Research Your Ancestor’s Occupation

Research Your Ancestor’s Occupation

What was business as usual for your ancestors could yield big genealogical payoffs for you. Achieve maximum returns by taking our career-searching advice.

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, pay stubs and accounting records, Social Security and unemployment documents, 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 subdirector 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

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