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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
Among our ancestors may exist an old family story telling of an ancestor who was killed “working on the railroads” or who was killed “in a mine accident.” Depending on the date of the injury or death, records relating to such accidents may be available. For example, the state of Colorado required mining companies to report accidents (see the following example). The resulting information is now available online and contains a wealth of personal information:
- Buzz, Herman. Death Date: 1919 JAN 4
- Nationality: Austrian. Occupation: Machineman. Yrs Mine Exp:
- Age at death: 30. Marital Status: M. Surviving children: 3. County: ELP
- Company name: D. W. Corley. Name of Mine: Klondyke.
- Cause of death/comments: fall of rock.
In many cases, one record may refer indirectly to other potential records. For example, an obituary might mention a union affiliation or church attended. Any tidbit such as these can lead to records created about our ancestors as employees.
Apprentice and Indenture Records
To indenture is to bind one person to another for a given period of time in payment for some service. To apprentice is to indenture for a certain time for the express purpose of learning an art or trade. The most common type of indenture was probably that used to pay for passage to America. A number of convicts from England indentured themselves as servants for a number of years to pay for their transportation to the southern states where they settled. The Old World system of indenturing apprentices to learn a trade was one of the first imports to America. In colonial days, most apprentices were boys in their teens, often younger than fourteen. The agreement, called an indenture, was signed by the master as well as the parent or guardian of the child. The trades were often family businesses, and many fathers formally took their sons as apprentices. Two examples are Paul Revere, who learned the silversmith trade from his father, and Benjamin Franklin, who was indentured as a printer to his brother James.
Apprentices were usually bound until they were twenty-one, so the length of the indenture specified in the document gives an excellent indication of a child’s age. If a boy was bound to his master for twelve years and five months, for example, he was probably about eight and a half years old when the indenture was signed.
In New England, it was not uncommon, especially among poorer families, for children under the age of ten to be bound out. The following 1676 indenture illustrates the kinds of genealogical and historical information available in such records:
- This Indenture witnesseth that I, Nathan Knight, sometime of Black Point, with the consent of my father-in-law [more likely stepfather], Harry Brooken and Elend, his wife, have put myself apprentice to Samuel Whidden, of Portsmouth, in the county of Portsmouth, mason, and bound after the manner of an apprentice with him, to serve and abide the full space and term of twelve years and five months, thence next following, to be full, complete and ended; during which time the said apprentice his said master faithfully shall serve, his lawful secrets shall keep, and commands shall gladly do, damage unto his said master he shall not do, nor see to done of others, but to the best of his power shall give timely notice thereof to his said master. Fornication he shall not commit, nor contract matrimony within the said time. The goods of his said master, he shall not spend or lend. He shall not play cards, or dice, or any other unlawful game, whereby his said master may have damage in his own goods, or others, taverns, he shall not haunt, nor from his master’s business absent himself by day or night, but in all things shall behave himself as a faithful apprentice ought to do. And the said master his said apprentice shall teach and instruct, or cause to be taught and instructed in the art and mystery as mason; finding unto his said apprentice during the said time meat, drink, washing, lodging, and apparel, fitting an apprentice, teaching him to read, and allowing him three months towards the latter end of his time to go to school to write, and also double the apparel at the end of said time. As witness our hands and seals, interchangeably put to two instruments of the same purpose, November the twenty-fifth, one thousand six hundred and seventy-six.
From the mid-1700s onward, it was not unusual to find both girls and boys apprenticed when their family circumstances took a downward turn. Children were “bound out” to help earn money for a family, or simply so the family would not have to support them. Sometimes one parent was deceased. Since the trades were not opened to girls, they were most often apprenticed to learn “housewifry.”
An example from the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office, Records of Indentures, shows several different types of indentures and the kinds of information included in each:
- Mary Stamper was to learn “Housewifry.” Her mother’s full name is given. Since the term of service was seven years, she was probably almost fourteen years old.
- Mary Barrett was apparently indentured to pay for passage to America, as her service lasted only one year, beginning with her arrival in America. The reference to the mayor of Cork in her indenture is a strong clue about her former residence in Ireland, a necessary fact to know before seeking Mary among Irish records.
- Jacob Grubb was apparently transferred from the apprenticeship of one cordwainer (shoemaker) to another.
- Mary Barbara Leichtin was bound for five years to pay a debt of twenty-one pounds, nine shillings, the cost of her passage from Rotterdam.
If your ancestor was a tradesman, locating information about his apprentices could provide a wealth of information. Some apprenticeship records are available. For example, Kathy Ritter’s Apprentices of Connecticut, 1637–1900, and Harold B. Gill, Jr.’s Apprentices of Virginia, 1623–1800, contain extracts of records long lost in archives and historical collections that identify apprentices and masters. Indentures can also provide clues about the home or business where the person was to serve. Sometimes the original certificates of indenture still exist as well.
Not all indentures were formal government documents. Some were private arrangements between two families in a neighborhood. While an indenture may have been written, it was never filed with a government agency. Others were arrangements made by a church for one of its members. The Society of Friends oversaw the welfare of its members and made arrangements for their care when needed. The Bradford Monthly Meeting records from 1762 indicate that the children of John Freeman are now under indenture to Robert Thorton and that Freeman himself ought to have some clothing provided for him.
Research on William Plaskett of Trenton, New Jersey, led to the New Jersey Archives, which has extracts of newspaper articles published between 1704 and 1780 relative to New Jersey citizens regardless of where the paper was printed. As an example, an item extracted from the 17 September 1747 Pennsylvania Gazette (printed in Philadelphia) indicated that Plaskett had a bound servant named “Sarah Davis, about 27 years of age, middle stature, somewhat freckled, [who] has a small scar in her forehead, and is slow of speech.” A Welshwoman, she had run away on 11 September wearing “a calico gown, a black fur hat, shagged on the upper side, with a patch on the crown, and an ozenbrigs apron.”22 This clue turned research to indenture records, which revealed that Plaskett also had another indentured servant: “Abigail Edwards (a servant from Ireland in the ship Pomona) . . . four years from Sept. 18th 1746, consideration 13L: customary dues.”23 The fact that William Plaskett had at least two servants during the same year, 1746–47, indicates his financial and social standing, important biographical information collected from business records.
As American business grew, so did the desire of employees for better working conditions; thus labor unions were created. Because the purpose of labor unions is the improvement of employment conditions, accurate membership records are vital. Many unions have preserved volumes of records, which may contain information relevant to genealogical research. One person’s description of the potential treasures vividly suggests the possibilities: “The ITU (International Typographical Union) Headquarters Basement is comprised of a labyrinth of corridors. Each corridor is replete with shelves, filing cabinets, boxes, etc. I would imagine an archivist would be delirious with joy to be [loosed] in this musty atmosphere.”24 This description came from an excellent 1960 survey conducted by the Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Labor Records. The survey was sent to 265 organizations, of which 118—forty-five percent—responded, which represents about half of the labor organizations in the country. Unfortunately, some major unions, such as the United Automobile Workers, International Ladies Garment Workers, United Mine Workers, Teamsters, and most railroad and building trade unions, did not reply.
The survey (published as “Labor Union Records in the United States,” by Paul Lewinson and Morris Rieger in American Archivist) answers several questions about the unions covered and suggests what records the nonresponding unions might have.25 Although the original survey did not ask about membership records, many of the responses referred to this information.
When researching this source, a knowledge of the union will obviously be helpful, as well as some information about the local (or chapter of the union) to which an ancestor belonged. However, when a family lacks more specific information, the ancestor’s union can often be deduced by occupation. An ancestor’s residence or employer’s name may be sufficient for a helpful union secretary to determine the relevant local for members working in that area, who may even know the history of the union at that company.
If an ancestor was active in one of the twentieth-century trade or labor unions, the Archives of Labor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, may have information about him or her. The Archives of Labor holds the records of many rank-and-file leaders and officers who participated in the two principal collecting areas of that archive: labor history (predominately twentieth century), with special emphasis on industrial unionism, and urban history, especially twentieth-century reform groups. The holdings include records of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; American Federation of Teachers Newspaper Guild; Union of Farm Workers; Industrial Workers of the World; and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) prior to its merger with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). (See Warner Pflug’s A Guide to the Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs for details.)26 While some records are available at local archives, most will be at union or local headquarters.
The special status of railroading in America has been recognized in several ways. Railroad workers of the twentieth century received special Social Security numbers and their own pension plans until 1964. Numbers that began with 700–729 were assigned only to railroad employees. More than two million people worked for the railroad companies at their peak around 1920. Furthermore, many railroad company records are easily located. The types of records, as described in two articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, include employment applications and files, history cards, and surgeon’s certificates.27
Magazines and websites supply information about railroad employees and the history of the business. The Erie Railroad Magazine published photos of employees. Those names are indexed and available at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~sponholz/miscphoto1.html. The same website provides a list of engineers, accident reports, depot photos, clerical association officers, and other rosters.
A Biographical Directory of Railway Officials of America was issued periodically during the nineteenth century.28 The California State Railroad Museum Library has editions published in 1885, 1887, 1896, 1906, 1913, and 1922. It lacks the 1893 and 1901 editions. The title was published from 1885 to 1922. The same library also has some fifty drawers of employment cards for the Southern Pacific Railroad dating back to 1903.
To determine which railroads merged with another major service, consult Moody’s Transportation Manual (known as Mergent Transportation Manual since 2001), issued annually by Moody’s Investors Service, Inc.29 Current and back issues are available at most public and research libraries. Various Internet sites also provide the history of the railroads and their mergers.
An ancestor who received a pension from certain railroad lines should be on record at the Railroad Retirement Board, 844 North Rush Street, Chicago, Illinois 60611-2092. The board is very helpful in answering requests for information if you can provide the employee’s name, position, the railroad for which he worked, and place and dates of employment. There is a nonrefundable fee for a search, regardless of the results. The board has posted some background information online at http://www.rrb.gov/mep/genealogy.asp.
Accessibility and retention of railroad personnel records varies from company to company. Museums and historical societies often house records of local or regional railroads, as do the following examples.
- California State Railroad Museum Library], 111 I Street, Sacramento, California 95814 maintains employment records for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Employee cards, 1900 to 1930, are available at the Family History Library.
- Chicago Historical Society, North Ave. and Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois 60614 has records for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
- Minnesota State Historical Society, 690 Cedar Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101 holds records of the Burlington Northern, Northern Pacific, and Great Northern railroad companies.
- San Diego Historical Society, 1649 El Prado, San Diego, California 92101 has records for the San Diego and Arizona Railroad Company.
U.S. Government Civilian Personnel
The United States government has long employed civilians along with military personnel. The personnel records for former civilian employees are housed at the U.S. Civilian Personnel Records Center:
- National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
- National Personnel Records Center
- Civilian Personnel Records
- 111 Winnebago Street
- St. Louis, Missouri 63118
These records are only accessible by mail to the former employee or next-of-kin. Personnel files retained by the federal government for employees and civil service personnel, from 1860 to 1951, have surpassed sixty million. Some files require invoking the Freedom of Information Act for access. See Claire Prechtel-Kluskens’s “Documenting the Career of Federal Employees” for a concise explanation of the difficult yet potentially fruitful task of searching government personnel records.30 The records include the date and place of employment, wages, job description, and retirement information. Additional records pertaining to this employee may also be held at another location. Check with the branch of government that employed the civilian.
