Ancestry® Family History Learning Hub

Family History
Learning Hub

Ancestry® Family History
Learning Hub

Occupations and Job Histories

How much do you know about what your ancestors did for a living? Your first hint might come from a U.S. census or immigration record that notes “railroad” or “brakeman” in the occupation field. Or you might see “nurse” listed in an obituary. You might even see “WPA worker” listed in a city directory. While that label alone tells you something about them, historical employment records can provide additional clues about your ancestor’s life.

What an Ancestor’s Job History Can Tell You

Once you know their profession, the type of job they held, or the general field in which they worked, you can then start to build a more nuanced story of their occupation. Through old job records you might learn who your ancestor’s employer was, what their salary was, and potentially an even more detailed description about their job history.

When you combine those bits of information with knowledge about where they lived and the time in which they lived, you may be able to acquire a deeper understanding about them. Consider how his or her work may have supported or impacted the immediate family or larger community.

  • A 19th-century merchant marine or sailor based in Massachusetts was likely away from family for long periods of time. It also means that they could have visited different parts of the world during their travels. Did they share stories about their time at sea or in distant lands?
  • A person described as a blacksmith by trade tells you that they had a good deal of physical strength. They could have worked independently, or you might find them in historical railroad job records because they worked on the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Someone noted as a physician in the 1880 census is likely to have completed a higher level of education. Where did they earn their degree? And did they work in an area that suffered from a flu, yellow fever, or cholera epidemic?
  • A family member who worked during the 1940s at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in New York could have been involved in building Liberty Ships or battleships used during World War II.

Exploring an ancestor’s job history can provide so much more than just the cold, hard facts about the person—it can provide rich, illustrative context around their life during a certain period in U.S. history.

Deciphering Historical Employment Records

As with any other historical document, knowing what to look for and how to interpret an ancestor’s job record will usually provide more clues to guide your search. While job records vary to some degree, most include the following:

  • Name of the employer: You may discover that your ancestor held a government job, worked for a local business, or planned to run their own shop.
  • Employment dates: You might see start and end dates, which will let you know how long the person remained with the company.
  • Specific roles: If the person worked at the same company for several years, they may have held different positions. It could be that your ancestor was expanding their skill set or the changes could suggest that your relative moved into increasingly responsible positions.
  • Home address: Does the address match what you see on 20th-century federal census records? If it matches one but not another, then it could indicate when and where they moved during the 10-year period between censuses.

In general, the details you’ll find in employment records will vary based on profession, when the records were created, employers’ record-keeping needs, and whether certain licenses or examinations were required to work in a particular field. In some cases, especially for highly specialized careers, you may be able to glean even more information. For instance:

  • Employment records for physicians, dentists, and nurses may include licensing and certification documents, hospital affiliations, and educational background.
  • Historical railroad job records may include emergency contacts, the employee’s place of origin, work permits, and pension details.
  • Job histories for law enforcement officers could note court appearances, disciplinary actions, or union membership records.
  • Historical ship crew lists typically describe a person’s place of origin and destination, physical characteristics, and apprenticeship records.

The Limitations of Old Employment Records

The availability of job records and the details they include depend on many factors. For some professions like farmers or other small business owners, record-keeping at a formal level—records kept by county, state, or federal entities—may not exist, although you may find some information in historical tax records. Other records may contain very little information. And some records may not be publically available or they simply no longer exist.

While spotty or nonexistent records can be disheartening, you may still be able to piece together an overview of your ancestor’s job history or occupation based on information you can gather from a variety of sources.

What Historical Job Record Collections are on Ancestry®?

The good news is that millions of occupation-related records are available on Ancestry. (Old railroad job records alone total more than 8 million.) Family history researchers looking for U.S. records will find a wide range of fields and time periods.

You can explore both occupation-specific records as well as state-focused job record collections. For instance, the record sets for California, New York, and Wisconsin cover a wide range of dates and occupations.

