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5 Sources for Learning about Your Ancestor’s Occupation

Introduction: For Labor Day yesterday, Gena Philibert-Ortega spent some time researching her ancestors’ occupations, and wrote this article to share some of the resources she used. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

What did your ancestor do for a living? Have you thought about writing more about their work life? Occupational records include a great variety of records created at their place of employment (work identification, paperwork, pensions, periodicals, manuals), or through their union (membership card, periodicals), or what’s written about that occupation at the time by those in the occupation or observing it (newspapers, reports, books, articles), and now (newspapers, books, periodicals, blogs).

An ancestor’s occupation provides us insight into his or her everyday life, and is just one way to better understand them. Occupation research can be challenging because it may not be found in the usual places we look to for genealogical information, so being creative with your research plan is a must. It’s also important to remember that you aren’t just finding documentation on your ancestor, you’re also learning more about that occupation at a specific place in time.

So, where should you start looking?

(1) History Books

Research requires books. I’m not just talking about books that list your ancestor by name (though those are great finds as well). You need to search for books about a specific location, about an occupation’s history, and books with images of a historic time period.

To start your search, consult worldwide library catalog WorldCat. This library catalog of two billion items is a good place to begin your search for relevant items. Search using keywords for the place your ancestor lived, their occupation, industry, or the company they worked for. The benefit of WorldCat is that you can click on a result, enter your zip code and see what library near you has the item. However, not every library participates in WorldCat, so you should also consult your local library.

If you’re researching a location in the United States, consider taking a look at Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America books. These books, with the familiar sepia tone cover, tell the story of a place in images. These images might help you identify what’s available image-wise for telling the story of your own ancestor. They are also a great way to learn more about a place.

(2) Archives

A variety of archives should be consulted, including archives for a locality, an academic institution, a historical society, or even a company. Archives hold manuscript collections that include occupational records. Businesses and other local entities donate their records to archives which in turn catalog, store, and make them available to researchers.

To search archives, start with ArchiveGrid. Like WorldCat, this is not a catalog of every archival collection (for example, it doesn’t include the National Archives), but it’s a great place to begin your research. Make sure to use a keyword search, not a name search, for your ancestor’s business, company, industry, occupation or the location they worked or lived.

Screenshot: search for “Southern Pacific Railroad.” Credit: ArchiveGrid.
Screenshot: search for “Southern Pacific Railroad.” Credit: ArchiveGrid.

In this example I searched on “Southern Pacific” to find records dealing with the Southern Pacific Railroad. This resulted in over 6,000 hits, including this one for company records that include some employees’ names. According to the entry, there is an online finding aid that will help better understand what’s available; otherwise, I may want to contact New Mexico State University to learn more.

Screenshot: from a search for “Southern Pacific Railroad,” a hit from New Mexico State University. Credit: ArchiveGrid.
Screenshot: from a search for “Southern Pacific Railroad,” a hit from New Mexico State University. Credit: ArchiveGrid.

(3) Museums

You know that museums are a great place to visit for interesting exhibits – but what about research? Yes! Museums have libraries and archives, and in some cases online digital collections. Choosing a museum that is topic-specific, such as for an occupation, can help you learn more about that occupation and maybe even find your ancestor.

If I wanted to continue to explore the Southern Pacific Railroad, I might choose to go to the California State Railroad Museum. I can learn more about their collections for research from their Library and Archives web page. This page includes their catalog as well as digital collections. A great start if I want to research the railroad careers of the men in my paternal line.

What museum should you explore for research opportunities? Use Google to find museums in the place your ancestor lived/worked, or the company they worked for, or their occupation.

(4) Image Collections

The benefit of online image collections is that we can find images to tell our ancestor’s story when we haven’t inherited any images. Various online digital collections exist that include images with no copyright restrictions. However, before you use an image from an online source, make sure that you check copyright or publishing restrictions first.

Even if I don’t have a photo of my ancestor at their job, a photo like this one can help me illustrate what that job was like (and yes, the men in my family who worked for the railroad wore those overalls).

Photo: “Oiling Driving Wheels,” Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University; Flickr the Commons https://flic.kr/p/niTnLR.
Photo: “Oiling Driving Wheels,” Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University; Flickr the Commons https://flic.kr/p/niTnLR.

Some websites with digitized collections include:

(5) Newspapers

Of course, you knew I was going to mention online collections of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives! It makes sense that you would search for articles about your ancestor in old newspapers. If you don’t find specific information about your ancestor, consider searching for articles about the place they worked, their occupation, or their union. Basically, any newspaper article that can help tell their story. Remember: when we are telling an ancestor’s story it helps to tell the whole story so that our descendants can understand it better.

An article about the Southern Pacific Railroad, Riverside Daily Press newspaper article 27 December 1960
Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, California), 27 December 1960, page 17

Remember that on GenealogyBank you can create an alert which will help you automate your search and be notified when additional newspaper articles with your search term are added. This makes it easier to gather newspaper articles to tell the story of your ancestor’s work life.

What Did Your Ancestor Do for a Living?

My ancestors held a variety of jobs that I need to learn more about and add to my family history. More recent family worked for the railroad, served in the military, and cooked in restaurants. Prior to that I have farmers and blacksmiths in my family tree. The benefit of using occupational records in our family history is that they help tell our ancestors’ stories – but they also might reveal additional details about their lives.

Don’t stop at the same old genealogical sources. Think in terms of occupations and learn more about your ancestors!