Carol Sanderson, Editor
Charles Hansen, Technical Advisor
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While there are many avenues to follow in locating elusive ancestors, not all lead researchers to their desired destination. The key is to look at all the information gathered regarding a particular ancestor as a whole and then chart your course from there.
My German ancestors settled around Newark, New Jersey between 1840 and 1860. Some of these ancestors were tailors, some were hat makers and still others were butchers and plumbers. These occupations could take them anywhere and provided little direction for a search. However, one New Jersey ancestor was said to have been an attorney. Where can attorneys work? Just about anywhere also, so what direction could I go to find my lawyer ancestor? I néeded to narrow the scale to places and things that were unique to an attorney. Two things attorneys have to have before they can practice law are a college education and a law degree. My radius scale just became much more manageable. I estimated this ancestor would be attending college and law school around 1906 to 1912, give or take a couple of years. Here were my directions. I néeded to find colleges and law schools in the Newark area operating in the estimated period. Yes, it was possible my ancestor could have attended college in another city or even in another state, but I did not think this likely, as they were a lower middle class family.
Did following the directions of my ancestor's occupation lead me where I néeded to go? Yes! By looking at enumeration districts, city directories, and the historical newspapers around, what is now Rutgers University in Newark and then expanding my search to include the area around New York University I found the information I was seeking. These directions were good. I found that my ancestor had graduated from New York University in 1908 with a degree in Mechanical Enginéering and was attending law school at Rutgers in 1911.
Selecting specific information I had about this ancestor and using that information as my guide greatly narrowed my search radius to a more manageable scale.
Many occupations can give researchers directions to their ancestors. Railway workers néed a railroad, nurses néed a hospital, teachers néed a school, and shipbuilders néed a port. Starting with narrow search criteria and then expanding out can save time and lessen your research frustrations. A systematic approach is a method that works very well in densely populated areas, such as the northeastern states.
Using occupations as a guide is just one approach to guide your genealogy research. The key is finding the method that works best for each of our ancestors and us. Without a plan, the search can be an overwhelming task that many would prefer not to undertake or give up on quickly. Following a guideline can streamline your search and save valuable time on your journey to your ancestral destinations.
I have always been interested in the railroads because my grandfather worked for the Great Northern Railroad in Hillyard. Hillyard was the location for the largest railroad yard west of Minneapolis, and was built by James J. Hill owner of the Great Northern. The town was originally called Hills Yard and later just Hillyard. In 1925 Hillyard was annexed by Spokane and today is just a neighborhood in north eastern corner of Spokane.
Becuse my grandfather quit work a year before I was born and died just before I was six, I never got to see my grandfather work. I did get to see the yard and the other buildings at the yard, but today the yard, the shops and even the roundhouse are gone, all so a freeway can be built.
I was pretty lucky on researching my grandfather's railroad work as my grandmother lived another thirty years so I know a lot about his work, but I am still interested in railroad research. The May/June 2005 Ancestry Magazine has an article by George Morgan on "Making Tracks through Railroad Records." On September 7 2001, he had also done an article on "Old Railroads" for Ancestry.com.
The source most interesting to me that George Morgan listed in the magazine article was a book by Holly T. Hansen (no relation) The Directory of North American Railroads, Associations, Societies, Archives, Museums and their Collections. Why is this important? Few railroad records were kept by the railroads, so you néed to go to the Archives and Museums to find any information on your ancestor.
The George Morgan article also listed the Virginia Tech Imagebase which has over 200 folios containing thousands of historic train images. The American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress has a compilation called "Railroad Maps 1828-1900" containing 623 railroad maps. The Family History Catalog also has several railroad related documents. "The Family Tree of North American Railroads" is a graphical list of railroad mergers. If your ancestor worked for a railroad after 1935 the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board in Chicago (www.rrb.gov) might have some records, but in 1960 they started to destroy the oldest records, but were stopped by protests of family historians from many societies, but by then a few records had been destroyed.
In 1920 the railroads employed two million or one in every fifty Americans. Todays largest employer, Wal-Mart only employes one in every 290 Americans.
Taming the Wilderness shows some of the earliest rails used, the rails were made of wood topped by an iron strap. The "T" rails used today were not invented till the 1820s, and they also used cast iron and steel for making the rails.
If your ancestor helped build a railroad it is possible he did not even work for the railroad, but for a contractor hired to build part of the railroad tracks. Two other recommended sources are Cyndis Lists for Railroads and Northern Pacific and Genealogy. George Morgan says to not give up, write to the present railroad, and even the old railroad, check out the above sources, and keep on tracking on.
Webmaster's note —
Also visit this web site's area about Railroads, where several pages provide direct links to general information and more specific information about each State's railroad pages.