Discover What Your Ancestor Did for a Living

Bee Keeping Wikipedia public Domain

Growing up, we put honey on everything—right down to our grilled cheese sandwiches. My great-grandpa, Byron Charles Peacock, was a beekeeper, also known as a “honey farmer.” Though none of my immediate family are beekeepers, our ability to work hard and long could stem from the days when my great-grandpa spent long hours working with the beehives.

Was your great-grandpa a farmer? A banker? Did your ancestors have a career in education? Learning the profession of our ancestors can help us understand who we are and why we do certain things today.

Along with beekeeping, there have been several generations of farmers and teachers in my family. My dad is a third-generation inventor. We have a few generations of postmasters. Another ancestor started not just a sawmill but he also built a flour mill, a library, was a judge, and a legislator.

Birth dates. Marriage dates. Names. Cities of origin. All of this is important for us to know as we piece together our family history, but what about delving more into the lives of these ancestors; discovering who they really were and why it matters.

Census records, local and family histories uncover lives and stories

Through the use of census records, along with local and family history stories, you can discover the professions of your ancestors. This valuable information might connect missing pieces of family stories that have been passed down through the years. A friend of mine found that some of his ancestors were doctors and lawyers who had attended Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law School. Though my friend knew some of his family history, he had no idea the extent of wealth and prestige his ancestors had in 19th-century Boston.

Not only can this information help you learn about cultural traditions that have been passed down through family lines, but you might also learn how an ancestor’s profession was influenced—or was affected by—local community events.

My paternal ancestors settled near Manti, Utah. Initially, the primary profession in that area was farming and raising cattle followed by building homes, barns, and community buildings. Another relative, George Petty, was a gunsmith. Because of his profession, he was chosen to join a rescue party to inspect a cannon belonging to a group of fifty men during the winter of 1849. They were stranded in the current town of Fillmore on their return to the Salt Lake valley from St. George.

Many early buildings in Sanpete County were made of stone that was readily available. Because of that, stone masons were very valuable in local communities. Some of my relatives were surveyors, whose job it was to survey and organize the division of property.

Stone Mason's Tools
These were some of the common stone working tool my ancestors used.

So, how can census records and city directories be used to learn what your ancestors did for a living? Reading census records is like traveling through time, capturing a glimpse of an entire population at a specific time and place. The information found in census records provides an overall picture of entire family groups. Browsing census records can be helpful for those who have family members living within a defined geographic area.

A well-indexed census is a relatively easy way to locate where an ancestor lived and when they lived there.

The Federal Census, taken every 10 years from 1790 to the present, has evolved from merely counting people to providing more useful information including what they did for work, health, housing, and other bits of useful information. Census data now contains not only names and ages, but also information about family relationships, employment and income data, and language spoken, to name a few. Due to privacy, the latest census records available to the public are the 1940 U.S. Federal census records.

Census records are digitized and indexed by several organizations and are available online at and on FamilySearch’s partner website, The United States Census Online Genealogy Records gives links to the most popular census records. For tips on searching census records, refer to the FamilySearch Wiki article titled Beginning Research in United States Census Records.

The information you learn from reviewing census records and reading histories about what your ancestors did to provide for their families will give you a fascinating glimpse into the lives of your ancestors. You may discover what you do for a living may not be that different from what some of your own ancestors did and that is one way family history draws us closer to our ancestors.

This article was written and submitted by Cheri Marie Peacock.

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