Finding Ancestors at School & Work

Early employees of Bassett Furniture Company, Bassett, Virginia, circa 1900. Author Unknown. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Early employees of Bassett Furniture Company, Bassett, Virginia, circa 1900.
Photographer: Unknown. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

On Tuesday, we discussed how memberships can tell us more about our ancestors on a personal level, but not every group is 100% voluntary. Today, we’ll explore some of the more obligatory associations that can lead us to their stories.

Schools

Perhaps my favorite piece of information found on the 1940 US Federal census is “Highest Grade Completed” due to the insight it gives into the early life of the individuals I’m researching. If you’re able to find where and when they attended school, check the school and city library or the local historical society for copies of yearbooks. In addition to photographs, I have found fun tidbits like my great-grandmother Bartoo’s sister was a second soprano in the Glee Club in high school (1), and my great-grandmother Wells’ first cousin was named Biggest Bluffer, Biggest Booster, Loudest, Biggest Flirt, Most Happy-Go-Lucky, and Most Humorous in his senior class superlatives (2)! These little details sketch in the individual lives of the people in your tree—and might prove valuable or pertinent in other stories you know or discover.

If your yearbook search turns up blank, try to find out about the school’s history in general during the years your ancestor attended. Did any major events happen? A fire, a new teacher, a school play? Is there a photo or postcard showing the building as it looked during your ancestor’s time? See if you can find “School Days” recollections for nearby years. Even if your ancestor is not mentioned by name, you’ll gain a new understanding of their world as they lived it.

Employers

Check draft cards, obits, and old city directories for your ancestor’s place of employ. (Although the occupation question on census returns doesn’t ask for employer, in some cases you’ll be able to narrow it down when the occupation is specific and the town is small.) My 3rd g-grandfather William Van Pelt worked at the Eberle Tannery in Westfield, PA for unspecified years between 1892 and 1927 [Source: Obituary clipping provided by Potter County Historical Society]. Not only was I able to find a picture of the facility, but I also learned from various accidents (3, 4) and fires (5, 67) reported in the news that this was a fairly dangerous environment. William Van Pelt’s name didn’t make headlines, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn more about his life and circumstances.

If you find your ancestor’s employer, search historic newspapers. You might learn of working conditions as I did, or perhaps you’ll find a write up of a company picnic or Christmas party. Look into whether there was an employee directory or if any historic photos of the location or the employees exist. If the business is still in operation, look up their website and see if they have a “History” page. (And if you’re not shy, give them a call!)

Military Regiments

The branch, company, regiment and the exact dates your ancestor mustered in and out of service is excellent information to have, because it will lead you to detailed histories of where they traveled, battles fought and challenges met. If you’re extremely lucky, maybe you’ll even find a photo. My 4th g-grandfather Truman Weaver was one of over 400,000 estimated to have died of disease in the Civil War (8), succumbing in Nashville Tennessee on April 15, 1862 (9). However, when I searched for Company F, 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics, I found the book My Brave Mechanics”: The First Michigan Engineers and Their Civil War by Mark Hoffman, wholly dedicated to this unit. From page 52:

When the regiment left the Nashville area in early April, at least 200 sick men were left behind, and by the end of April, over 40 percent of the men who had not already died or been discharged in the regiment were listed as sick. This was the highest monthly percentage sick that the regiment would have during four years of service.

The deeper details add to the picture of Truman Weaver’s story.

A Final Note

At risk of belaboring the point, the main goal of this two-part series has been to encourage you to delve deeper into every fact for its context, and not to assume that your search begins and ends with an Ancestry/FamilySearch/Google search of your ancestor’s name. (And I don’t want to sound like I’ve plumbed all the depths, either. Far from it!) Don’t get overwhelmed—you can save these in depth searches for your most interesting or challenging branches if needs be. Lastly, if these posts have inspired you and you find something great, please do come back and leave a comment so I can hear about it! 😀

Question for You

Have I missed any important categories of groups? Share your ideas and tips in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Finding Ancestors at School & Work

  1. Great 2-part article! I’m one of those that tends to think I’ve exhausted all online venues with Ancestry, FamilySearch and Google! This is a good reminder to me. I even have my parents’ yearbooks from the 30’s.

    1. Ooh, old yearbooks! I got to dive into some old ones housed at a city library on a genealogy roadtrip a few years ago. So fun to see parents and grandparents doing silly, funny, teenage-type things. 🙂

  2. I verified employment for my Grandfathers cousin with the Alameda (CA) police department. The request was forwarded to a Police historical society. They were able to provide me with a some employment highlights, like him being loaned to San Francisco after the earthquake (1906) and they were able to provide a photograph of him.

    1. Nice work– you struck gold on that one! Which do you consider the better find, the photo or the tie-in to a major historical event?

      Along these same lines, I recently discovered via another blogger that the US Railroad Retirement Board has an inquiry process, so I’ll be writing to them soon. 🙂

  3. In rural areas most of the small schools were closed–and consolidated school districts, with larger schools that students were bused to were formed– during the early to mid- 20th century. When this happened old school records were often lost or misplaced.

  4. My grandfather is William T. VanPelt, and I believe he was named after his great grandfather. Interesting– never really looked into my ancestry.

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