Researching Business, Institution, and Organization Records

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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

As genealogists and family historians, we seek the basic facts about our ancestors'when and where they were born, married, and died. Another part of our search is to determine the story of their everyday lives. While we begin with the basic census, land, probate, and vital records, we must remember to use every possible source, even those that are more challenging to locate and use. These often-neglected sources'such as business, institutional, and organization records'can help us determine facts and at the same time supply rich contextual information about our ancestors.

With few exceptions, most of our ancestors had some kind of business connection. The ancestor who was a businessman had to keep a record of his transactions, income, and expenses. In later years, corporations maintained the records of all their employees, providing another source of information for researchers. Even the ancestors who followed agricultural occupations may well have purchased their tools from a local merchant or had their wheat processed into flour at the local mill. We may be able to learn the cost of tools or the amount of flour from records kept by that merchant or miller. And because businessmen may have had only one place to record information, we may also find personal and family details in a business record.

Almost from the beginning of American history, individuals have had contact with a wide variety of institutions. They were educated at schools, colleges, and universities. They sought treatment at hospitals and homes for the ill and disabled. When they could not care for themselves, they were housed and fed by orphan asylums and poorhouses. Each institution generated records of its own that can add valuable information to our genealogy.

As the country's population grew, our ancestors found it useful to belong to an organization of other individuals who shared occupations, interests, religions, or ethnic backgrounds. Each of these organizations created its own records, which should be considered as a source of genealogical information.

There are three major considerations that apply to accessing these kinds of records. First, since these are generally private records belonging to the individual or group that created them, there is no requirement that these sources be open for research. The record owner makes that choice. That decision may be influenced by the recent increase in privacy concerns. Secondly, many of the records exist in manuscript collections in a wide range of repositories, so locating them might be a challenge. Finally, since these records are rarely indexed, research in them will likely require a substantial time commitment.

Researchers who are interested in pursuing business, institutional, and organizational records for their ancestors should first review all known information about that ancestor. Clues about an employer or occupation may appear in an obituary, city directory, or census report. Other clues might come from family mementos and heirlooms. Perhaps a treasured watch was a retirement gift and is engraved with a corporate or organization name. Report cards usually give the name of the school. Diplomas, or even an old football program, will identify the name of an educational facility attended by an ancestor. Using this information, the next step is to pursue the records of those newly identified sources.

While research in this type of record may be challenging and time-consuming, the rewards can be great. Consider these examples:

  • A mid-1850s business journal includes the full names and birth dates of three sons born prior to registration of birth records.
  • A military hospital entry supplies an exact date of death, leading to a death certificate, funeral home record, obituary, and cemetery record.
  • A photograph indicating involvement in the Civilian Conservation Corps leads to a description of an ancestor's corps activity.
  • A membership register from a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) post points to a place and date of death and then to the related information.
  • A funeral home record includes the place of burial, leading to information about the previous residence of the deceased and eventually to the identification of an ancestral family.
  • A list of schoolchildren links a child to her grandfather who paid for her education.

See Also

For more information on business, institution, and organization records from The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, consult the following series (note that the Institution and Organization Records series begins with the article on Almshouse Records):