Business Owner Records
| Business Records
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Business Records|
|Business Owner Records|
|Locating Business Records|
This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
Company Records and Histories
For most private businesses, the articles of incorporation, a government document, is usually the first record created by and about the concern. As tax laws became more comprehensive, even family businesses, whether large or small, were incorporated. Articles of incorporation, along with subsequent filings for merger and dissolution, are public records maintained by the government entity located where the incorporation took place, as are notices of board meetings and stock information.
Challenges for the researcher include identifying the correct state and then the office holding the record. Published guides to businesses may be helpful in solving these problems, and a Web search of the company name should also be considered. The secretary of state (or equivalent) in most states maintains two registers: one of current companies, which is often accessible online, and one of defunct or dissolved companies. Each company in the register has a file number. With this number, the researcher may request the corporate case files, which include the original charter, amendments to articles of incorporation, correspondence dealing with name changes and appointments of new directors, statement of dissolution with cause, and court proceedings or claims (if any) against the corporation or its officers. Researchers need to be aware that business may also be incorporated at the federal or local level. Banks are the most common example of a business with a federal charter.
Some incorporation records are available online. One example is Colorado records from 1861 to 1975. Access to these records is available through the archives’ business records site. The Secretary of State’s Office, Commercial Records Unit, maintains the records after 1975.
Businesses must also register their trade names in most states and of course, they must register to collect and pay any necessary state taxes. Based on public information, these registrations also generate a paper trail for the company and for the researcher. (See Colorado Department of Revenue, Taxpayer Service Division.) Many state archives hold materials that document the legal history of businesses within their boundaries. They may hold similar records for fraternal organizations, churches, and other nonprofit associations as well.
Frequently corporations maintain their own historical material in a library or archives unit. Along with their own corporate history, the library includes a general history of the industry, and information about parent and related companies in the area. Even if there is no mention of a specific ancestor, the business records will likely tell about his work place, conditions, and work activities. For the most part, these facilities are available by appointment only, if at all.
Local historical societies have accepted many records for research. Often a local history includes a great deal of information about area businesses, information that in turn offers facts about individuals. Company Shops was the name of the town that preceded Burlington, North Carolina, and was established in large part because of the presence of the North Carolina Railroad Company. Among the records that include individual names and are now available in print form are the lists of those who donated funds for the purchase of land on which to build a machine shop. Part of a publication about the town is an appendix that gives the identified birthplaces of 1857 railroad employees.
State archives and historical societies house many county business registers. For example, the Utah State Archives in Salt Lake City holds corporate records for businesses in Weber County, Utah, which include an incorporation index, 1871–1959; incorporation records (including articles and bylaws), 1958–65; and affidavits of business firms and partnerships, 1913–63, with indexes. Weber County articles of incorporation before 1958 are in the lieutenant governor’s office, which also maintains state incorporation records, although these are located in state offices several miles from the archives.
Probably the most common and genealogically useful records are storekeepers’ account books. Such volumes of the past were usually handwritten. Over time these were replaced with printed volumes; entries were handwritten. Later volumes were typed. Account books can range in size from small notebooks to bound ledgers, covering such topics as fiduciary accounts, customer or patient visits, and business sales.
The following example is from a printed account book in which the storekeeper identified the individuals involved by family relationships. The d means that the goods were delivered to that person; nr means “near” or possibly “neighbor.”
- Addedle (Adedle, Addle), William, June 38–Dec. 42 nr. Peter Demun of Peack; d John Brady, Andrew Jones, d to Peter Demun, Samuel Alexander, Jerry Rolandt; paid James Alexander note
- Adkinson, see Atkinson
- Ake, Jacob, Jly 35–Apr 39, son to Jerry, d to Jacob Bodine Jerry, Jly 36–Sep 39, at the Society, Peter Jarvis nr; d to Jacob Bodine
- Akeman (Akerman,) John, Jly 42–Jly 43, nr Samuel Alexander
- Akerly, Arthur, Apr. 35–May 37; & joint account with Obediah Seward
Another example of the value of these records is from the set of account books of John Avery, a schoolmaster in Huntington, Long Island, from 1763 to 1779, who kept a record for each year he taught the children. Such books could be considered school records, but because most schools were privately run and the teachers paid by the students’ families, these are also business records.
