Sunday, September 16, 2012

Putting my Chicago Ancestors in their Historical Context

I have often read this advice in genealogy literature: go beyond putting names and dates on your ancestors by digging into history to put them into the context of their times. What occupations did they have? What was their socio-economic level? What was going on in their neighborhoods, in America, in the world? And that’s what I wanted to answer for my Chicago ancestors.

Attribution: Flanker, wikimedia
My great grandfather, Henry Kreis, was a teamster in the late 1800s in Chicago. But what did a teamster do in these early pre-highway, pre-eighteen wheeler truck days?

I did a google search on the “history of teamsters in Chicago” and came up with a reference to Dr. Liesl Miller Orenic, a professor at Dominican University in Chicago, who is working on a history of Chicago’s Teamsters Local 743. I hoped that Professor Orenic might be able to steer me towards some sources on early teamsters in Chicago, so I e-mailed her:

“I am a genealogist and recently found out that some of my Irish ancestors were teamsters in Chicago in the 1880s. I have tried looking for definitions of "teamster" in the 1800s but can only find very general meanings. On the a3 Genealogy blog, I found this definition: "The Online Etymology Dictionary states a teamster is “a person who drives a team of horses, especially in hauling freight.” Can you direct me to any… information on teamsters in early Chicago?”

I wanted to find answers to these questions: What was a typical day like for a teamster? What skills did a teamster need? What kind of living did a teamster make?

I am always amazed by the kindness and willingness of people to share their knowledge. Professor Orenic suggested a book by Dr. David Witwer, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union; a preview of the book is also on-line.

In the first chapter of Professor Witwer’s book, “Building a Teamsters Union” p. 8, he explains the impact of the urbanization of America in the late nineteenth century on the occupation of teaming:

“By the end of the nineteenth century, commercial growth had transformed American cities, in turn fueling dramatic changes in the teaming industry. As railroad traffic increased and cities expanded, the business of hauling goods grew in size and scale. Teamsters formed both the first and the final links in the transportation chain. They brought goods to and from railroad depots, freight yards, and shipping docks; they also ferried people around the growing city. Most urban residents were too poor to own and maintain their own carriages. They depended on teamsters to transport them to locations not served by public transportation…. The 1860 U.S. census listed seventy-seven thousand teamsters nationwide…by 1900 more than a half-million men worked as teamsters.3” (footnotes not given in preview)

On pages 9-10, Professor Witwer gives a detailed description of how many hours a day a teamster worked, what he did during that time, and how much he was paid:

“The hours were long because a teamster was responsible for maintaining his horses and outfit (wagon and harness) and because he worked for as long as there were deliveries to make. Typically, he would arrive at the stables by 5 a.m. to water, feed, and hitch the horses. Deliveries were made all day, and then at the end of the day he returned to the stable, where, before leaving, he watered, fed, and groomed the horses. Often a teamster would not get home until 9 or 10 at night….A teamster worked such hours six days a week. On Sundays, when there were no deliveries, the teamster came in to clean and oil the harness, grease the wagon axles, and, once again, feed and water the horses. For all of this he received between $8 and $12 a week.”

On pages 8-9, Witwer outlines the tasks teaming required, thus refuting the claims in the 1860 US Census and elsewhere that teaming was an unskilled endeavor:

South Water Street, NARA,
“The census, along with many observers, described the occupation of teaming as unskilled. Those more closely connected to the working life of a teamster, however, questioned such a classification. As one team owner noted, “To drive such a team through the labyrinths of other teams, and among the cars in winter weather and escape crash and wreck requires capacity.” In fact, teaming demanded both craftlike skills and clerical abilities. A good teamster knew how to manage horses. He could get his team to pull heavier loads and deftly maneuver them in the most difficult situations. “The man who can take a team of horses and get the work out of it while at the same time keeping it in good condition and spirits, and keeping clear of accident in the crowded streets of the city deserves commendation,” observed one team owner. “He will,” the owner continued, “have his hands full.”5 When he was out making deliveries, a teamster served as the main contact between his employer and the customers. Thus he often had to be able to read and write. In many cases he served as a combination record-keeper and salesman. He built the business up by bringing in new customers, and he smoothed over day-to-day problems to keep old customers happy. 6” (footnotes not given in the books. preview)

Now I had my answers. I know what my teamster ancestors did on a typical day. I have put them into historical context.

But Professor Orenic had suggested another resource to give me a taste of the history of Chicago so that I might more fully understand the times my nineteenth century ancestors lived in. This program is:
Chicago: City of the Century (a PBS documentary) which gives the history of Chicago from the early 1800s to 1900. I found that you can order this program on It is a 4-DVD set, and what a wild and wonderful time you will have from your front-row seat, watching Chicago grow from a swampy backwater to the second largest city in America. 

The narrator tells the story of Chicago through the exploits of colorful business men and entrepreneurs, politicians, dedicated social reformers and the thousands of working men, women and children who lived, worked, and died in the city in the nineteenth century. You can find a transcript of the program online.

This experience reinforced several of the tenets of genealogy:
  • To understand your ancestors, you need to go beyond names and dates. Put flesh on the bare bones.

  • Find out how they lived and what the world was like during their lifetimes. Search for books and articles to find this historical context using online sources such as,,; and checking out non-computer sources such as libraries and historical societies.

  • Search for experts in the fields of knowledge that you are interested in. Read their books. And very often, if you contact them, they will give you suggestions and lead you to additional sources.

Categories: genealogy professional


  1. Hello Pat, I enjoyed reading this article! I was searching for what a teamsters job was, as I had discovered it as an occupation while researching a Gillen family in Chicago in the 1880 census, and I was curious as to what a teamsters job actually involved during the time period. Your article was exactly what I needed to read !

    1. I'm so glad my research was useful to you.

  2. Thank you so much for having this available for us to read! I've been researching family for about a year now, and found my 3rd great grandfather served in the Civil War. When he was drafted, it mentioned his occupation to be "teamster". Very neat to learn. Thanks again!

  3. That insight was valuable. Might you know if there were any certification/licensing requirements? I'm wondering if I can locate my ancestor in some courthouse filing. Thanks.

  4. Useful for me too as my 3rd G-Grandfather was a teamster. Might you know of any certification/licensing requirements in the early 1800s? I'm hoping to get information from his hometown courthouse. Thanks.

    1. What an interesting area to research -- certification/licensing for different jobs. I have not looked into this but you have piqued my "genealogical need to know more." Thank you.

  5. Just heard an historical interpreter's presentation on the logging industry. He had some helpful and interesting things to say about the logging teamsters that may be of interest. He said that they were more highly paid than the other workers and that their skills included being able to doctor their horses. Mr. Witwer's research fills out the job description more fully, and maybe teamster's working in towns could rely on farriers and blacksmiths; but I think the need for this added skill in more remote areas made the teamster even more valuable.