United States Business Records
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- 1 Introduction
- 2 Online Business Records Sites
- 3 Mortuary records
- 4 Farming and agricultural records
- 5 Slaves, Apprentices and Indentured Servants
- 6 Insurance records
- 7 Newspapers
- 8 Union records
- 9 Mining records
- 10 Business formation records
- 11 Churches
- 12 Railroads
- 13 Shipping and other transportation records
- 14 Business licenses and bonds
- 15 Professional licenses
- 16 Hospital, Medical and Dental records
- 17 Photography businesses
- 18 Business and other types of directories
- 19 Utility records
- 20 Employment Records
- 21 References
There have always been business records but the challenge to genealogists is that they are seldom identified as genealogical records. Governments from the earliest times have issued permits and licenses to allow businesses to operate. Also from the earliest times there have guilds and trade unions governing the activities of their members and keeping records. Many businesses have also produced biographical collections of the company's officers and employees. In the Unites States publicly owned companies often produce an annual report in printed form. Cities have produced city directories listing all of the businesses in the city and included, in many cases, all of the residents. It is also important not to overlook advertisement which may contain information about the owners or operators of a business.
Many of these business records have been preserved in various libraries and other record repositories.
Some commonly available business records include or are included in the following:
- Mortuary records
- Farming and agricultural records
- Slaves, Apprentices and Indentured Servants
- Insurance records
- Union records
- Mining records
- Business formation records
- Shipping and other transportation records
- Business licenses and bonds
- Professional licenses
- Medical and Dental office records
- Photography businesses
- Business and other types of directories
- Utility records
There are many more possible categories which can be suggested by studying the types of records that may have been created in the course of the business operation.
See also the following:
- Overview of Business Records
- Researching Business, Institution, and Organization Records
- Tracing Immigrants Arrival Business Records and Commerce
- Occupations from Periodicals
Online Business Records Sites
A valuable reference book for all areas of genealogical research is Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006. The entire book is online. Look in the chapter on Business, Institution and Organization Records.
All of the larger online genealogical record databases contain some business records. Some of these online sources are available only by subscription but check with your local FamilySearch Center to see if these online sources are available to patrons for free. Here are some online sources that contain business records:
Be sure to check the availability of business records in local, county and state libraries and other state record repositories. Check the list of state libraries on PublicLibraries.com
You may also wish to check each of the state's secretary of state and corporation commission for old records. For a list of the varios secretaries of state of the states see Coordinated Legal Tech. For a list of the various corporation commissions see Federal Communication Commission however, no links are provided and you will need to search for a webpage for each of the entities listed.
It is not too unusual for mortuaries or funeral homes to preserve their records for a considerable period of time. Even when the mortuary is sold, sometimes the records are maintained by the new owner. As is the case with most business related records, you have to spend some time researching the geographic area where your ancestor lived in order to determine which mortuary may have been involved with the internment. In some cases, the identity of the mortuary may be recorded in the cemetery records. There is also the possibility that the mortuary donated its older records to a local historical society, library or state archive.
See also United States Funeral Homes
Mortuary or funeral home records are not uniformly kept or recorded. Depending on the location and type of records maintained the records may contain the following:
- the location of the death
- the names of surviving relatives
- the dates of birth and death
- the place of burial.
In some cases the records may contain additional information about:
- family members
- military service
- organizational memberships
- church affiliation
- insurance company information
Farming and agricultural records
Most researchers do not think of using farming and agricultural records, but it is important to know that from 1850 to 1900 Agricultural Schedules were compiled in conjunction with the U.S. Census records. For more information on these records see United States Census Agricultural Schedules. See also Agricultural Schedules: 1850 to 1900. There is some information available as early as 1840. See Census of Agriculture
Agriculture Schedules can help where land and tax records are missing or incomplete. These records can be used
- to distinguish between people with the same names
- to document land holdings of ancestors with suitable follow-up in deeds, mortgages, tax rolls, and probate inventories
- to verify and document black sharecroppers and white overseers who may not appear in other records
- to identify free black men and their property holdings
- to trace migration and economic growth
Farm and agricultural cooperative organizations (Co-ops) are also a valuable resource. For an example of the types of records and organizations available see: Manuscript Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society and other similar repositories.
- Farm Magazines and Journals
- Sources for Labourers in an Agricultural Community Although this article deals with English records it suggests other places to look in the United States.
Slaves, Apprentices and Indentured Servants
Many immigrants were slaves, indentured servants or apprentices.
Slaves were brought to America as prisoners and bought and sold as property. The slave records are essentially business records.
For information about slavery, see the following Wiki articles:
- African American Research
- African American Slavery and Bondage
- United States Census Slave Schedules
- Indexes of British Colonial Slave Records
- British Slave-ownership
- African American Land and Property
- Quick Guide to African American Records
- African American Census
- African American History
Apprentices and indentured servant's masters paid for their passage in return for labor. Indenture and apprentice records often mention birthplace or residence.
