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Genealogy Questions


Appalachian Blacksmiths Association



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Organized in 1978, the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association is an affiliate of ABANA. We represent blacksmiths, bladesmiths, and farriers in West Virginia and its surrounding states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. 

We publish a quarterly newsletter which keeps our membership up to date on events. The newsletter also features many metalworking tips.  

To join the ABA, click on 
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Appalachian Blacksmiths Association


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My grandfather* was a blacksmith.
Can you tell me what kind of work he would have done?

*generic for your ancestor


The short answer is "NO".  But here are some tips that will help you narrow it down.


Determine time frame to within 2-3 decades

Most inquiries deal with the 19th century because many genealogy records are usually available back to the 1790 census (in the USA).  The earlier censuses may list a man's trade.  For 20th century inquiries, quite possibly a family member (or passed-down story) provides answers.  On our History, Part 2 page, you will note the rapid technological and industrial changes during the period 1790-1900.  From wind powered boats and horse-drawn wagons to railroads and cars.  That is a lot of change. 

However, if you know that grandpa was a blacksmith between 1820-1845, or 1865-1890, or any other such period, then it does become easier to understand his work based on technology of that era.  


Determine location

"Ohio" is not specific.  Nor is a county within a state.  It is best to narrow the location to the actual community and neighborhood, whether it is a large city or rural area.  Why?  Grandpa did not commute to work.  Thus, he would have worked close-by to his home.  If geeks can build computers in their garages, then grandpa's "garage" was probably his blacksmith shop.

Along with the commuting reference, you must remember that work was a six-day-a-week chore for men in those days.  Remember your Charles Dickens?  Ebenezer Scrooge frowned that his staff left early for Christmas supper.  These 19th century blacksmiths worked long, hard hours and spent more time in their shops than at home.


Find those "Micro-Histories"

Nearly every community, no matter how small, has produced a historian.  Whether a family history or just a community history, there are thousands of books in print that tell us a bit of history about every wayside in America.  While a specific family history may not mention your family by name, it might well give you information about the community where your grandpa was a blacksmith.  These "micro-histories" are almost always printed in limited quantities but the authors are usually generous enough to give a copy to the local library or local historical society.


Almanacs and County Histories

Most counties have a recorded history.  Though also in limited editions, these histories are usually thorough in their recording of business and industrial development.  Generally, these books tell you when major changes, such as the first rail service, occurred in that area.  While they may not have information specific to your ancestor, these books will provide an excellent timeline reference.  

The key here is to determine what opportunities existed and when.  Did a lumber mill start in 1873?  If so, blacksmiths would have been needed to provide axes ands chains for the loggers.  The mill would have hired blacksmiths to maintain the saw blades.



Many apprentices were 'indentured'.  An indenture is a contract between the person agreeing to train the apprentice and the apprentice, or his parent or legal guardian. The indenture was often a written contract, although probably as often, it was just an oral agreement sealed with a handshake.  Generally, the blacksmith would agree to "teach the art and mystery" of blacksmithing to the apprentice, provide his room and board, and pay a determined stipend.  The apprentice, or his legal guardian, would agree that the boy would work for the blacksmith for a determined period not only including his apprenticeship term but perhaps several years beyond that.  These indenture agreements are not much different in style and substance than modern employment contracts.

In some cases, indentured apprentices will appear in the old census listings as if they were members of the blacksmith's household.  But they will appear as "apprentice", not as family member.

If a boy was orphaned, or if the family was too poor to support their boy(s), then indenturing the boy(s) was an accepted practice.  Thus, the boy could have been indentured while still an infant and his term of indenture might have lasted until age 20 or later.  



Think like you lived in the same era as grandpa.  No phone--no TV--no car.  Just a small house with a vegetable garden and an outhouse.  He worked all the time because there was no unemployment, no social security, no health insurance, no 401(k)--in essence, he worked because there were no guarantees!  If work didn't come to him, then he went to it.  He had to eat.

Here's an example of how difficult it is to generalize about grandpa:  

If grandpa lived in 1890's Defiance, OH, he might have been a blacksmith at the Turnbull wagon factory.  If you tracked down his residence to within a few city blocks of the plant, there's a good chance that he worked in that factory.  If he lived 15 miles from the town in the middle of corn fields, then he probably tended to horses, or repaired wagons and farm implements such as plows.  Though if the corn crop was eventually turned into whiskey, then he might have worked as a cooper (barrel maker).  Or he could have built and maintained the boiler at the distillery.  And so on.

This much we do know about those blacksmiths of olden times: None were known to have mistresses or to father illegitimate children nor were they drinkers and, most certainly, they did not incur gambling debts.  Their wives were beautiful and well-educated, could prepare a feast worthy of the gods on Olympus, never suffered pain during childbirth and kept a spotless house with sparkling clean windows.  And you can quote us on that!


If we can, we'll try to help you with explaining your blacksmith ancestor's work.  Write the ABA at

For an example of an apprentice indenture, visit:



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