Here’s a small sampling of what you can find:

  • Medical professionals: Discover descriptions about a physician’s work history in the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929. Other collections include information about medical examiners, dentists, and nurses.
  • Teachers: Employment or pensions records for those in the education field may be part of general state record collections.
  • Railway workers: Find historical railroad job histories for the Chicago and North Western Railroad, the Northern Pacific Railway Company, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and several other railway companies.
  • Maritime crews: In addition to collections like the Applications for Seaman's Protection Certificates, 1916-1940, you might also find ship crew records for those who worked on passenger lines.
  • Federal and state employees: Records exist for government workers, like U.S. postmasters, public works employees, agricultural inspectors, and clerks and stenographers. Some job records may be part of state collections, while others exist in stand-alone record groups.
  • Miners: Information about those who extracted materials to meet U.S. energy needs can be found in collections like Pennsylvania, Coal Employment Records, 1900-1954. You can also find reports about mining accidents.
  • Faith-based professions: Church records like directories can include lists of ministers, pastors, and clerics. You may also locate a rabbi’s history of the marriage ceremonies he performed.
  • Law enforcement: U.S.-wide collections and state-specific ones, like Texas, Prison Employee Ledgers, 1861-1938, may help you find an ancestor who worked in a correctional facility or in the field as a police officer.
  • Beauticians, barbers, and cosmetologists: Occupational licenses or applications are usually part of state collections.

And don’t forget to browse through military records. Those might also provide insights into your ancestor’s work history. Those who served for relatively short periods of time (like during World War I) may have acquired specific skills they used later in a civilian job. Other people may have pursued military service as their primary career, which means there could be related work pension records.

How to Search for Your Ancestor's Job History

You can explore your family member’s job history several different ways on Ancestry. It’s worth trying each path, as you may uncover additional results when you approach the topic from a different angle.

Once you’ve noted the occupation or job field you see described on census records, draft registration cards, marriage or death records, or city directories, for example, then visit the Professional & Organizational Directories section of the site.

  • Pro tip: The enormous number of employment records on Ancestry span multiple time periods, locations, and professions. You’ll likely find results faster if you narrow your search using the filters.

Next, in the Ancestry Card Catalog, type in an occupation-related term like “ship crew.” This will help you find collections beyond the Professional & Organizational Directories section. For example, ship crew and airline crew records are part of the Immigration and Emigration category.

Finally, use the general search tool with your ancestor’s name and a location. You can then filter results using the occupation as a keyword. Results can be filtered further based on the country.

Exploring the Intersection of Occupation and Time Period

Once you’ve gathered facts from your ancestor’s historical job records, it’s time to explore their occupational field. What might have it been like to be a storekeeper, cosmetologist, peddler, seaman, nurse, or dentist during a specific time period? Here’s what you might uncover or look into further.

  • If your family member was a seaman, there could be a picture of the passenger ship he sailed on. And if your ancestor worked on a passenger ship, did that ship bring immigrants to Ellis Island or one of the other main immigration ports?
  • Does your ancestor’s 1910 census record include neighbors who also held the same job? If so, did they work for the same company? You might want to take a closer look at the history of a particular city and neighborhood.
  • Might an ancestor who was a teacher in the south during the late 1800s been involved in establishing a school through the Freedmen’s Bureau?
  • If your ancestor was a Red Cross nurse, might they have cared for patients recovering from battlefield injuries incurred during World War II?

Considering those types of questions as you thinking about your ancestor’s job history can truly take your understanding of it to the next level.

Find Your Ancestor’s Job History on Ancestry

Discovering more about your ancestors is a thrilling and often introspective pursuit. And exploring your ancestor’s job history can build out a richer view of what your family’s experience was like during earlier times. Browse Ancestry records today.



“Bethlehem Steel Corporation—Staten Island.” Destroyer History Foundation. Accessed May 4, 2023.

Related articles