 1864 and 1970 have been microfilmed by the FHL; the 237 reels include some Canadian doctors. The AMA also published a print directory of nearly 150,000 doctors who died between 1804 and 1929. For early physicians, you can consult American Physicians of the 19th Century, compiled from various medical journals by Charles A. O’Dell and available on microfilm from the FHL.

Similar volumes for dentists include America’s Dental Leaders and Who’s Who in American Dentistry. Your nearest dental school should have copies.

Depending on the locale, you might luck onto a regional directory of medical workers, such as the physicians, dentists and druggists directory for Minnesota and Wisconsin published in 1890 (available through the FHL).

Don’t overlook any aspect of the medical realm when seeking occupational records. The county clerk’s office in DeKalb County, Mo., for instance, keeps licenses for chiropractors in 1927 and for embalmers from 1912 through 1924.

Legal eagles

Attorney ancestors likewise had to be licensed to practice law, so they may have records in the archives of the American Bar Association <> or their state’s bar association. But you won’t necessarily have to dig into dusty boxes to find your lawyer ancestors: Most states and many counties and cities have books on the local legal profession at various points in history, typically titled The Bench and Bar of (locality name). These may cover attorneys and judges from years past, with their dates of death and ages at death. Public libraries near your ancestral stomping grounds are the best bets for consulting such volumes: If your great-grandfather practiced law in Boone County, Mo., for example, you might find him in The Bench and Bar of Boone County, Missouri, available at the Kansas City Public Library. If you live near a law school, you also can try its law library.

If you’re not sure where Great-grandpa practiced law, consult the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. This listing of American attorneys began publication in the 1860s as Martindale’s American Law Directory. Your nearest law library may have old editions.

Bank notes

Another records-rich profession is banking. If your ancestor was a banker, you may be able to find him in a banking directory. In England, directories of bankers go back all the way to 1677. On this side of the Atlantic, the American Bankers Association <> published The Bankers’ Directory in 1917, with almost 1,700 pages of listings. Other directories date as far back as 1800.

Clerical collars

You can learn a lot about clerical kin from the archives of their denomination. Many denominations published directories of their ministers, as well as in-depth accounts of ministerial meetings and progress spreading the word out West. Certain denominations also published newspapers, which recorded ministerial milestones and obituaries.

Church histories can offer genealogical blessings, too. I researched my great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Robert Robinson Dickinson, in a book called The History of Methodism in Alabama and West Florida. I found references to his 1840 admission to the ministry, and was able to trace his movements across the area as he was assigned to new churches. Finally, I found an obituary, which read in part, “Meek, guileless, and full of tenderness, he was in all respects a Christian gentleman. His presiding elder, who visited him during the afternoon prior to his death, said, ‘He had been in peace from first to told me he had been in peace from first to last during his illness, and that not a cloud darkened his sky.’” I could add all that to our family history simply because of my great-great-grandfather’s “job.”

Faculty advisory

You’ll often find records of educator ancestors in the archives of the school district or of the college or university where they taught. Many of these schools have long histories — Harvard College, after all, was founded way back in 1636. A published history of the school might mention your ancestor; Harvard has the Harvard Book, a two-volume work published in 1875 that contains history, anecdotes and rare campus photos. And don’t overlook those handy volumes that most schools publish every year — their yearbooks. Though aimed at students, these often include photos and other information on employees.
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine