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 (archive.org). 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.

17 thoughts on “Account books

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Dan – the John Whittelsey account book, which dates roughly 1690-1710– is at the Ct Historical Society in Hartford and contains a welter of overtly genealogical data, most of which occurs nowhere else. It also enables one, with some work, to correct egregious errors that have recurred in each of the standard genealogies (otherwise very good) of the family. Blessedly, it’s also online at their site, and the family records transcribed in a booklet in their collections. Also, as you say, a treasure trove of other names in a very close-knit small NE community of that era.

  2. Thanks for the heads-up on this! I’ve got a few ancestors who arrived in New England very early, and am having trouble tracking their moves during the colonial years. These will be valuable! For one, I just checked the Cheshire County, New Hampshire online records–the first catalog is their business & organization records dating back to before the revolution. One of my ancestors owned a mill there before the family moved north into Vermont and Quebec and these could help me pin down the timeframe.

  3. These gems can also give good clues to the neighbors of our ancestors so we can do a FAN search. For instance, one I found from 1730 or so in New Jersey had my ancestor picking up and delivering items at least three different times to one certain person. I haven’t yet figured out if there is a familial relationship there, but the name is down on my list to be researched.

  4. The Deerfield Museum has some old account books, one of which was from an ancestor of mine. I was rather shocked that we look at it with bare hands a few years ago.

  5. Account books are incredibly important when studying an individual or the economy of the past. Early ones map out where the trading partners were located and their relationships to the merchant. I have found that many merchants only dealt with family members or close friends, whether they were located in New England, the South, or overseas in England. (Who else could one trust?) When I found my ancestors’ account books from the rice plantations, I really could not understand them until I learned how the economics worked– instead of banks, planters relied upon “factors” to lend money against crops. Factors had to have confidence in the planters, hence many of them were related by blood or marriage.

    Another area to research is household receipt books, which detail expenses and payments for coal, wood, food deliveries, repairs, and other domestic items. A purveyor would list what he delivered and the cost, and at some point would sign that payment was received. The ones I have from Sen. John Macpherson Berrien (1781 – 1856) appear to be like a “bar tab” — the goods would be delivered and then paid for at some later time. Follow the money!

  6. This is the perfect idea, individuals kept account books as well, Farmers, Doctors, even Funeral Directors in which we have found mention of our family. My maternal Grandfather always had a breathing problem if he contracted a cold, althought more modern day Doctors didn’t call it asthma, an early Doctor’s account book had him listed with Pleurisy in several home visits when he was young. I had not heard that term before.

    1. A doctor’s account book documented one of my ancestors as follows: “Catherine Dornberger Scalped and stabbed with a spear in five sundry places Dressed twice a Day 16-”

      Who knew that people survived scalpings? I don’t believe she lived long after that.

    1. Unfortunately the Doctor book was onsite where he practiced in a small local Library, just happened upon it. The Funeral books were luckily in the Funeral Parlor that had purchased it from the earlier owners. Try to make an appointment to go to one if you know who handled the arrangements, if they are not too busy, they are extremely helpful. I have the Farmer Account book I mentioned that came to me with family memorabilia.

  7. Bravo Mr. Sousa! I share your interest in 18th and 19th century account books and have spent many happy hours bith transcribing and then reading between the lines. They reveal a great deal about relationships in communities. Thank you–

  8. I was delighted to find an early nineteenth century account book for Mpultonborough, N.H., at the New Hampshire historical library. I learned that my ancestor paid for most of his purchases with apples, though on one occasion he sent his son to plow a field for the proprietor. And he made frequent purchases of rum
    Such fun to get a picture of how that farmer actually lived.

  9. I’m in the Deep South and on the rare occasion that I can find a plantation owner’s or slave trader’s account books, it is an excellent source for tracking slave ownership, sales, transportation. The state archives may have them but I have also found them on Ancestry. One lady, who I was helping with her slave ancestry in South Carolina and Georgia, had a 4 page record of her ancestor’s owner. On Ancestry, I found the complete record, some 17 or more pages. The account books are deeply moving because the monetary value of the slave is given and the monetary value can be associated with the specialized skill of the slave. They become human and not just a record of transactions. But it’s the idea of placing a dollar value on a human being that is incredibly moving. Also, one can learn if the slave was first generation African or multi-generation in America.

  10. My first experience with an account book was to transcribe some pages from a book in the holdings of the Lebanon (CT) Historical Society. It was an interesting exercise since I had never seen one previously. Set up as described by Dan Sousa, as I progressed through the pages I did get an idea of how the community worked re the barter system via this one farmer–Peleg Heath, and would have happily transcribed additional pages if the Historical Society had requested I do this.

  11. Oddly (it seems that way after reading all these accounts) I had not even considered this. A number of my forebears had businesses of one sort or another that would certainly have kept accounts. It seems perfectly obvious now, and am baffled why I hadn’t thought of it before. This adds a whole new dimension to my research plans. I can hardly wait to find out what new dimensions my ancestors accounts (and those of their neighbors) might add to my understanding of their lives.

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