Many times that question is very easily answered – they were a farmer. In 1790 with the first US census there was a total population of approximately 3.9 million, of which 90% were in agriculture – farming. Going fifty years later, 1840 census, the population was 17 million of which 69% were in agriculture. The very beginnings of the industrial revolution had begun, so less in the occupation of farming. Then by 1880 with a US population of 50.1 million, there was approximately 49% that worked as laborers on farms. In 1910 with a 91.9 million figure for population, only 31% were farmers. Bring it to 1950 and a population total of 151.1 million there were only 12% of the population working as farmers. That is quite a drop in 160 years. So as you look at an ancestor, you must look at the time period and where they lived first.
To learn for sure a person was a farmer or worked at some other occupation there are numerous sources to investigate. First would be the US Federal Censuses which began in 1790 and now available to 1940. Remember there were many state censuses done in the 1800s, so check those also.
Next check any city directories available for the hometown. Not all directories put in the occupation on certain years, so always check several different years. Next locate any of the military and military pension records; especially those from Civil War, Spanish-American War, WW I and II.
Go through the family photos paying close attention to what any ancestor was wearing as clothing. If they worn an apron and neat shirt and pants, they may have been a shopkeeper. Other types of uniforms such as railroad or police, may be a clue.
Review any family diaries and journals, they could be mention of a person traveling as a salesman, working as a printer or repairing shoes. Check the birth, marriage and death certificates, here occupations many times were written either on the person about to marry or when they died and for the parents of a newborn. Find the obituary of a person, that may provide a listing of several occupations the person had over a lifetime.
For a state the ancestor lived in, if you think they were a trained professional, there could a listing for a license as a doctor, dentist, teacher, hairdresser, etc. Look again at any family heirlooms, such as letterheads, bank statements, tools, business cards, buttons, badges, there just might a company name or business marked on it.
Send a letter requesting any information a hometown museum or genealogical society has on a certain ancestor. There might be quite a bit of information there.
So there are locations to check. If you find mention of a certain job, see if it’s mentioned in another source to help verify.< Return To Blog