52 Ancestors,
in 52 Weeks
Week 6:
Earning a Living
Family Finds Charter Oak

Earning a Living

The majority of my known ancestors were self-employed, at least according to census records and land deeds. Of course, census records mostly reflect my male ancestors until 1850, and most of the early census do not include occupation. Nonetheless, among my male ancestors, nearly all report themselves as ‘farmer’ and working on their ‘own account.’ Starting with the 1850 census, I find nearly all my female ancestors reporting themselves as ‘keeping house’ and working on their ‘own account’. However, I do find exceptions among my ancestors, and those grab my attention.

Before 1850

I find that my ancestors with occupations outside agriculture, still did a little farming for themselves. Such as my 5th great-grandfather William Sparks, 1740-1788. He was primarily a hunter and trapper in western Pennsylvania, but records show he also had a small potato patch and grew rye. [1] Then there is my 4th great-grandfather John B. Osborn, 1754-1848, who at various times was an inn keeper, a tailor, and postmaster. But, he also kept a kitchen garden and some livestock to supply his family’s consumption. [2]

Farm Field


My 3rd great-grandfather Samuel Gilbert, 1812-1895, briefly had a job that I had to lookup the first time I read it: lime burner. Around 1850, Samuel was employed feeding lime, that had been quarried from a nearby field, into a large, kiln-type furnace for the express purpose of converting it into a product used in farming, glass making, or to make plaster for the building trades. This was not his usual profession, and it was dangerous. He was a farmer most of his life, but I suspect he needed to earn money to get back on his feet after the death of his first wife. [3]

My 2nd great-grandfather William D. Osborn, 1810-1895, was a wagon maker, like his father before him. His father, John Osborn 1784-1839, died from a falling tree while out collecting lumber for their wagon making business in 1839. William had a workshop in the village of Carthage on the outskirts of Cincinnati in 1850. [4] This is one ancestor who may have done no farming, since he mostly lived as a boarder, renting a room and probably getting a meal, after his divorce in 1848. [4]

Cabinetmaker 19th Century

My 2nd and 3rd great-grandfathers, Samuel and Joseph Warbington, respectively, were both usually farmers. But, in 1850 they both reported different occupations. Joseph, 1798-1877, reported he was a blacksmith. [5] He was still living on his farm but his youngest son Thomas reported as the farmer. Samuel Warbington, 1828-1893, reported as a sawyer in 1850. [6] A sawyer operates the saw for cutting lumber, usually at a saw mill but also on site where trees are being felled. It’s possible Samuel took this job to earn some money to get married and start his own farm. Having occupational skills such as blacksmith and sawyer were probably useful when a farmer wanted to earn some extra money.

Sawyers 19th Century

Post 1900

Of my four great-grandfather’s, three left the farming business at mid-life, but still performed manual labor. On my maternal side: James Dyer, was an iron worker by 1920 and Homer King (1864-1932) was a factory custodian by 1925. [7, 8] On my paternal side, John LaFara (1864-1945) was a laborer at a bag and box factory by 1920. [9] For the most part, the children of these three men also left the farming life for trade jobs in cities. My other paternal great-grandfather, David Osborne, (1847-1942) was a wallpaper hanger beginning shortly after his Civil War service until about 1930 when he took on custodial work at his GAR post. [10]

Paperhanger 19th Century

Both of my grandfather’s were the first of my ancestors to have ‘white collar’ jobs. My paternal grandfather, Earl LaFara (1888-1928) was a clerk at the central post office in Indianapolis. My maternal grandfather, Graves Dyer (1901-1973) worked in retail doing sales or managing stores in Marion, IN. Both these men lived on farms as children, but chose to earn their livings in cities, as employees.

Women Earning a Living

As mentioned previously, my female ancestors were nearly all homemakers. Although, I imagine they could have claimed ‘farmer’ as an occupation since they were very likely involved in many aspects of farm life. One of my favorite photos is of my great grandmother, Ella Rumple King, driving a horse drawn hay rake. However, one of my grand-aunts held a professional job over 100 years ago, I have previously written about Sadie Osborne being one of the first policewomen in Indianapolis. My maternal grandmother, Edith King, briefly worked in a knitting mill in Ft. Wayne, IN in 1923. She met her first husband there. Then later, in 1929, she worked in the Studebaker plant in South Bend, IN and met her second husband there! It was not until my mother’s generation that the women in my family really entered the work force and earned a living. My mother was a librarian, as was one of her sisters, another worked in an auto parts factory, and another was a Realtor. My sisters and I all had professions: teacher, programmer, lab technician, and engineer.


Most of my ancestors were earning a living as self-employed farmers. Prior to 1900, a few had occupations outside of agriculture. For the past 100 years, very few members of my extended family are earning a living as farmers or in agriculture. Although, many do have vegetable gardens. I wonder, what would my ancestors make of the varied occupations of their descendants, especially the women of the family.


  1. Book, “History of Bedford and Somerset Counties” by Blackburn and Welfley, Lewis Pub. Co., 1906, Vol 2, Ch 7, pgs. 82-103, Online: Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/historyofbedford0002unse/page/694/mode/2up?q=sparks
  2. Profile for John B, Osborn, ‘Osborn‘ family tree, Ancestry.com; https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/13493206/person/-60124140/facts
  3. Census, Samuel Gilbert, The National Archives in Washington, DC; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census; Record Group Number: 29; Series Number: M432; Residence Date: 1850; Home in 1850: Todd, Crawford, Ohio; Roll: 671; Page: 48b
  4. Census, William Osborn, The National Archives in Washington, DC; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census; Record Group Number: 29; Series Number: M432; Residence Date: 1850; Home in 1850: Columbia, Hamilton, Ohio; Roll: 685; Page: 160b
  5. Census, Joseph Warbington, The National Archives in Washington, DC; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census; Record Group Number: 29; Series Number: M432; Residence Date: 1850; Home in 1850: Salem, Shelby, Ohio; Roll: 729; Page: 311b
  6. Census, Samuel Warbington, The National Archives in Washington, DC; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census; Record Group Number: 29; Series Number: M432; Residence Date: 1850; Home in 1850: Union, Montgomery, Indiana; Roll: 161; Page: 416b 
  7. Census, John Dyer, Year: 1920; Census Place: Knoxville Ward 15, Knox, Tennessee; Roll: T625_1749; Page: 22B; Enumeration District: 105
  8. Census, Homer King, Year: 1930; Census Place: South Bend, St Joseph, Indiana; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 0025; FHL microfilm: 2340361
  9. Census, John LaFara, Year: 1920; Census Place: Indianapolis Ward 13, Marion, Indiana; Roll: T625_455; Page: 7B; Enumeration District: 233
  10. Census, David Osborn, Year: 1880; Census Place: Indianapolis, Marion, Indiana; Roll: 296; Page: 714a; Enumeration District: 129


  1. Joan

    Wonderful article and impressive source citations! Thank you.

    • Barb LaFara

      Joan, Thanks for stopping by and leaving a note!


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