United States Business Records

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There have always been business records but the challenge to genealogists is that they are seldom identified as genealogical records. Governments from the earliest times have issued permits and licenses to allow businesses to operate. Also from the earliest times there have guilds and trade unions governing the activities of their members and keeping records. Many businesses have also produced biographical collections of the company's officers and employees. In the Unites States publicly owned companies often produce an annual report in printed form. Cities have produced city directories listing all of the businesses in the city and included, in many cases, all of the residents. It is also important not to overlook advertisement which may contain information about the owners or operators of a business.

Many of these business records have been preserved in various libraries and other record repositories.

Some commonly available business records include or are included in the following:

  • Mortuary records
  • Farming and agricultural records
  • Slaves, Apprentices and Indentured Servants
  • Insurance records
  • Newspapers
  • Union records
  • Mining records
  • Business formation records
  • Churches
  • Railroads
  • Shipping and other transportation records
  • Business licenses and bonds
  • Professional licenses
  • Medical and Dental office records
  • Photography businesses
  • Business and other types of directories
  • Utility records

There are many more possible categories which can be suggested by studying the types of records that may have been created in the course of the business operation.

See also the following:

Online Business Records Sites

A valuable reference book for all areas of genealogical research is Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006. The entire book is online. Look in the chapter on Business, Institution and Organization Records.

All of the larger online genealogical record databases contain some business records. Some of these online sources are available only by subscription but check with your local FamilySearch Center to see if these online sources are available to patrons for free. Here are some online sources that contain business records:

Be sure to check the availability of business records in local, county and state libraries and other state record repositories. Check the list of state libraries on PublicLibraries.com

You may also wish to check each of the state's secretary of state and corporation commission for old records. For a list of the varios secretaries of state of the states see Coordinated Legal Tech. For a list of the various corporation commissions see Federal Communication Commission however, no links are provided and you will need to search for a webpage for each of the entities listed.

Mortuary records

It is not too unusual for mortuaries or funeral homes to preserve their records for a considerable period of time. Even when the mortuary is sold, sometimes the records are maintained by the new owner. As is the case with most business related records, you have to spend some time researching the geographic area where your ancestor lived in order to determine which mortuary may have been involved with the internment. In some cases, the identity of the mortuary may be recorded in the cemetery records. There is also the possibility that the mortuary donated its older records to a local historical society, library or state archive.

See also United States Funeral Homes

Mortuary or funeral home records are not uniformly kept or recorded. Depending on the location and type of records maintained the records may contain the following:

  • the location of the death
  • the names of surviving relatives
  • the dates of birth and death
  • the place of burial.

In some cases the records may contain additional information about:

  • family members
  • occupation
  • military service
  • organizational memberships
  • church affiliation
  • insurance company information

See also Researching Funeral Home Records A Genealogical Tool.

Farming and agricultural records

Most researchers do not think of using farming and agricultural records, but it is important to know that from 1850 to 1900 Agricultural Schedules were compiled in conjunction with the U.S. Census records. For more information on these records see United States Census Agricultural Schedules. See also Agricultural Schedules: 1850 to 1900. There is some information available as early as 1840. See Census of Agriculture

Agriculture Schedules can help where land and tax records are missing or incomplete. These records can be used

  • to distinguish between people with the same names
  • to document land holdings of ancestors with suitable follow-up in deeds, mortgages, tax rolls, and probate inventories
  • to verify and document black sharecroppers and white overseers who may not appear in other records
  • to identify free black men and their property holdings
  • to trace migration and economic growth

See Non-Population Schedules and Special Censuses.

Farm and agricultural cooperative organizations (Co-ops) are also a valuable resource. For an example of the types of records and organizations available see: Manuscript Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society and other similar repositories.

See also

Slaves, Apprentices and Indentured Servants

Many immigrants were slaves, indentured servants or apprentices.

Slaves were brought to America as prisoners and bought and sold as property. The slave records are essentially business records.