- Conkling. Capt. Cornelius: Ebenezer Morgan (1767)
- Conkling. David: 2 children (1777): Phebe (1778): David (1778–9)
- Conkling. Ezekiel: Elizabeth Betsy (1776–8): Philetus (1776–8): Silas (1778)
- Conkling. Hubbard: Charlotte (1777): Isaac Wood (1768)
- Conkling. Isaac: Timothy (1767): Henry Titus (1766–7)
- Conkling. Jeremiah: son (1765): Jacob (1767)
- Conkling. John: Phebe (1770–1): Mary (1777): Sarah (1777)
- Conkling. Joseph: John (1768)
- Conkling. Philip: Patty (1770): Bennet (1776–9): Richard Titus (1765–6)
- Conkling. Richard: Titus (1765–67)
- Conkling. Richard: Jr; 2 children (1778)
- Conkling. Stephen: daughter (betw. 1767)
- Conkling. Thomas: Hanah (1778): Lucy (1778): Richard Hults (1777)
- Conkling. Thomas. Jr.: son (betw 1763–7): Selah (1767–8): Esther (1767): Zophar (1767)
- Conkling. Timothy: Abel (1766. 68): Ezra (1767): Jonathan (1766–8): Timothy (1767)
- Conkling. Widow. of West Neck: 2 children (1778)
The Conkling family was a large family in the Huntington area, and it is often difficult for researchers to sort out who belongs to whom. Imagine how illuminating Avery’s notations about various Conkling families are, especially since the children are linked to their parents and they can be definitely located in Huntington for the specified years. Although abstracts like these are very useful, other historical (if not genealogical) information may be found in the originals, the locations of which are mentioned in the periodical in which the abstracts appear.
Account and daybooks, in addition to providing some specific information about an ancestor’s life away from his home, can also document the ancestor’s specific location at that specific time. The record can be especially valuable when that location is temporary or on the frontier., One example is the toll road payments made by those headed to Oregon in the mid 1800s. Wagon train immigrants had to travel over the Barlow Toll Road during the last leg of their trip. Records kept by the toll keeper show the name of the immigrant, his equipment and livestock, the toll due, and the amount paid.
Researchers studying the keeper of the daybook should read every entry in the journal. Paper was not the common commodity it is today, so many businessmen made personal entries in their own daybooks or account books. For those ancestors who did not keep a family Bible, the daybook was the place where family events might be recorded.
The Internal Revenue Act of 1 July 1862 was the first income tax assessed during the Civil War and was intended “to provide Internal Revenue to support the Government and to pay Interest on the Public Debt.” Businesses were taxed monthly on their products, with a quarterly tax assessed on some types of income. An annual license was required for many occupations and trades, and an annual tax was charged on all income exceeding $600. The tax was in effect until 1873. While not extant for all locations, researchers should seek any entries for the known businessman of this era. Retained as part of Record Group 58, Internal Revenue Service, at the National Archives and Records Administration, the lists are alphabetically divided by state, division, and district. Microfilm copies are available through the National Archives and its regional offices.
During the war years, William Donovan, residing at 324 New Market, was a coffee merchant in Philadelphia. In September of 1864, he was taxed $279.94 for 27,994 pounds of roasted coffee. As shown in the attached image, at the time he still owed $17.50 on a special tax for the previous month. Charles Day of 435 North Second had clothing valued at $1,840, on which he paid a two percent tax, or $37.50.
Small Business Records
During the colonial period, small companies were formed for various specific purposes, most frequently to buy land outside a township or to construct a road or a major new building within a town. These companies would formulate policy, elect officers, collect money, and delegate and supervise the work. They also kept records (usually called minutes), some of which survived and have been published. While the genealogical information in such records may be limited, they do serve to place an ancestor in a place at a particular time, and they attest to the social involvement of an ancestor. In this way, they can lead to additional records for that locality.
If your ancestor owned a small business, there may be a record of the business license in the city or state where he or she did business. The application for a license should include a variety of information, such as the owner’s age, birthplace, marital status, and residence, depending on when he applied for the license. Depending on the locality, licenses may be found in the office of the Recorder of Deeds, the Clerk of Court, or another official.
The number of employees of small businesses varies greatly. Employees often number less than twenty and sometimes only two or three, perhaps friends or relatives of the owner. Payroll records may be available; however, personal records may be limited. If the business still exists, contact the present owner for information and records. In some cases, he or she may be a relative of the previous owner and may have been a child when your ancestor worked there.
Big businesses employ a large portion of the labor force and typically have kept better employee records for longer periods. Also, these companies are more likely still to be operating, making it easier to locate their records. Before beginning research into a corporation’s records, you should do some basic background research: read the company history (if there is one), check periodicals for articles, or request reading suggestions from its public relations office. Many of these companies have substantial archives to house their historical records. Others have deposited their records in local libraries and historical societies. [[Locating Business Record] describes how to find some of these archives and collections.
Today many major corporations have developed pension plans, which require significant information about each employee. Even after the pensioner’s death, a widow or child may need to submit documents to prove their relationship to the deceased and therefore their right to continued pension payments or death benefits. While the pension plan is primarily a twentieth-century concept, many of the persons recorded were born in the late nineteenth century, often before birth records were available. The records should include the employee’s full name, birth and death information, places of residence, parents and/or spouses, and children’s names and birth information. Often, the same corporation employed children or siblings, especially when it was one of the major employers in a locality. Pension records may be available for deceased ancestors. A formal letter should explain and document your relationship to the deceased, and state why you are seeking these records.
