Account books

A current research project has led me to peruse dozens upon dozens of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Connecticut River Valley account books. Used to maintain records of business transactions, account books have been an important component of the store owner and merchants’ trade throughout much of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in America. While account books tend to be more frequently consulted for the items that were retailed by store owners, the inclusion of names and other data also make account books an invaluable genealogical source.

First, a quick word about format. In general, most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century account books share a very similar layout. Upon opening an account book, the left hand page typically lists debits, or items which the retailer has sold. The right hand page lists credits, or what the buyer used (or did) to acquire said goods. The debits section typically lists the buyer’s name, under which is listed the items which he or she purchased, and the date each item was purchased. Occasionally, the store owner also made note of the buyer’s town of residence. Usually the debit and credit sections are neatly aligned, so one can easily see, by drawing a straight line across the page, how an item was acquired. Due to the barter-based economy in early America, it is not uncommon to see items other than cash used to acquire goods in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century account books.

[Account] books can be an incredibly valuable source ... if you’re trying to track down that early ancestor who may have “fallen through the cracks.”

The inclusion of names and places of residence are perhaps the most obvious and useful pieces of genealogical information account books contain. This can be particularly helpful if one is performing research during a period that predates census records, or if the researcher has experienced difficulty locating an individual in tax records, directories, newspapers, land records, or other frequently consulted genealogical sources. Moreover, my searches have revealed that a variety of individuals, representing different levels of society, made purchases at local stores, perhaps out of necessity. Therefore, account books can be an incredibly valuable source to consult, especially if you’re trying to track down that early ancestor who may have “fallen through the cracks,” due perhaps to a changing economic or social position.

Account books can also be a useful source to consult when researching female ancestors, as they appear there frequently. While women are sometimes listed by their husband’s name (i.e., Mrs. John Smith), women are oftentimes listed in account books by their maiden or married name (i.e., Mrs. Elizabeth Smith). Moreover, I have come across examples where store owners noted the name of a woman’s spouse or whether a woman was a widow.

I’ve come across examples of indenture agreements as well as records of births.

Account books can also contain information one might not expect to find in volumes dedicated primarily to business transactions. I’ve come across examples of indenture agreements as well as records of births. Account books can also provide unique insight into the interactions among community members and the geographical movements of town residents. Owing to the barter-based economy of early America, account book ledgers frequently record individuals performing labor for others in the community as part of business transactions, such as carting goods to neighboring or far distant towns.

So, where can you find account books? Most state historical societies and libraries contain large collections. However, local town or city historical societies can also be treasure troves of account books. Therefore, if you are researching ancestors and know the town in which they may have lived, I would recommend starting your search among the collections of the local historical society, and then progress to the larger state historical society. Be sure to check online as well, as many historical societies have digitized their collections (including account books) and uploaded them to various sites, such as Internet Archive ( NEHGS has quite a large collection of account books (in addition to published volumes containing family data extracted from account books), so be sure to search their library catalog as well. Happy searching!

Dan Sousa

About Dan Sousa

Dan Sousa currently serves as the Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Intern at Historic Deerfield, Inc.—a museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts—where he is involved in several research, exhibition, and publication projects. His research interests include early American history and material culture, Massachusetts history and genealogy, Boston history and genealogy, and the history of American Catholicism. He holds a B.A. in history from Providence College and an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.View all posts by Dan Sousa