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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Occupational Records  by Beverly Rice, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Court Records

The civil court records offer the researcher a look into a different aspect of an individual’s occupation; the bankruptcies, property disputes, forming and dissolving of a partnership or corporation or just plain problems that relate to any business.

The jail records, as early as the seventeenth century, will often be a good source for the financial duress of an individual. Before the law changed, in the late eighteenth century, imprisonment was the punishment for debt, and many an individual found themselves serving time when financial times were troubled. The individual was kept incarcerated until their property could be sold to pay their debt. So along with the jail records, you might be able to locate the land records when the land was sold. The person with no property or funds often found themselves released, and the debt remained unpaid at least through the courts.

So what would send you to Court Records to look for information about occupations? For one, a sudden change in an individual’s “position in life”, such as the change from an owner of a business to a worker in the same trade or line of work. This for a farmer would be the change from owning your own property to renting. This could indicate a bankruptcy.

The question could be found in the Court Records or possibly in land records such as a sheriff’s sale.

The criminal records will reveal the shadier side of a person’s occupation, with fraud or theft to name only a few. As a usual practice “Family Tradition” would try to hide the “less favorable” side of life. It an individual is considered a repeat offender or career criminal would you classify his/her occupation as a farmer. I would say not. Prison records should be accessed as well as Court Records for the best results.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Occupational Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.