Work and Occupations

Use occupation resources to learn more about what your ancestors did for a living.

Resources on the Internet

Research Questions to Consider


Was your ancestor a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker? How did he provide for his family? Did he till the earth or did he use his hands performing a craft?

You can discern your ancestor’s occupation from census, probate, land, and immigration records. Perhaps he left behind an account book or diary detailing his life’s work.

Knowing your ancestor’s occupation can give insight into his social status. Fathers often passed skills to their sons; occupations can help sort out family relationships. Learn your ancestor’s occupation. It will help you to understand him as a person.


Resources on the Internet

The websites presented here are just a sampling of what can be found on the Internet to help you learn about what your ancestors did for a living. Use these website examples as a guide to customize searches for your specific research goal.

Colonial Occupations: A comprehensive list of Colonial occupations with their definitions.

Occupation List with definitions from Genealogy Quest: Modern interpretations of occupations from early America.

Obsolete Occupations: Medieval and obsolete English trade and professional terms.

Occupations from Yesteryear: A list of jobs from the 1860 census for the city of Milwaukee.

Occupations Listed in Census Records are Sometimes Surprising, an article by Shirley Gage Hodges

Early Women Occupations, Jobs, and Avocations, an article by Mary Harrell-Sesniak, outlines several jobs that were filled by women in the 1800s and 1900s.


Research Questions to Consider

How did the family earn its income?

What type of work did they do?

Was there special training or an apprenticeship period?

Did the wife contribute to the family finances?

Was he self-employed or did he work for an employer?

Did he change jobs or careers during his work life?

When did he retire?

Did the children work outside the home? What did they do?


Many of our earlier ancestors were farmers:

What animals did he raise? What crops did he grow?

How large was the farm?

Did he have laborers to help on the farm?

Did the children help on the farm? What chores did they have?

Was the farm land fertile?

Who inherited the farm?


Updated September 2017