Many American businesses have official corporate histories. The history of Standard Oil Company took some eighteen years to write, in part because its 35,000 boxes of records took so long to be organized and studied. Some years ago, the Harvard University Graduate School of Business History began to chronicle individual American business histories. Some of the titles in their series cover the histories of Parker Brothers, Intuit, Macy’s, N. W. Ayer & Son, Massachusetts Hospital Insurance Company, and Reed and Barton. Histories published by corporations themselves frequently include personal information about company leaders; some, such as the Alan Wood Steel history in the attached image, also include information about other employees.
Other businesses have some historical information on their websites. General Electric Company supplies the name and address of its corporate library, which is called the Hall of Electrical History. A simple Web search by corporate name is usually sufficient to find the company’s site.
For other histories, consult the following publications:
- Business History, published quarterly by the Harvard Graduate School of Business History. Includes reviews and announcements of historical studies of American businesses.
- Cochran, Thomas. Railroad Leaders, 1845–1890: The Business Mind in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. Based on 100,000 letters from sixty-one railroad officials.
- Daniells, Lorna M. Studies in Enterprise. Boston: Little, Brown, 1957. Includes a list of business histories.
- Larson, Henrietta. Guide to Business History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948. Bibliography of histories and printed sources.
Many of our ancestors worked for companies no longer in existence. Some seemingly defunct companies have not actually disappeared but continue in business under a different name and/or ownership, knowledge that is needed to pursue available records. For example, Victor Talking Machine became Radio Corporation of America, also known as RCA. Records of the old company may be transferred to another firm—often the one that bought out the defunct company. In a small city, try contacting present businesses in the same line of work for information about an ancestral company. Remember as well to check corporate histories to see if the defunct company has been purchased by or merged with another company.
The defunct business may have belonged to a trade association or some other group of businesses in the same trade or locality. These organizations may have information on the company in question and may know where their records are. Business Organizations and Agencies Directory, edited by Anthony T. Kruzas and Robert C. Thomas, provides addresses of trade, business, and commercial organizations; stock exchanges; labor unions; chambers of commerce; and many other groups. Better Business Bureaus, as well as federal and state government agencies, are also included. Also helpful is David M. Brownstone’s and Gordon Carruth’s Where to Find Business Information, a source that can help locate associations.
Information about old companies may appear in articles in various business magazines. One of the best ways to search this source is the Business Periodicals Index, which began in 1958 and is readily available in public libraries. Articles are listed under the industry or company name. The format is similar to the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature.
If you know where a business was located, you can then write to the local chamber of commerce or state archives for information on what became of the business and its records. The secretary of state should have incorporation records for each state specifying the years a company was in business or if the name was changed. A local town or county historical society may also have knowledge of a business’s demise. As mentioned earlier, local cities or counties may have business licenses for unincorporated businesses within their boundaries. Their records may indicate when a business folded and if the owner started a new and similar business.
Information about defunct businesses and record repositories can often be found in local historical societies. These societies are usually quite knowledgeable about the history of their areas, and they may be able to help determine what happened to a local business. Most societies have a website with their current contact information. The Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada also has information on most societies.
Not all businesses are successful, of course. Some end up in bankruptcy, a process that creates further records about the business and its owners. For the most part, bankruptcy is governed by federal laws. Records are therefore found in the papers of federal district courts. Historical records are frequently transferred to the appropriate regional archives while more current records are held at the district court involved. For more information, consult [Overview of Court Records].
- Kenn Stryker-Rodda, “The Janeway Account Books, 1735–1746,” Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey 33 (January–April 1958): 4.
- Kenneth Scott, “Some Huntington, Long Island Residents, 1763–1779,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 62 (September 1974): 177.
- Conklin Mann, “The Family of Conchelyne, etc. in America,” American Genealogist 21 (1944–1945): 48–58, 133–47, 210, 215, 246–53; 22 (1945–1946): 111–21, 226–36.
- E. L. (Roy) Meyers, comp., Foster-Pettygrove Store Lists. The Barlow Toll Road 1846–1919: The Story of Two Men from Fort Deposit. They Called It Jack-Knife: History of Eagle Creek Community and School District Number 17 (Portland, Ore.: Genealogical Forum of Oregon, 1991). Originals are part of the Philip Foster Collection at the Oregon Historical Society.
- Anthony T. Kruzas and Robert C. Thomas, eds., Business Organizations and Agencies Directory (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1980).
- David M. Brownstone and Gordon Carruth, Where to Find Business Information, 2nd ed. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1982).
- Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada, 14th ed. (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1990).