Saturday, November 21, 2009

Make the Most of Occupation in Census Research

When I started working on my family history, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to occupation. My parents were teachers, and all my known grandfathers and uncles were plain old generic farmers. I was disappointed that I didn’t have any really interesting ancestors like doctors, ship captains, clergymen or even factory workers. But, as I researched more families, I learned how important occupation can be to identifying an ancestor across census years or matching ancestors in different kinds of records

Let me share one example. I was trying to learn more about a Holland-born family I found living in 1870 among my Dutch relatives in Hardin County, Iowa. To start, I was unsure of names. The head of household was 50 year-old Pieter Kingma, or possibly Ringma. Pieter was a “painter.” Living with Pieter and his apparent wife were five individuals, aged 10-25, listed under an unfamiliar name that looked something like “Sourumia” (Ancestry index: “Sousrema”). All were born in Holland, but the name didn’t sound Dutch to me. I speculated that the five younger individuals might be step-children. Among them were 16 year-old Adam and his 20 year-old sister Eve. Dutch? Really?

Oh yes, Adam’s occupation was “painter apprentice.”

I needed to find these people in 1880. Uncertainty over the names complicated the search. Using various combinations of first names, ages and birth places, I was not able to find any good candidates anywhere in Iowa in 1880.

I was about to give up, but decided to try a 50-state search for any man named Peter and born in Holland a few years either side of 1815. I was rewarded with more than 200 matches – a small enough number to browse. I found a Peter Kingma, age 63, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a painter. In the same household was a 24 year-old Adam, born in Holland.

I was able to find Peter in 1880 by searching on first name and paying attention to occupation. Adam and his siblings were identified as step-children of Peter Kingma. Ancestry.com indexes the step-childrens’ last name as “Funoma,” but on the census manuscript the name looks more like Sunoma. Searches in later censuses revealed the name to be Sonnema, which turns out to be a good Frisian name traceable in records from The Netherlands.

The census-taker recorded Peter’s occupation as “painter-house” and Adam’s as “furniture varnisher” – good matches for Pieter and Adam of 1870.

I hadn’t expected an Iowa family to migrate east during this time, but it was perfectly natural for a Frisian family to move to the Dutch-Frisian stronghold of southwestern Michigan. Attention to first names helped, but the clincher was occupation.

Time and again, occupation has helped me match individuals across census years or across different kinds of records. John Lee’s occupation as a railroad porter helped me prove that John Lee living in Dorset in 1861 was the same man as Bartholomew Lee living in Bristol in 1851 (see “The Three Cs of Genealogical Research, Family Chronicle, February 2009). Similarly, Christian Gerloff’s occupation as a wagon-maker in the 1850 Iowa census allowed me to match him with the Christian Gerloff, wheelwright, listed on an 1843 Baltimore passenger arrival manifest. I now pay close attention to occupation!