An apprenticeship consisted of a contract between two parties, one of which is usually a minor (the “apprentice”) who is bound to the other person (the “master”) to serve him for a stated period of time, during which the master agrees to teach the apprentice an art, skill, or trade while providing complete maintenance. The agreement may include a grant of money, clothing, and/or property upon completion of the term.
On completion of an apprenticeship, an apprentice might become a Journeyman, although in early colonial America that term was not prevalent -- the apprentice simply became a paid servant. See Henry Campbell Black, Black's Law Dictionary, Fourth Edition (St. Paul:1951), West Publishing Co.
An indenture was in general, a deed or contract entered into by two or more parties, defining reciprocal grants, obligations, or commitments among them, including possibly financial, time periods, and other conditions. In genealogy, typically found as “indenture of apprenticeship”--generally involving a minor--and also “indentured servant” which may or may not involve a minor. See Encyclopedia of Genealogy
See also the following websites and resources:
- Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission
- Wikipedia: Indentured servant
- Immigrants and Servants Database
- Your Guide to Finding and Using Apprenticeship (Guild) and Indenture Records for Genealogical Research
- United States. Apprenticeship, Past and Present. [Washington, D.C.?: U.S. Dept. of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, 1991.]
From fire insurance maps to databases of historical insurance policies, there are companies that date back into the 1700s providing farm, life, fire and marine insurance. Applicants for policies were asked to provide information about their beneficiaries (usually family members), their lifestyle, health, age, residence and other topics.
Most of the insurance records that are currently available are still held by the individual companies, with some records dating back to the creation of the companies. Few companies provide search services but some do allow proven descendants to search the records to look for information about an ancestor.
- Galles, Duane L.C.M. "Using Life Insurance Policies in Genealogical Research, " Genealogical Journal 20, no. 3 & 4 (1992) 156-171.
- Genealogy Today, Insurance Records $
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.
- Pfeiffer, Laura Szucs. Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places. Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2000.
See also Sanborn Insurance Maps
See United States Newspapers for information about searching in newspapers. Remember that newspapers are also a business and will have business records concerning employees and advertising. To contact existing newspapers, do a search online. For other newspapers, see the Chronicling America, Historic Newspapers on the Library of Congress website. Search in the US Newspaper Directory, 1690 - Present.
If you suspect that your ancestor worked at a job that could have been subject to labor union organization, then it is worthwhile to search for union records. For more extensive information on the type and location of the records see "Labor Union Records in the United States," prepared by the Committee on Labor Records of the Society of American Archivists in 1962. For later time periods see the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs is the largest labor archive in North America.
There are mining records for every state where there are mines. These records may be kept in a mining museum or archive. Here are some examples of the types of repositories that might contain mining records:
- Unearthing Your Coal Miner Relatives at the Pennsylvania State Archives
- Pennsylvania Mining Resources
- McGinnis, Carol. Michigan Genealogy: Sources & Resources. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2005.
- Coal Miners
You may wish to do a search for mining records with the state of origin.
Business formation records
Usually, when a new business is formed, the people forming the business have to file some legal documents to transact business in a given jurisdiction. For example, a new business being formed as a corporation, will have to file with the State department that regulates corporations. In some jurisdictions, such as cities, any business must have a business license to operate. At the same time, the business entity may also have been required to obtain a county and a state license, usually for tax purposes. These records are likely available for many years depending on the jurisdiction. They might contain quite a lot of information about the people forming the business. Unfortunately, it is rare that older records have been digitized and put online. Current records, going back as far as a hundred years, may be online. If you find that an ancestor conducted some kind of business it is important to search the business records in the all the pertinent jurisdictions.
Most churches are also businesses. If your ancestor was a minister, paster or otherwise worked for a church, there will be employment records as well as other routine business correspondence. From this standpoint, you would not be concentrating on the records kept by the church about its members or adherents, but the records of the operation of the church itself. Unfortunately, these types of records are not usually found online. You will need to go to the headquarters of the church in question to find the records and request permission to search them.
For directories of churches, see the following and similar websites. Do a search on the terms, "church directories lists."
Some of the directories may be denominational specific so you might have to search on the denomination also. You may also need to determine whether the records are maintained on a local level, regional or national level.
