Business Records and Your Genealogy

Business and employment records are little-known and even less used when building a family tree.  Almost everyone today  takes them for granted–you work, you collect your salary/income, you enjoy your time off.  Your ancestors could have done the exact same thing.  Did they leave behind records that enable you to trace them to their origins?

Let’s look at some key business records–

  1. Apprenticeship.  Do you have a tradition that your ancestor  was apprenticed to learn a trade?  Do you have a tradition that your ancestor changed his name?  It was common in America for orphans to be bound out by magistrates to learn a trade so they became productive in society rather than fall on the local welfare system.  In the old countries where they came from, an apprentice was allowed to select a new name when he finished the apprenticeship and began a new life.  The name selected was recorded in the apprenticeship files.
  2. Indenture.  An indenture was a court document issued, in America, to a newly arrived immigrant willing to work for his passage to come.  Labor for a stated amount of time–usually 5-7 years–plus food, lodging, and clothes–in exchange for the cost of passage.   When the servitude time was completed, the servant received a new suit of clothes, a set of tools, and a small amount of money  to get started.  A redemptioner was a servant whose work time was pre-arranged by contract before he left for America.  Irish servants were usually required to serve an extra 3-4 years before being freed.
  3. Insurance Records.  Personal life insurance policies then are similar to insurance policies now.  What you might not be familiar with were the business/commercial insurance firms which underwrote ship cargoes, warehouse and public building values.  If your ancestor lived in Chicago (1871) or San Francisco (1906), or other major city during a major fire or disaster–these events almost bankrupted even large insurance companies in the East.  Lloyds of London guaranteed payments for ships and cargoes to arrive safely.  You may have ladies on your pedigree who invested in ship cargoes–some as small as a $5.00 share–who collected their investment with interest.  Check especially if your ancestors lived along the coast or near a sea-going river.
  4. Credit Reports.  Even small businesses could have their activities reported in county and local histories, newspapers, and referenced in credit-reporting agency files.  Dun and Bradstreet–R.G. Dun’s ledgers include 2,580 volumes arranged by county from the 1840’s deposited in Harvard’s Business Library–was just one of many such agencies at work before 1900.
  5. Account Books.  First locate your ancestor in a given community or neighborhood.  Then check for surviving account books which match the same time period of residence.  Businesses kept track of customers and services in account ledgers–often carefully organized as double-entry bookkeeping accounts.  Your ancestor will have his own page showing what he did and when.  And sometimes where he came from and where he went when he left.  Death dates, widow’s name, other relatives, and who to notify in case of accident or harm.
  6. Employee Records.  Since the eighteenth century in America, employee sources can fill in gaps for areas where public record loss occurs.  City and county business directories and professional lists, labor union records, Social Security records can provide exact birth dates and places of birth for persons born as early as 1850.  As smaller businesses merged and were taken over by larger companies, the records they kept on their employees were preserved along with those of company descendants.  When court houses burned, private business sources usually survive–perhaps in the hands of owners and their families, perhaps deposited in libraries and archives for safe-keeping. Personnel files are rich with addresses of residence, immigrant dates, names of related persons, dependents and heirs.

Since I am speaking on How to Trace Your Ancestors Who Lived in American Cities at the MidWest Family History Expo in Kearney Nebraska in 2 weeks, I have been thinking of the many kinds of business records generated by people who lived in urban areas. And, remember, America is filled with hamlets, villages, towns, cities, boroughs, ports, and large urban centers.

If you aren’t registered for the MidWest Expo, you will miss a truly great experience.  On Thursday, 6 Sep 2012, the staff at the Nebraska Archway Museum will guide a tour of the westward trails running parallel to Interstate 8o from Omaha west to Kearney.  What a treat!  To learn the real scoop about those ancestors who came west along those trails.  And those who hooked up with the Great Platte River.  You can still register:

Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS  Be sure to bring your pedigree chart and family records to get free genealogy help from me, at my booth in the Exhibit Hall, and from Billy Edgington and Ruby Coleman at the Ask the Pros Booth. You don’t want to miss out on this opportunity for FREE expert help!

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