Researching Your Farming Ancestors

I think just about everybody has ancestors who farmed at one time or another. I have quite a few of them in my own family tree and my husband’s tree has even more!

How can we learn more about those hardworking farmers? There are actually quite a few resources and many of them are readily available online.

1. U.S. census records – One of the goal of the census, aside from counting people, was to track agricultural and economic growth.

The 1820 census had but one question about farming – How many in the home worked in agriculture?

In New Gloucester, Cumberland, Maine, all the men farmed in this census snip. Margaret Lane was likely a widow, but I have to wonder if she helped out? Also, Wm. Bradbury, at the top, likely had a son old enough to be considered a farm worker.

Several decades later, beginning in 1850, the U.S. census included an agricultural, or farm, schedule. There is lots to be learned between 1850 and 1880 from these schedules.

Ancestry has the U.S. census non-population schedules, as they are called. However, to find them, you must first click on the U.S. census collections and then scroll to the very last item:

Here is a sample from the 1860 schedule for Calais, Washington, Maine:



Calais, Maine 1860 Farm Schedule

Three of these men are related to me – Benjamin Blyther, Thomas Coleman and William Coleman. Farming wasn’t for William, I don’t think, as he later became a river tugboat captain. However, in 1850, my families were living next to each other, except for Joseph Maloney in there.

I’ve learned that Benjamin might only have been farming for subsistence and bartering, as he has nothing entered in the crops section. However, Thomas and William both had sheep and produced 20 and 7 lbs. of wool, respectively. Not a bad commodity for northern Maine winters!

HOWEVER, while this appears to be the entire entry, be sure to turn the census page! It’s only half of the entry for these men!


Second Page of the Schedule

From this page, I’ve discovered that Thomas grew a small quantity of Peas/beans, but all three grew potatoes and two of the three each grew barley and buckwheat. Value of their garden crops was minimal – $25, $15 and $15, respectively. Butter was plentiful for all, as, together, they produced 620 lbs. of butter!

This is just a sampling of information collected in the censuses; questions varied somewhat from year to year.

2. County Histories – In addition to the census records, another fabulous resource are town and county histories, although county histories are way more common.

Here is an entry from a history that included Cumberland County, Kentucky:

There are four sections about Jacob Dulworth that deal specifically with his farms. Even better, he lived in Overton County, Tennessee for a time, which is mentioned here, and Overton is a burned county so I won’t find Jacob in those land deeds!

3. Historical Newspapers – Another terrific resource is to be found on Kenneth Marks’ The Ancestor Hunt. He has links grouped by state to farmers’ newspapers, many of which cover the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s. I’m not sure how many are on Chronicling America, but you’ll have to manually look through that list because searching for “farmers” brings up all the newspapers that have an article with that word in it. The Ancestor Hunt has done the work for you!

4. Farm, Field & Fireside -Illinois Digital Collection of farming newspapers, not limited to Illinois

The first three of my suggestions are more likely to give data about actual farm crop production. There are several other resources that give details about land ownership.

4. Land Deeds – Deeds are the obvious “go to” to learn how much land your ancestor bought and sold. Occasionally, a crop might be mentioned, but if it is, it is an after thought and included perhaps as a land boundary marker, such as “adjoining John Smith’s tobacco fields at the southeast corner.”

5. Tax Lists – Many researchers don’t even read tax lists, but they reveal all kinds of facts about our ancestors. First, acreage owned is always included. Occasionally, there is information on crops, but that isn’t very common. Some tax lists are for personal property and include information like number of horses and cattle owned and even if the family owned a carriage!

For many of our ancestors, farming was their livelihood. If you want to understand more about their daily lives, delve into these resources!

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