There are quite a number of online helps for locating railroad records. If you suspect that your ancestor may have worked for the railroad, then it is worthwhile to search for railroad records. Here are some suggested websites;
- United States Occupations Finding Railroad Records (National Institute)
- Locating Railroad Employee Records
- The Great Search-Finding Railroad Employment Records
- U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, Genealogy Research
- FamilyTree Magazine, Railroad Worker Records
- National Archives, Railroad Retirement Board Records
- Cyndi's List, Railroads, Records: Administrative, Employment and Pensions
Shipping and other transportation records
Shipping and transportation records can take a variety of forms, including employment records, government regulations and port of call records. These types of records are for the most part privately held and not necessarily accessible. You may be able to find the names and addresses of your ancestors' employers through trade association directories and trade journals.
Here are some of the articles available on this subject:
- Michigan - Occupations
- United States Other Records
- American Merchant Marine at War
- Maritime Records. An Overlooked Source of the Genealogist
- The Fyddeye Guides, America's Maritime History, America's Lighthouses, America's Historic Ships
- Boston Marine Society Collection and Library
- Captain William Bowell River Library
- Chicago Maritime Society
- Great Lakes Marine Collection
- Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library
- Library at the Mariners Museum
- Maritime Heritage Project
- New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library
- San Francisco Maritime NHP Library
- Woods Hole Historic Collection Archives
Business licenses and bonds
Many of the professions and businesses in the United States require business licenses and may also require the posting of bond. One way to find you ancestor's business is through the information on the U.S. Census records about occupation. Some examples of licensed businesses may include the following:
- Antique Dealers-in firearms, jewelry, art objects, furniture or other valuables
- Automobile Dismantlers-and marketers of used parts for automobiles
- Mobile Automobile Repairs
- Circuses and Carnivals
- Sales of Concealable Firearms including gunpowder
- Home Repair Services without a State License
- Purchase or Sale of Metals including precious and scrap metals
- Auto Towing
- Repossession or Storage of Automobiles or any other thing of value
- The Operator of Each Booth-flea market, farmer’s market or auction
- Private Security Companies
- Tree Trimmers
- Motorcycle Sales-including new and used parts
- Wrecking Yards-including automobile dismantling
- Dating and Introduction Services
- Swimming Pool Cleaning Services
- Janitorial, Maid or Carpet Cleaning Services
- Pool Halls-one table or more is a pool hall
- Itinerant Food Vendors-mobile food vendors
- Movie and Television Productions-Film Permit
- Dance Clubs, Halls and Public Dances
- Cardrooms, Bingo Games, Bingo Parlors, Bingo Suppliers
- Secondhand Dealers and Junk Dealers
- Junk Tire Storage
Depending on the time period involved you may wish to look for era specific businesses. In many cases, these types of licenses are recorded and held by government agencies. Other business that may be licensed can be found by searching for types of business licenses in each jurisdiction.
Most professions in the United States have become licensed at some point in time. Some of the professions that may have been licensed include;
- Doctors and medical industry professionals
- Attorneys and legal industry professionals
- Accountants and bookkeepers
For further information see the following:
Hospital, Medical and Dental records
Surprisingly, many of this type of record may be available for a long time in the past. But in more recent times, the records may be considered confidential and be difficult to obtain. These types of records may be found in hospitals, nursing homes, the offices of physicians, dentists and other health care practitioners and their facilities.
Some example of the types of records that may be available from the United States Government include, Veterans' Medical and Health Records are available from the National Archives as are Military Medical Records.
Many professionally made photographs contain a logo or stamp from the photographer. The names of these photographers can be searched for additional information about the photography business and, in some cases, galleries of their photographs. You may find other unidentified photos of your own ancestors or, if your ancestor worked for or was the photographer, you may also find valuable biographical information. Look for collections of photos in university special collections, state and county historical societies and other similar repositories.
See also the following:
- Palmquist, Peter E., David Haynes, and Richard Rudisill. Photographers: A Sourcebook for Historical Research : Featuring Richard Rudisill's Directories of Photographers, an Annotated Bibliography. Nevada City, CA: Carl Mautz Pub, 2000.
Business and other types of directories
Business and city directories are useful for finding where your ancestors lived, but they are also useful to determine the type of business they were engaged in. Most of the larger cities had formal, commercially published city directories that served the same function as the later telephone directories. Look for copies of the directories in city, county and state public libraries as well as historical societies and state archives. See the following article:
United States Directories For further articles on directories, see the individual states and counties, subject heading or search term: directories.
Many city directories also available in digitized files online. Here are some resources:
- City Directories of the United States of America
- Ancestry.com $
- Online Historical Directories Website
Some of the utility companies have been in business for over a hundred years. The availability of the records for research will depend entirely on the policies of the individual business entity with the records. But access problems aside, utility records can give an accurate picture of when the house or other structure was built, who was living on a particular property and when they moved. Be sure and contact the water company, electrical company and any other entity that supplied service to your ancestors' property.
Employment records are usually kept by the company that employed your ancestor. But if the ancestor worked for the government, the employment records could be publicly available or in the National Archives.