Job Hunting: Researching Your Ancestors’ Employment

By David A. Fryxell Premium
Think of all the paperwork you generate at your job: countless memos, reports, requisitions, invoices and more. But that’s just the beginning. Every employee requires a small mountain of human-resources forms and files, from pay stubs and accounting records, Social Security and unemployment documents, to insurance and benefits rigmarole. You might take up some ink in employee newsletters, annual reports and other industry publications, as well. A job is a paperwork-producing monster, gobbling up trees and (these days) bits and bytes like the shark from Jaws.

Your ancestors’ occupations may have been simpler — “mill worker” or “miner,” say, rather than “assistant sub-director of inventory maximization analysis” — and the resulting paperwork less onerous and Byzantine, but their jobs still generated records. And buried within those records might be the clues you need to break through the brick walls in your research.

True, most of the memos and such cranked out at your job — or your ancestors’ — lack any obvious genealogical value. But family historians often struggle simply to uncover an ancestor’s name and to prove he or she existed. Some descendant of yours might find just what she needs in your memo explaining how losing the Maxcorp account wasn’t really your fault.

Moreover, job-related paperwork is full of dates and places — exactly what a savvy genealogist needs to follow up in more-conventional records. If you found that your great-grandfather built carriages in Cincinnati in 1880, for instance, you’d know where and when to look for him in the census and city directories. You could guess that your grandfather (his son), who was born about that time, might have a birth record in Cincinnati.

But occupational records can unlock more than mere clues. Employment applications can include key dates and places of previous employment and education; entries about hobbies; and various personal data, such as religion and marital status, that employers aren’t allowed to ask anymore. Apprenticeship and indenture paperwork typically included the names of a young worker’s parents. The US Railroad Retirement Board’s pension records contain copies of employees’ death certificates. If your ancestor was licensed as a barber in Arkansas, the state board of barber examiners may have his photograph, part of a collection the Arkansas History Commission has been digitizing and posting online.

Finding a Job (your ancestor’s, that is)

You might think that your ancestors probably didn’t have jobs in today’s sense. Farmers, after all, may have generated land records instead of payroll listings or union memberships. But the notion that most Americans in yesteryear were farmers is a misconception: By 1880, more than half of working Americans already were engaged in something other than agriculture. So odds are good that your early 20th-century or even late 19th-century ancestor had an occupation that left a paper trail for you to follow.

To start delving into your ancestors’ occupational records, you have to know what they did for a living. That can seem like a classic catch-22: If an ancestor is a “brick wall” in your research, how the heck are you supposed to find out about his occupation? But uncovering an ancestor’s employment may be simpler than you think.

As with any other genealogical search, your hunt for occupational records should start at home. Look through letters, files and old family papers: Your ancestor may have brought job-related paperwork home, or a letter may contain an offhand remark about Great-grandpa’s promotion at the plant. You could come across old paycheck stubs, bankbook entries or account books. Seek out anything related to pensions in particular. Scan for clues in old family photos, as well: I never knew about my grandfather’s stint as an autoworker, for example, until my cousin shared a photo of him on the assembly line, building Model-A Fords.

Interview older family members for leads. Grandma may be more likely to remember where her father went off to work every day than the answers to other questions you’ve posed to her. Family lore or handed-down family histories might tell you that an ancestor was a doctor or a minister — which can lead you to more-specific information in professional archives.

Next, hit the library and the Internet. If you can find an ancestor in a city directory, the listing usually will give both his occupation and employer. For instance, the entry for Robert H. Johnson in the 1894 Great Barrington, Mass., directory includes this information: “porter, E. Hollister & Son.” As this example shows, your ancestor didn’t have to live in a major metropolitan area to be listed in a city directory. The Salt Lake City-based Family History Library (FHL)  has microfilmed a vast number of city directories; you can search the catalog online and then borrow the microfilm through a branch Family History Center (to locate one near you, visit their website). The subscription website has put city directories from across the country online, so you quickly can search for signs of your kin. For more on city directories and where to find them, see the website City Directories of the USA.

Various types of town and county history books, including the forerunners of today’s Who’s Who volumes, often mentioned what local leading lights (and even some lesser lights) did for a living. You can find these publications in your ancestral hometown’s library or historical society, in larger public libraries and in genealogy collections such as those at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Sutro Library in San Francisco. Many such books have been microfilmed by the FHL: Your Wichita, Kan., ancestors, for example, might be mentioned — along with their occupations — in the two-volume History of Wichita and Sedgwick County, Kansas: Past and Present, Including an Account of the Cities, Towns and Villages of the County edited by Orsemus Hills Bentley. HeritageQuest Online’s Genealogy & Local History Collection — accessible at subscribing libraries as well as’s Family and Local Histories Collection (subscription required) — lets you search many such books, as well as city directories. Specify place, surname and even keywords such as baker or dentist to learn, for example, that Henry Riggs worked as a civil engineer in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1891 — according to Ann Arbor: The First Hundred Years by O.W. Stephenson.

Newspapers also can tell you an ancestor’s occupation. Obituaries, of course, usually detail the deceased’s employment history. But by searching your ancestor’s hometown paper, you also might find your answer in business articles, legal notices and even advertisements. If you get tired of scrolling through microfilmed newspapers,’s Historical Newspaper Collection lets you search for ancestors online in a single periodical or dozens at once. A search of the Adams Sentinel in Gettysburg, Pa., for instance, would reveal that William N. Irvine was a lawyer — he made the paper July 27, 1835, when he was named prosecuting attorney of his county.

From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine