Occupational Clues

Are you looking in other records besides census records for occupational clues on your ancestor?


Estate inventories are good places to get an idea of what occupation your ancestor might have had. Those with city-dwellers in their family tree should use city directories for clues of this type. Land records in some locations may provide occupations as a way to clearly distinguish the individuals involved in the transaction. And don’t forget some European church records use occupations to distinguish men of the same names from each other.

What Have You Read Lately?

From a few years back…

I have been reading First Generations: Women in Colonial America¬†for the past several days. It has given me some insight into the Colonial experience of women and cause to think about a few things in ways I never have. Is there a history text or sociological study that might expand your knowledge even if it doesn’t directly expand your family tree?

As Many Memories as Possible

If possible, interview as many family members as you can about a specific event or their entire family history. Individuals who are significantly older than their siblings may remember relatives that younger ones do not. Even siblings close in age may recall different details of events or, for one reason or another, have a different perspective. Those who lived with or near their parents or extended family their entire lives may have more stories than those who moved away after growing up.

Tracking the Wrongs

Years ago I was stuck on my Ira Sargent. I spent a fair amount of time locating men with this name in the 1860 and 1870 census in an attempt to show they were “my guy” who first appeared in the 1880 census. For one reason or another I was able to eliminate them as being mine.

The one thing I did was keep a list of every one I found along with the reason why he was not mine. The reasons varied, but included: too old, too young, born in wrong place, wrong wife, etc. Keeping track of the reasons was important for two reasons. One was so that I didn’t redo the research. The second was that I could go back and revisit these “wrong” guys if I discovered that what I thought I knew about my guy’s age, place of birth, wife, etc. was wrong.

Turns out on of the wrong guys was a second cousin of my ancestor–another reason for keeping track of those wrong ones.

Track Your Reasoning

It is important somewhere to keep track of your research logic as you progress. Otherwise you might not remember “why” you are researching a certain person.

Several years ago, I focused on a certain Benjamin Butler in the 1850 census as being “mine.” Using that enumeration as the starting point, I searched other records and made research progress–on the apparent family listed in that enumeration. A stack of papers and records. One problem–I didn’t track WHY I thought this 1850 census entry was for the my Benjamin. It took me hours to reconstruct my reason–time wasted.

When I decided the 1850 guy was “mine,” I should have written down my reasons. That would have saved time later and made it easier to review my reasons should that have become necessary.

Writing up your research, even if for yourself and only yourself, is never a waste of time.

The Probable Informant

Some documents clearly state who was the informant. Many though do not provide this information. When considering the accuracy of information on any document, consider the probable informant and how likely they were to know the information being provided.

They May Know

Your relative may know more about deceased family members than they are willing to tell you. And they may never tell you everything you know, no matter how much you wish they would or how many times you ask. For reasons that are entirely too long for a “short tip,” I know my own grandmother knew more about her grandfather than she ever told me, including the fact that he had a second wife. Yet my queries about him always received a “don’t know anything response.”

Sometimes that is all you are going to get and sometimes you have to let it go to preserve relationships with your living relatives.

Baby Pictures

Photos of babies can be some of the most difficult images to identify. Parents with multiple children can sometimes have difficulty telling which picture is which child. When decades have passed and the child in the photograph is likely deceased, identification can be more difficult. In some individuals facial features change from infancy to adulthood and someone who only knew the person as a grownup may have no idea what that person looked like as an infant.

Ways to help identify such photographs include:

  • Retaining any organizational structure of pictures. If the photographs are grouped, take group pictures of the photographs as a way of preserving the organizational structure.
  • Organizational structure includes: albums, envelopes, boxes, etc. Albums are not the only way photographs can be organized.
  • Any organizational method can contain the occasional photograph from a completely different, unrelated family.
  • Look for any clues in the picture that could suggest a time frame or a location.
  • Do not crop any of the photograph.
  • Compare to known infant photographs of the same era.

When You Have a New County

When you have a new county that is a part of your genealogical research, make certain you know the county seat, when different types of records begin and where they were created, where the county lines are now and where they were when your people lived there, and information on local repositories. These pieces of information are just to get you started finding the information you need to know. There is more than this that will be helpful with your research, but these facts are an absolute must.

These websites will get you started:

  • The USGenWeb page for the county– some of these are not updated frequently.
  • The FamilySearch Wiki page for the county–some of these are incomplete and not always entirely accurate
  • County Historical/Genealogical society webpages–do a Google search
  • Web Pages for libraries in the county (or your towns nearby towns if county has a large population)–to see if they have genealogy pages–Google searches should help locate these

I’ve Got Three: It Must Be

Some researchers will “believe” something when they have three sources that provide the same piece of information. One has to be careful using this approach. Sources may all contain information from the same person or “original source,” which does not really mean that three “sources” agree. It could only mean that the same person gave the information three times.

And there is always the chance that the second two “sources” got their information from the first.

Think about who provided the information, why it is in the record, and how reasonably the informant would have known the information. That’s a good way to get started with information analysis.