May 21, 2021
Like many genealogists, I began my research thinking that most of my ancestors were “just farmers.” After all, I grew up on a farm that had been in my family for three generations. My great grandfather immigrated from Sweden and owned farms in Minnesota and Utah, so I suppose it was natural that I assumed that he had always been a farmer. I remember talking to my cousins many years ago, and we concluded that our ancestors most likely had been peasant farmers in Sweden and other parts of Europe and had continued the tradition in America. How wrong we were.
My own memories were bolstered by the fact that my great grandfather shows up in every available census from 1870 through 1940. In all of them, he is listed as being a farmer. The census is the backbone of U.S. genealogical research, but we do need to remember that it has its limits. Censuses were only taken every ten years, leaving plenty of in-between years unaccounted for. In my great grandfather’s case, other documents added to his story.
In between censuses, Great Grandfather founded and ran a creamery in his home town in Utah, started a canning factory to process locally grown fruits such as tomatoes and apricots, ran a co-op with other farmers to collect, process and ship potatoes to eastern markets and worked as an agent for shipping lines to sell tickets to friends and neighbors who wanted to arrange passage for their families from Europe. Not to mention that he left his farm in Minnesota for several years to work as an iron miner in Michigan and worked for the railroad in Ogden, Utah on and off for many years. Clearly, he was more than just a farmer.
Then there’s Great Grandfather’s history in Sweden. Before he left for America, he’d already worked for two years at the well-known Bofors Munition Factory founded by Alfred Nobel. It turns out that Great Grandfather’s family had never been farmers. He came from a long line of iron workers, who considered themselves superior to mere farmers. The Swedish iron workers lived separately from farmers in the villages and intermarried almost exclusively with others of their group. Swedish records go back to the 1500s in many places, and my great grandfather’s ancestors appear as iron workers in all of them. Not a farmer in the bunch!
How did I find out about all of Great Grandfather’s non-farming occupations? I started with one of the so-called Mug Books that have been published about many towns and counties in the U.S. In my case, the book was called South Weber; the Autobiography of One Utah County. I knew about it because of my ties to the town of South Weber, but a quick search of the FamilySearch Catalog can help a researcher locate similar books about an area of interest. It’s important to check at the state, county and town level because these types of books can focus on any of them. Be sure to read more than just the biographical sketches that these books contain, since there are often sections about local businesses and industries that can help you figure out where an ancestor might have worked. If you find a specific industry where an ancestor may have worked, it’s worthwhile to search for books about that industry. You may find specific references to your ancestor. If not, it still can add meat to the story of your ancestor’s life to learn about what he may have experienced in working as an iron miner on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for example.
In addition to FamilySearch.org, many local and state archives will also have information about occupations in their areas. Special collections at local university libraries are another source of documents about local companies and industries. These documents can include information about individual workers such as salaries, years of employment and more.
Finally, if the company your ancestor worked for still exists, it’s worth contacting them. They may keep archives that will include information about your ancestor. For example, the local canal company was an important part of my farming ancestors’ lives. They were instrumental in planning and building the canal and later in maintaining and running it. The canal company archives included pictures and documents that helped me understand my ancestors’ lives and how important getting access to a reliable source of irrigation water was to them. When contacting existing companies, remember that these are private companies who do not have to help you.
When it comes to finding out about occupations an ancestor may have had before he immigrated to America, it’s important to check church records first. Most European countries had a state religion which everyone was required to join, and many records such as marriage and death list an occupation. For example, in Sweden, Household Examination records were made for everyone, and these give occupations.
Many countries also kept censuses, and, like the U.S. censuses, these give occupations. I recently found a relative who was listed as a “black borderer” on the English census of 1861. I had no idea what that meant, but Google came to the rescue. I learned that women and girls often did piecework from home during the Victorian era, and “black borderers” painted black varnish around the edge of sheets of stationery and envelopes so that they could be used to send death notices as well as sympathy notes.
Even if many of our ancestors’ primary occupation was “just a farmer,” it turns out a lot of them had other occupations, as well. Checking out what else they may have done can turn out to lead to fascinating insights into our ancestors’ lives.
Researcher/Director at Large