Ever wonder if your family tree was filled with sturdy, salt-of-the-earth farmers; skilled, meticulous craftsmen; hardworking laborers; or perhaps something with a little danger such as a sailor on the rough sea?
Many people enjoy learning about their ancestors’ occupations, but did you know that this kind of research can do much more than just satisfy your curiosity? It can take your genealogy research to the next level.
Why Study Your Ancestors' Occupations
So why are occupations so important anyway? And what can knowing about occupations do for you as a genealogy researcher?
It can do a lot! Knowing this information can help you in at least the following ways:
- It can help you keep your ancestors distinct. Occupations can help you recognize your ancestors in the records—particularly if you have an ancestor with a common name.
- You can gain insights into your ancestors’ lives. By doing a little research on your ancestors’ occupations, you can understand what their daily lives were like as well as get a good idea of their economic standing in the community.
- It can help you identify other records to search. Records exist for certain occupations, which can lead to new discoveries and help you extend your family tree.
Finding Your Ancestors’ Occupations
How do you locate information about your ancestors’ occupations? The good news is that many records include it. Here are a few examples:
- Census records
- European parish records—particularly later ones
- City directories
- Military records such as World War I and II draft registration cards and pension records
- Passenger lists
- Death and probate records
This record on the right, from the 1841 English census, is a great example. It tells us this James Harris was a blacksmith, which makes it easier to distinguish him from any other James Harris from the area.
You may already have some of these records for your family. If you haven’t noticed an occupation listed in those records, go back and look again. You might already have the information right there at your fingertips. If not, many of these records are available on FamilySearch.org.
Locating Occupation Records on FamilySearch
Once you know your ancestor’s occupation, it’s time to start exploring the types of occupational records might be available. Fortunately, FamilySearch.org offers many resources and links to help you. The two most important resources are the FamilySearch Wiki and the FamilySearch Catalog.
A great place to start searching for occupational records is the FamilySearch Wiki page for the place that your ancestor lived—whether it be a foreign country or a state in the United States. To get to these wiki pages, click Search on the main navigation bar on FamilySearch.org, and then click Wiki. Then, in the search bar on the Wiki home page, type the name of the place you’re interested in, or select it by clicking on the map on the right side of the screen.
Once you have located a country or state’s wiki page, find the Record Types box on the right side of the page, and click Occupations. The kind of information you’ll find here varies from place to place. Some examples of information you might find include the following:
- Historical backgrounds and general descriptions of major occupations in the area.
- Lists of occupational records and how to locate them, including links to many collections online through FamilySearch.org and other websites.
- Explanations of old occupations that may not exist anymore and links to websites that specialize in defining old occupations.
For foreign countries, be sure to check the Word List to find translations of common occupations found in the records.
Another way to find occupational records is to drill down to a specific locality—and the FamilySearch Catalog is just the tool you need. Click Search on the main navigation bar, and then click Catalog. In the catalog search bar, type your place of interest. This place-name might be anything from a country to a state to a county or even a town. In fact, it’s a good idea to check several kinds of jurisdictions because records are filed according to how they were kept. If someone put together an index of doctors in Utah, you’ll find that index in a search for Utah; while a history of cattle farmers in Wayne County, Utah, would be found in a county search.
Your catalog search will produce a list of records available for that place. You may find occupations or other related topics, such as “Occupations—Indexes” listed in the catalog. Click the item in the search results to learn what records are available. Not all places have occupational records listed. Keep in mind that just because records aren’t listed here, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It just means FamilySearch doesn’t yet have those records.
As you begin exploring the records available through the FamilySearch Catalog, you’ll start to see the wide range of occupational sources that exist. Some records describe the occupation in general, and some provide lists of people who worked in that occupation—sometimes accompanied with photos. Still others provide more in-depth information about those particular individuals.
While FamilySearch has a great collection of occupation records, don’t limit yourself only to FamilySearch collections. The wiki pages often provide links to collections around the web. And members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can get free access to FamilySearch’s partners—some of the largest genealogical research databases available—and can continue the search for occupation records on websites such as Ancestry.com, findmypast.com, MyHeritage.com, and others. Learn more about how to set up an account here.
With this background, you’ve got the resources you need to get started with occupation research and open up new possibilities for understanding your ancestors and extending your family lines.
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