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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 ($).

Business Records - Employer, Employee, Owner

Corporation and Business Records

Small businesses and large corporations have been creating records since the beginning of settlements in Plymouth and Jamestown. Not all of the early settlers were farmers, the communities included merchants, saw and grist mill operators, physicians and printers to name only a few.

The term small business would also include individuals who practiced a specific trade, such as blacksmith. Now you might not think of them as “in business”, however they were providing a service that functioned as a business. They could possibly have kept a ledger of the work they completed, customer names, or an accounts receivable ledger (money owed to them).

An individual with a large plantation would also function as a business when buying and selling their crops and livestock. Large plantations could also be run as partnerships or corporation.

The records produced by these businesses would come from several different aspects:

First, the owner of the business

daily journal of business activities
ledgers of accounts, payable and receivables, bills of lading, etc.
a list of customers letters of correspondence

Second, the employees

list of workers and job descriptions
pay records
problems, such as a strike against the company

Third, the customer

a list of customers
money owed by customers
past due accounts or unpaid debts

Small Business

First, let us look at the small business records. The term “small business” would include business usually with less than twenty employees, and often only one or two. They can range from a small manufacturing firm or a bathhouse to a physicians or blacksmith. The employees were often family members or neighbors and often formed a close knit operation.

When researching a small business it will be necessary to determine certain factors before beginning

  1. the name of the business
  2. where the physical structure was located
  3. when the business was in operation
  4. the general nature of the business; mercantile, grocery, bath house, etc.

The city or business directories will list the business for each year of operation. It will be necessary to perform a year by year search to determine the beginning date of operation and the last year it was listed in the directory. The directories will also state the general nature of the business, and where it is located, and is often easier to work with because of the alphabetical listings.

A business license was often issued at the local or state level. The license application could state different information depending on the licensing agency and could include name of business, owner’s name, location, and nature of business.

An Assumed Business Name was usually issued when the company used other than the name of the business owner, for example John Smith Grocery Store verses Green Apple Grocery. The application will usually state the name of the business, owners, location, and nature of the business.

Newspapers are also a good source for information about the operation of a business especially in advertising section.

A section of page 6 showing advertisements, Hot Springs Illustrate Monthly, Hot Springs, Arkansas (June 1878).


Now if you are uncertain of the area of operation, then you will need to take a step back and research the individual closer and place this person in a specific location. Some Business Directories that cover a large region might be of assistance in locating a specific business. An example would be a directory such as:

The Pacific Coast business directory for 1871-7: containing the name and post office address of each merchant, manufacturer and professional residing in the states of California, Oregon, and Nevada; the territories of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Arizona and Alaska; and the colony of British Columbia, compiled by Henry G. Langley (Family History Library FHL
 microfilm # 1697369
Item 11.)

Now that you know the name, location and dates of operation the researcher can begin the search for the records. The researcher will need to determine the following:

  • Did the records survive?
  • What type of records survived?
  • Where are the records currently?

The type of records that might have survived for a small business operation would likely be focused on the business end verse the personal end. Because the employees were often family members or close friends and the numbers were small, the personal records were not kept as completely. However, the payroll records were more likely to have survived, because these were financial, not personal.

The documents related to financial transactions were the most likely to have survived. These include ledgers, accounts payables and receivables, payroll, bills of lading, and daily business functions.

The researcher will need to access a wide variety of repositories and family sources to locate any possible records. These records might be located under the name of the proprietor/owner, the business name or possibly the location of the business, all should be searched.

This is not to say that all businesses left records intact, and that they are readily available. However, the longer a business is in operation the greater the probability that business records exist.

If the original business records have not survived then the researcher can use other sources to complete a picture of the business. Such resources could include:

  • County Histories
  • City and Business Directories
  • Newspapers, at the time of the event and as historical reviews
  • Periodical, both historical and genealogical
  • Census Records w Business Licenses
  • Assumed Business Name filings

Some of these sources will have biographical sketches of the individual with the mention of the business, a full sketch of the business or they give a description of the occupation of a carpenter [a small business operation] as in this example.

Carpenter [a portion of text],Supplement to History of Union County, Number 4, Union County, Oregon, Union County Historical Society, 1961: 14-18.


The larger businesses employed many individuals working at different levels of expertise and possibly at different locations around the country. This could mean that the records of an individual who worked in Omaha, Nebraska were maintained at a head office in New York City.

The first step for the researcher will be to determine the name of the corporation for which the individual worked. If the company changed names then you will need to determine the new names. Obtain a corporate history when it is available; learn as much as you can about the corporation. The more the researcher knows about the corporate history, the easier it will be to converse with the company. It is human nature to help a person who shows a knowledgeable interest in the company, and it will be easier spot inaccuracies.

If the business is still active (even under a different name) the possibility that the records still exist is greater. Many of the older records are maintained in a company archive, or have been deposited at local archives, historical societies or private library such as a university.

The most difficult problems will be in locating and then getting access to these records. And once the archived records have been located, then to find a specific individual in these records. Remember these are companies with tens of thousands of individuals yearly, and that can add up fast.

If a company does not maintain their own private archives, then locating the records is best accomplished through searching manuscript collections. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections or NUCMC would be one of the best vehicles for this search. Remember to search by name of corporation as well as name of the owner, when applicable.

There are many printed sources available for specific repositories, such as a major university library or state archives. However, these records are not always kept in the same location that the business operated. That is the advantage of using NUCMC.


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.

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