Who Are Your Ancestors?

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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill - 4/10/2001


Working For a Living

Many of us are at least partially defined by our occupation and most of us need employment to support ourselves, a few descendants, and perhaps a genealogy habit. Our ancestors were no different. Learning more about your ancestor's occupation may teach you not only more about your forebear but also more about the time and world in which he lived.

For recent ancestors, determining the occupation may be a relatively easy process. Census records, obituaries, death certificates, city directories, and other records may provide occupational information. Your ancestor may have attended a trade school in order to learn an occupation. Depending upon the time period, birth certificates of your ancestor's children may also provide information on the occupation of the parents.

The content of such records may vary greatly. My wife's birth certificate has a place for father's occupation (but not that of the mother). My birth certificate has no place for information on the father's occupation. My wife and I were born less than one year apart in the same state. However these and other records, especially when compared over time, may provide an inkling to the family's social status. Census records for an ancestor may reveal several different occupations over the course of a lifetime.

Records such as this are easier to use for they state occupation directly. It may be necessary to translate archaic job descriptions into modern terms. In some cases, the job may no longer even exist and learning what an ancestor actually "did" may provide you with a great lesson in history and economics. Early records may imply an occupation without directly stating what it is.

Estate inventories are an especially good source for occupation implication. One must be careful from drawing conclusions too quickly. It may be advisable to compare your ancestor's estate inventory to others from the same time period, especially if you are unfamiliar with the time period and the geographic location. One cow does not a farmer make, nor does one needle and thread imply that the ancestor was a tailor.

However, if your ancestor had over forty gallons of whiskey and brandy in his estate inventory (as one of my forebears did) concluding your ancestor owned a tavern would be reasonable. One should still try and search other records to either learn more about the tavern or to disprove the theory altogether. In this case, there were many pounds of apples and spices, along with a counter scale, so it appeared that the ancestor owned some type of general store or tavern—perhaps the 1850s equivalent of a convenience store (minus the gasoline of course). This ancestor is not listed in the 1850 census (when he likely moving from Ohio to Illinois) and died before the 1860 census. Consequently, no record listing his occupation exactly is known to exist.

Another ancestor's early 1700s Virginia estate inventory includes a significant amount of cloth and many types of needles and threads. An admittedly curt comparison with other estate inventories from the same county and time period did not reveal other estates with similar quantities of such items. In this case, it seems likely that the ancestor was a tailor. There are no records clearly stating his occupation and the estate inventory is most likely the only glimpse we will ever have.

Many of our ancestors might not have had an actual trade or profession in the modern sense. Many of my forebears were day laborers—working whatever job they could for as long as they were able. Estate inventories for these individuals (if they exist at all, day laborers were not likely to leave large estates) frequently contain scant information. Families in this economic position might also have moved around and may be difficult to track.

When one has traced one's ancestry back several generations, the occupations will begin to vary significantly. In my case, I had to trace back to my third-great-grandparents to find a family where the breadwinner was not a farmer. After fifteen generations, I had ancestors who were bakers, coopers, carpenters, millers, teachers, ministers, weavers, sextons, farmers, and a variety of other occupations. I was fortunate that for many of my German ancestors, the church records listed the occupations.

One can analyze the occupations in many ways. An interesting way is to chart several generations of a family and analyze jobs family members held. In many cases, the result is a successive chain of farmers. But there were other interesting things I noted. One father was a master carpenter and his only son a carpenter. One family had three generations of men who were both tailors and schoolteachers. Another had three generations of Lutheran ministers. And another had three consecutive generations who were custodians of the church's property. Learning more about these occupations and their likely duties has taught me about more than just my ancestors. When (if) I have time, I would like to learn more about how Lutheran ministers were trained in the late 1500s and early 1600s when several ancestors were involved in that avocation. I might not obtain direct genealogical knowledge, but would definitely come away knowing more about the time and my ancestor's life.

In some cases, what appears to be an occupation may also indicate some level of social status. Sometimes these nuances can be difficult enough in English (planter vs. farmer for example), but translations may aggravate the ability to make clear the distinctions the occupational titles make in social class. When terms are in a foreign language, nuances can be easily missed. Several German words may translate loosely to "farmer" but if they more specifically mean landowner, farmer, and farm laborer, it makes a difference. There may even be more terms indicating a social hierarchy.

For my Ostfriesen ancestors, there are many who are listed as either hausmann, a warfsmann, or a tagelohner. The first owns a "full farm" the second a small house and perhaps some land, and the third is a farm laborer. There is even a page that contains modern translations of some Ostfriesen occupations, and indications of social status. Ostfriesland is an area of modern-day Germany and the comments on that page should not be extrapolated to other areas of Germany without sufficient reason.

In some regions, there might not be records that clearly list occupations. For many of my Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia ancestors, I am fortunate to establish clear links of parent to child, let alone anything else. Estate inventories (when I have them) point to farming as the prime occupation. The problem is aggravated by the lack of occupations on census records before 1850. If ancestors did not live in "town" they likely farmed in some way shape or form and most likely were handy at other tasks as well.

Using Your Ancestor's Occupation
Your ancestor likely left behind little in the way of biographical information (at least mine didn't!). If you are fortunate enough to know what your ancestor did for a living, learning more about that occupation might provide you with additional insight into your ancestor's life. I'm always interested in seeing historical re- enactments of certain occupations, especially those occupations that were practiced by my forebears. One ancestor owned a mill in Maryland in the late 1700s and seeing working gristmills from that time period has always intrigued me for this reason. This type of see-it-for- yourself activity can also be a great way to interest children in genealogy. Watching a tinsmith at the Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts may be more interesting than staring at a family tree on the computer screen or on paper.

There are potential drawbacks, however. I think I'll forgo a visit to the ancestral tavern that was also described in a contemporary newspaper as a "house of ill repute!"


Copyright 2001, MyFamily.com. Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: mjnrootdig@gmail.com or visit his Web site at www.rootdig.com

Other genealogy articles by Michael John Neill