The personnel file of one civilian government employee is typical of the information available. The individual began working for the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth. He later transferred to St. Louis, then Wyoming, Atlanta, and finally Philadelphia, where he retired. From 1876 to 1921, he worked as a clerk at various job levels. His wages and responsibilities increased during World War I, then decreased after the war, with the amounts and duties all set forth. With the locality information, his family can be traced at the various places of residence that might otherwise not be known. Some of his children followed him with every move, while others married and stayed in one of his intermediate stops. Without the valuable information found in the personnel record, any family history would be incomplete.
Social Security Records
For the genealogist, one of the largest and most valuable set of employee records are those of the Social Security Administration. When it was passed as a type of national pension fund in 1935, the Social Security Act created one the largest groups of employment records in the world as well as abundant research opportunities for today’s genealogists. Some of our ancestors registered for Social Security immediately; others waited until Medicare took effect in 1966. Either way, their application is one of the most useful records available for twentieth-century ancestors.
The Social Security Administration has issued approximately 330 million numbers since 1936. Since 1988, any child older than two years of age had to have a Social Security number to be claimed as a dependent on an income tax form; today numbers for a newborn infant are requested at the time of birth. Most workers who have been employed since the system was implemented have a number. There are, however, a few exceptions. Until recently, individuals who have never worked, self-employed individuals (including farmers), some people with separate retirement plans, and government employees did not need numbers. For example, many wives who did not work outside the home did not need numbers. Nevertheless, the potential findings make a search for an ancestor’s Social Security number worthwhile.
The earliest benefits were paid to individuals who were born as early as 1850 and lived until 1936, including naturalized citizens. The information on a person’s specific birthplace may not be recorded anywhere else, just as there may not be any other document that proves parentage. This is especially true for people naturalized before 1906, when detailed birth information was not required for naturalization. The Social Security number itself provides a clue to the ancestor’s life. The first three digits of the number indicate the state of residence where the application was made.
In order to enroll in the system, the applicant completed an “Application for Social Security Number” form, also known as an SS-5 form. This form has changed over time, but it usually required the applicant to provide his or her full name (including maiden name), complete birth date and place, parents’ complete names, his or her own and employer’s address when the application was made, and the date completed. Adult applicants were required to sign the form.
Not all applicants for a Social Security number were young people just beginning their careers. One woman, Mary Haviland, applied for her Social Security number when she was seventy-two years old, the age that other people are retiring. She identified her parents as Paschall Seeds and Ann Agusta Sharpnack and indicated that she was born on 13 December 1878 in Salem, Columbiana County, Ohio. At the time of the application, she was employed by the library board of Warrenton, Missouri, and was living in that town.
The Social Security Administration has microfilmed the application forms and computerized some of the information on the forms. After review of the microfilm, the forms were destroyed (by agreement with the archivist of the United States) because of the sheer volume of the original records.
Any requests made to the Social Security Administration should include the person’s Social Security number. In many instances, the number appears on the death certificate. It may also appear on such family records as insurance policies, identification cards, and employment papers. Some local government records, such as voter lists, tax rolls, and driver’s licenses, may also include the Social Security number. Private companies, such as funeral homes and credit reporting agencies, often have the number as well.
The easiest way to locate a Social Security number for individuals who died after 1964 is the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The index includes name, number, date of birth and death, residence at time of application, and location where death benefits were paid. Understanding the locality information is especially important. Until recent laws required numbers for young children, most people did not apply for a Social Security number until they joined the work force or until they were eligible for benefits. Quite often their location at the time of application was not their birthplace. Likewise, the location where benefits were paid is not necessarily the place of death, as is the case when the deceased did not live in the same area as their beneficiary.
The SSDI is available online at several different genealogy sites, including Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Genealogy.com, New England Ancestors, and RootsWeb.com. While each includes the same data, search criteria differ. If the desired record is not found at one site, a researcher should try the others. A search for Mary Haviland on the various sites produced anywhere from twenty-two to thirty-three records. Links to these sites, with background information on Social Security records and SSDI, can be found online at Cyndi’s List.
- Researching Business, Institution, and Organization Records
- List of Useful Business, Institution, and Organization Resources
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