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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Occupational Records  by Beverly Rice, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Individuals were often defined by their occupation. Whether a lawyer, a tenant farmer or a gambler, a community thought of an individual in terms of their occupation, their life’s work. It is often referred to as “what you do for a living”, as if an individual is defined by their occupation. For this reason an individual’s occupation is a very important aspect of family history.

And yes, it is more than just knowing that the individual is a farmer. It is important to also know how many acres they tilled, what type of crops, did they own slaves and whether they were landowners or tenants. If the individual was a minister, was the work part-time or full-time? What were their religious beliefs and their function in the religious community? So many questions and the answers “tell you” so much about your individual.

When you research an individual’s occupation or “life’s work,” it is also important to determine if they used their skills to benefit their community or church. This would be volunteer work, and would reflect on their character and standing in the community. Rich or poor, individuals throughout time have used their talents and labors to help the less fortunate and build a stronger community.

Another non-paid occupations that we are all familiar with would be the term “keeping house” that was used by census enumerators. It certainly is an occupation, and most women did something to bring in that little extra money. The term “egg money” was that something extra that added to the income of a family or bought that little something extra that made life more comfortable.

If your research leads you to a family of wealth, did the women in the household volunteer outside the home? Was she an activist for a specific cause, such as suffrage or emancipation? Not what you would typically term an occupation but it could very easily be a “life’s work.”

If the individual also worked outside of the traditional work environment, (gambler, prostitution, criminal, etc.) even for a portion of their life, we should not close our eyes and ignore this experience. There are many reasons that an individual chose this path; poverty, war or social pressures. Of course there is always the possibility that an individual chose the non-traditional path for the excitement. Now, doesn’t that say something about an individual?

Do not get “hung up” in the everyday norms. Think outside of the box. We are trying to develop the full picture of an individual life. The occupation is the meat of an individual’s life. A family historian should not slide over occupations lightly.

Resources and Repositories

Since you do not have the ability to “know it all” it becomes very important to learn how to access the vast amount of records and resources available to the family historian. This is one of the first research skills that a family historian must master.

The following research guide will be beneficial to read if you are hesitating in using primary resources.

Finding Historical Primary Sources, available at The University of California at Berkeley website.

David T. Thackery, “Bibliographies and Catalogs” in Printed Sources A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, Kory L. Meyerink, editor Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1998

Each individual researcher’s quest to understand their ancestor’s “life’s work” will have its own twists and turns. There is not one record or one repository that will give you all the answers. However if you ask the questions and listen to the response you should be granted an answer or maybe just another question. Remember in any research project the questions are as important as the answer. You must understand what was asked and what was answered. Before you begin research using a specific record, have a general idea what might be found in the record.

For example: If you are working in county land records what type of information would you expect to find about a person’s occupation. Here are just a few items:

  • their stated occupation (i.e: blacksmith, yeoman, trader, physician and so on).
  • location of where they practiced this occupation (where they purchased or rented their land.)
  • location of where they last practiced their occupation (statement of a location other than the current county of residence).
  • any partnerships or corporations.
  • where they learned their trade.
  • where they might have acquired their tools.
  • any business difficulties, bankruptcy, sheriff sales, etc.
  • did they buy and sell land repeatedly, possibly as a means of an income (land speculator).

A land record has more to tell than the description of the land, the name of the grantee and grantor. You must evaluate it with a critical eye.

Repositories are numerous and following is a short list of possible repositories that the family history researcher might be using:

  • Family History Library and the local FamilySearch Center, Allen County Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana
  • Local library and the interlibrary loan system
  • National Archives and its regional branches
  • Library of Congress
  • State Library and Archives
  • County Courthouses
  • University Libraries
  • Internet (not as a repository but for the vast amount of social histories and access to public and university library catalogs).

And where are you going to find an occupation listed in these repositories? Just about anywhere.

The following is a list of record types that may be found in the repositories:

  • census records
  • vital records
  • land records
  • military records
  • pension records
  • naturalization records
  • directories
  • local histories
  • biographical sketches
  • church records
  • company records
  • social histories
  • and the list goes on.

At each repository, reference book, website or record the researcher will often be directed to another repository, reference book, website or record, that can offer more and different information. The clues, if not stated directly, are often found in the footnotes and bibliographical sections. These new sources can lead you deeper and deeper into a subject. As in all aspects of genealogical research it is important not to overlook a clue, resource or opportunity for more information.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Occupational Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.