This article ran in the Ancestry Daily News, (citation needed)
Before the turn of the century, your ancestor's farm served as the family's employer and grocery store. But getting an idea of the farm's operation can be difficult. Probate records (especially inventories of chattel property) may provide some specific information. Histories of farming or agriculture can provide generalized farming information, but genealogists are always hungry for specifics about their family. For rural ancestors during the second half of the nineteenth century, federal agricultural census schedules may contain some of those family-specific clues.
Federal agricultural census schedules are generally extant for 1850 to 1880, however there are bound to be gaps. These records may hold clues about your ancestor's relative financial position that are not mentioned in property or tax records. We'll look at a few examples from the 1880 agricultural census.
The 1880 Agricultural Census for Walker Township, Hancock County, Illinois, contains several of my relatives, including my great-great-grandfather, Michael Trautvetter. The schedule contains a great deal of information about the Trautvetter farm.
Michael owned his farm (no note as to whether or not it was mortgaged), which included seventy-nine tillable acres, one acre of meadow, and one hundred forty-five acres of woodland or forest (most likely timber). The value of the farm ($7,000), the implements ($100), and the livestock ($100) were also included. Michael had spent $50 on building and repairing fences during the year and had paid for fifty-six (or fifty) weeks of hired labor throughout the year. Of the ten farmers listed on Michael's page in the census, all but two had hired labor at some point during the year. The value of the labor was consistently five dollars per week. The farm included two acres of hay and four horses.
The amount of hemp fiber was also counted, but I didn't notice any families with it listed among their entries. Of course, back then it was normally used to make rope, and the census taker probably didn't use an infrared camera to locate it.
While agricultural census records do not provide the genealogical details one expects from population schedules, information can be gleaned from them. This is particularly true when your ancestor's entry is compared to other entries on the same page and the same township. Don’t just compare your family's entry with the ones directly before and after it. I have eight ancestors listed in the 1880 agricultural census, and it is interesting to compare all of their entries.
What Farms Got Counted?
At the risk of summarizing a bit too much, here's a general idea:
- 1850--farms with an annual produce of $100 or more
1860--same as 1850
1870--farms of at least three acres or $500 of annual produce
1880--same as 1870
The answer is maybe. To determine if agriculture censuses are in the library’s collection, find the locality of interest in the card catalog and search for “census” for any year between 1850 and 1880. For example, search for “Utah-Census-1880.” The library does not have all of these records in its collection.
Unfortunately, there is no one site where you can determine which federal agricultural census records are available (if there is such a page, please e-mail me and we'll let Daily News readers know). However, what follows are some links to pages that have information on agricultural census records on a wide variety of areas. Readers may also wish to consult “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy” by Loretto D. Szucs and Sandra H. Luebking, pp. 129-134, for more information on these records.
You may also find some agricultural census records on Ancestry.com