Business Records

In the March issue of NGS Monthly, “Occupations” reviewed some resources from NGSQ and the NGS Family History Conference for exploring how best to use your ancestors’ occupations as a research tool. In a posted comment on that article, member Sue Kratsch referred me to her NGSQ article from 2015: “James Wesley Mooney of Will County, Illinois: Business Records Reveal His New York Family.”[1]

An 1878 county history for Will County, Illinois, reported that James W. Mooney was born in 1815 in Ulster County, New York, and married Lydia Ann Burt in 1836 in Wayne County, New York. The couple had six children before moving to Illinois, where they had five more.

But what of James W. Mooney’s earlier years and family of origin? James and Lydia’s children maintained and later reported some family lore: he had three sisters, who married an Armitage, a Hungerford, and a Smith; he was once a bond boy to a farmer; and he started a glass factory in Utica, Oneida County.

In her research, Kratsch took particular notice of that last claim and recognized an opportunity. She could use the occupation of glassmaking both as a differentiating identifier and as a potential source for more records.

Her research then ventured into published histories of glassmaking in America; statistical tables for non-population, manufacturing federal census schedules; American State Papers; state gazetteers; and local histories. From these combined sources, she learned about the development of the industry, the locations of its greatest activity, and the availability of some of its extant records.

Armed with this new knowledge, Kratsch further explored the industry in Ulster County, the reported location of James Wesley Mooney’s 1815 birth. Two glass factories were thriving there at the time, and one of them (the Bristol Glass, Cotton and Clay Company) had some surviving records maintained at Woodstock Historical Society and at Ulster County Genealogical Society. Those ledgers of laborers’ store accounts and labor credits identified a likely father for James Wesley: James Mooney, who worked at the factory from at least 1816 (a preceding ledger is missing) to mid-1818. They also identified a possible brother for James Wesley: Bill Mooney.

The nation’s first financial crisis of 1819 led to the demise of glassmaking in Woodstock, and James Mooney appears to have been among those who migrated to other, more prosperous glassmaking areas. Researching Mooneys in those areas ultimately illuminated James’s itinerant existence and showed that he was born in Ireland, that his wife Mary was born in England, and that they had six to eight children:

  1. Mary Mooney (1798–1836), who married John G. Evans;
  2. probably Frances “Fanny” Mooney (abt 1798/1800–1856), who married John Armitage;
  3. Susan Mooney (between 1802 and 1806–1876), who married Harmon Hungerford;
  4. Eliza Mooney (abt. 1804/05–1889), who married William Wolven, Jr.;
  5. perhaps Bill Mooney (abt. 1802/1810, living in 1818);
  6. James Wesley Mooney (abt. 1813–1883), who married Lydia Ann Burt;
  7. Jane Mooney (abt. 1816–1859), who married William Burt, son of Harlow Burt;
  8. perhaps a female Mooney, who married a Smith.

To be clear, the glassmaking business records were not the sole key to unlocking this family structure. Instead it was but one “number” that Kratsch needed for what was ultimately a “combination lock.” Another important “number” to that combination was the Mooney family’s adherence to Methodism when most of the Irish protestants of Ulster were Presbyterian. Not only did this serve as a differentiating identifier before and after immigration, it also led to important onomastic clues: the repeated use of the names Wesley (for Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley) and Coke (for the first Methodist bishop) among both the Mooneys and Armitrages, a common practice among this population.

If you’re interested in using business records in your research, Kratsch’s article is an excellent lesson in how to go about doing so. Even if business records don’t seem particularly pertinent to your research, her article is an impressive example of combining indirect evidence from a broad range of record types and seven separate counties to formulate a reliable conclusion.

Have you used business records to solve your genealogical problems or to discover more biographical details about your ancestors? How did you do it?

[1]Sue Hahney Kratsch, “James Wesley Mooney of Will County, Illinois: Business Records Reveal His New York Family,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly103 (September 2015): 179–200; PDF, NGSQ Archives ( : 16 June 2018).

  1. June 26, 2018 3:55 pm

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