Casefile Clues

25 January 2014

Prairie Patrimony: Inheritance and Farm Passing Practices

It's been years since I first read Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming, and Community in the Midwest (Studies in Rural Culture), by Sonya Salamon.

The book focuses on several ethnic groups in Illinois and how members of farm families from those ethnic groups interacted amongst themselves, other members of their ethnic group, and with "outsiders" Salamon studies a group of Ostfriesians (what started me reading the book), a group of Germans, and a group of what she terms Yankees (basically Illinois settlers who were born in the United States).

While one may argue with her definition of Yankee (a Virginia would qualify), there's no debating that reading her book gives insight into how 19th century farm families in Illinois estalished their farms, both for themselves and for the next generation. The three groups Salamon studied took different approaches to how they interacted with others, when they retired from the farm, and how (and if) they passed the farm to future generations. The book was particularly interesting to me both as a farm kid myself and as the descendent of groups similar to those Salamon studied.

What struck me most about the book was the occasional passage written by Salamon that put in words one of those "unspoken rules" that I had always taken for granted. Of course any study of this type has to make generalizations and there will always be families that "don't follow the rules."

In most of my Ostfriesian families, the "homeplace" (that farm originally purchased by the immigrants upon their arrival) was almost sacred and not to be sold at any cost. It was not to be mortgaged outside the family except in the more dire of circumstances. Fathers in these families typically saw their "job" as done when their boys were established with farms of their own and their daughters were married. The other Germans Salamon studied didn't quite have that same viewpoint and the "Yankee" farmers were ones who tended to farm until they dropped dead.

And as I thought about it, those tendencies were pretty much the norm in my own farming families during the time period of Salamon's book. Salamon even made some comments about how females in Ostfriesian families were treated somewhat differently than in other groups during this time period--her comments were consistent with items I had noticed in court and land records. Suddenly things were making sense.

It's imperative for genealogists to study the law. It is important for genealogists to have an understanding of history and national events that impacted our ancestors. But it is just as important to know something about the sociological setting in which our ancestors lived. Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming, and Community in the Midwest (Studies in Rural Culture) provides that background for someone with rural Midwestern families during this time period.

And if you don't have rural Midwestern families, have you looked for similar materials for your own areas of interest? (I still need to do some searching for information on the experiences of typical workers of the Pullman Car Company where two of my children's great-great-grandfathers worked from the 1890s through the 1920s.)