In Search of Livelihoods

colonialworkers_1024x1024You know the names and dates, but do you know how your early New England ancestors worked to survive? Tracing these individual stories is challenging with limited records, but not impossible.

As a child, I used my allowance to purchase a family tree fan chart at the former Goodspeed’s antiquarian bookstore here in Boston. This provided my first canvas to visually organize and chart the facts I was collecting. My first objective was simply to fill in as many of the blanks about my ancestors as I could. After all, the fan chart required only names and dates. But then I wanted to know more about them. And for those stories, I turned to my maternal grandmother. 

One particular story captivated my imagination: the story of her father’s adventure as a young man in the 1870s, aboard a New Bedford whaling ship. This detail alone started to transform him from a name into a person with a story. And thinking about how his youthful occupation as a whaler helped me get a picture of what his life was like.

As I traced the names of my ancestors further back in history, I realized the great importance of learning their life stories—and of what a large part of those stories their occupations were. Having exhausted my grandmother’s memories of her family, I turned to clues I could find within the pages of vital records, censuses, and probate and deed records. All these sources can lead to information about occupations.

Knowing the occupation of your ancestor provides insight into a great part of his or her life story. In many cases, the occupation can even lead you to search other record groups you may have never even begun to explore.

Beyond your own knowledge of parents and grandparents, have you considered the different occupations your own ancestors would have had more than a century ago? While researching ancestors in colonial New England, for example, you might find occupations that would seem alien to today’s work force. For example, in the woodworking trade you may find associated occupations such as arkwright, augermaker, block cutter, block maker, boardwright, cooper, house joiner, housewright, laster, sawyer, and turner. Colonial Boston was a busy and active port in the maritime trades, involving occupations such as ballast heaver, barkman, boatman, canvasser, caulker, coal heaver, rigger, shipwright, and stevedore. In the metalsmith trades you might find anvil smith, artificer, bladesmith, brightsmith, brownsmith, coppersmith, gorger, goldsmith, greensmith, pansmith, redsmith, and whitesmith, to name just a handful.

If you find an occupation among your ancestor’s records, try digging a little deeper to find out more about it. I promise you, you’ll unlock a bigger story—both about your ancestor’s life and ultimately about your own.

David Allen Lambert will be giving a free presentation on this topic, In Search of Livelihoods: Researching Occupations in Early New England, Friday, April 3, from 12 to 1 p.m.  For more information, visit

(For more on this topic, see an earlier post by Zachary Garceau, “Historic occupations.”)

About David Allen Lambert

David Lambert has been on the staff of NEHGS since 1993 and is the organization’s Chief Genealogist. David is an internationally recognized speaker on the topics of genealogy and history. His genealogical expertise includes New England and Atlantic Canadian records of the 17th through 21st century; military records; DNA research; and Native American and African American genealogical research in New England. Lambert has published many articles in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the New Hampshire Genealogical Record, Rhode Island Roots, The Mayflower Descendant, and American Ancestors magazine. He has also published A Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries (NEHGS, 2009). David is an elected Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass., and a life member of the New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati. He is also the tribal genealogist for the Massachuset-Punkapoag Indians of Massachusetts.

8 thoughts on “In Search of Livelihoods

  1. Hopefully you are following up on your/ our Rev. Stephen Bachiler connections. Bucking the Puritan Extremes in Mass. Bay to the extent that he was the only Puritan Minister (liberal in his orientation) to support the Rev. Roger Williams. Just think if the Rev. Bachiler, in his advanced years, had not sailed over to New England — our history …a lot of random chances here…. would have been totally different !

  2. While reading your essay, David, my immediate thoughts were of my several ancestors who were tanners. The intense odors (to put it delicately) involved in tanning leather could not have made them popular neighbors! The smells had to permeate their clothes and homes. Were they and their families shunned? Did their wives ever feel they had clean-smelling clothes? Did their children have playmates?

    On the other hand, the mercers probably dealt in more luxurious surroundings with their silks and jacquards, possibly traveling widely in search of trading their goods. I picture my blacksmith ancestors as being very strong and buff, their workshop in the center of town and open due to the heat of the forge, with lots of customers due to the need for horseshoes, buckets, tools and so on. The innkeepers had to be very socially adept and able to meet the immediate demands of hungry and tired patrons, and rowdy drunks. On the other hand, the printers, cordwainers and seamstresses could work in more quiet quarters with (perhaps) less immediate stress.

    My rural postman ancestor could largely escape village life while traveling for much of his workday in solitude. The maids and cooks would have had more stressful workloads under constant scrutiny. And the sailors could really escape small town life (and family demands) while taking greater physical risks, and their wives and families left behind to make up for their absence.

    I often think that different personalities could shape their lives by the choice of livelihood, if circumstances allowed that choice.

  3. I have a lot of Yorkshire woolen weavers going back at least several generations, so I was very interested to watch the TV show Tudor Monastery Farm (all episodes are on Youtube) where they showed how it was done, from the care of the sheep to the fulling and stretching of the cloth on tenterhooks. One Sheffield branch were metalworkers, including a tilter or tilthammer operator who made scythe blades, and there is a video on Youtube from the 1940s of a man making the blades in the exact same water-powered tiltworks where my ancestor worked, so I recommend people look for videos. I like to understand the actual tasks and steps involved in people’s work, though sometimes it’s shocking how dangerous some jobs were.

  4. Wonderful article. Exploring my ancestors’ occupations is proving to be a fascinating journey. Having advanced from family baby to family matriarch, and after a recent conversation about occupations with my grand niece, during which she commented, “I had no idea that’s what you did for work.”, I realize it is important to record my own occupations as well as those of my siblings, etc.

  5. What people did to survive was part of Boston Charter Day 2014’s theme. What people did in order to survive is such an important topic. Thank you, David, for this post.

  6. A parallel or complementary question is where did single people and families, especially large ones, live who did not own real estate. My period of interest is 1700-1750 Connecticut. Apprentices often lived with their masters, but where — in their house? an out building? the barn? Houses were not all that big to hold multiple large families over long periods of time. If newly weds moved in with one set of in-laws with large, multi-generation families, where did they sleep?

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