For information about slavery, see the following Wiki articles: (African American Research

Apprentices and indentured servant's masters paid for their passage in return for labor. Indenture and apprentice records often mention birthplace or residence.

An apprenticeship consisted of a contract between two parties, one of which is usually a minor (the “apprentice”) who is bound to the other person (the “master”) to serve him for a stated period of time, during which the master agrees to teach the apprentice an art, skill, or trade while providing complete maintenance. The agreement may include a grant of money, clothing, and/or property upon completion of the term.

On completion of an apprenticeship, an apprentice might become a Journeyman, although in early colonial America that term was not prevalent -- the apprentice simply became a paid servant. See Henry Campbell Black, Black's Law Dictionary, Fourth Edition (St. Paul:1951), West Publishing Co.

An indenture was in general, a deed or contract entered into by two or more parties, defining reciprocal grants, obligations, or commitments among them, including possibly financial, time periods, and other conditions. In genealogy, typically found as “indenture of apprenticeship”--generally involving a minor--and also “indentured servant” which may or may not involve a minor. See Encyclopedia of Genealogy

See also the following websites:

Insurance records

From fire insurance maps to databases of historical insurance policies, there are companies that date back into the 1700s providing farm, life, fire and marine insurance. Applicants for policies were asked to provide information about their beneficiaries (usually family members), their lifestyle, health, age, residence and other topics.

Most of the insurance records that are currently available are still held by the individual companies, with some records dating back to the creation of the companies. Few companies provide search services but some do allow proven descendants to search the records to look for information about an ancestor.

  • Galles, Duane L.C.M. "Using Life Insurance Policies in Genealogical Research, " Genealogical Journal 20, no. 3 & 4 (1992) 156-171.
  • Genealogy Today, Insurance Records $
  • Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.
  • Pfeiffer, Laura Szucs. Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places. Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2000.

See also Sanborn Insurance Maps


See United States Newspapers for information about searching in newspapers. Remember that newspapers are also a business and will have business records concerning employees and advertising. To contact existing newspapers, do a search online. For other newspapers, see the Chronicling America, Historic Newspapers on the Library of Congress website. Search in the US Newspaper Directory, 1690 - Present.

Union records

If you suspect that your ancestor worked at a job that could have been subject to labor union organization, then it is worthwhile to search for union records. For more extensive information on the type and location of the records see "Labor Uniton Records in the United States," prepared by the Committee on Labor Records of the Society of American Archivists in 1962. For later time periods see the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs is the largest labor archive in North America.

Mining records

There are mining records for every state where there are mines. These records may be kept in a mining museum or archive. Here are some examples of the types of repositories that might contain mining records:

You may wish to do a search for mining records with the state of origin.

Business formation records

Usually, when a new business is formed, the people forming the business have to file some legal documents to transact business in a given jurisdiction. For example, a new business being formed as a corporation, will have to file with the State department that regulates corporations. In some jurisdictions, such as cities, any business must have a business license to operate. At the same time, the business entity may also have been required to obtain a county and a state license, usually for tax purposes. These records are likely available for many years depending on the jurisdiction. They might contain quite a lot of information about the people forming the business. Unfortunately, it is rare that older records have been digitized and put online. Current records, going back as far as a hundred years, may be online. If you find that an ancestor conducted some kind of business it is important to search the business records in the all the pertinent jurisdictions.


Most churches are also businesses. If your ancestor was a minister, paster or otherwise worked for a church, there will be employment records as well as other routine business correspondence. From this standpoint, you would not be concentrating on the records kept by the church about its members or adherents, but the records of the operation of the church itself. Unfortunately, these types of records are not usually found online. You will need to go to the headquarters of the church in question to find the records and request permission to search them.

For directories of churches, see the following and similar websites. Do a search on the terms, "church directories lists."

Some of the directories may be denominational specific so you might have to search on the denomination also. You may also need to determine whether the records are maintained on a local level, regional or national level.


Shipping and other transportation records

Business licenses and bonds

Professional licenses

Hospital, Medical and Dental records

Photography businesses

Business and other types of directories

Utility records

See also