A great resource for learning more about how a family lived on a farm is the Agricultural Census conducted by US starting in 1850 and continued to 1880 census year. These are considered non-population census and mostly started in 1850 and some continued until around 1900. So if you have ancestor during that period who owned a farm, you should review these records as way to learn and develop your family history story.
The following information can be learned from these agricultural census:
- Name of owner or manager
- Number of improved and unimproved acres
- Number of livestock owned by farmer (broken down by breed)
- Amount of agricultural goods produced during the preceding year (broken down by crop)
- Cash value of the farm, farming machinery, livestock, animals slaughtered during the past year, and “homemade manufactures
- The 1880 schedules provide additional details, such as the amount of acreage used for each kind of crop, the number of poultry, and the number of eggs produced.
According to the National Archives there are certain exclusions to be aware of for certain locales and farm types:
“Exclusions: Not every farm was included in these schedules. In 1850, for example, small farms that produced less than $100 worth of products annually were not included. By 1870, farms of less than three acres or farms that produced less than $500 worth of products were not included.”
Agricultural Census Source: A Case Study
A recent client project shows how helpful this source can be to understand the current view of the land and a former farm, that existed over a 100 yrs ago.
On one parcel of the documented property (review of deeds) there is an old stone wall that separates property sections. Archival pictures from 100 yrs plus also shows the stone wall. The land has been part of glacial area, so the rocks are believed to be from the land itself and cleared for farming the land. When matched with territory survey maps and notes done in early 19th century, the land shows no evidence for a stone structure. The question for the client was who may have started or built the wall prior to 1890?
To help answer this question, a review of the plat map for the area of interest was researched at my local archive. Plat maps show land ownership over time and are a great source for locating ancestors’ farms.
The Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) has plat maps for all 72 counties in Wisconsin.
Results from Agricultural Census
Once the name of ownership was confirmed on the plat map, the next step was to see if the name listed on the plat could be found in the Non-Population Census, Agricultural for those years. When the person of interest is found, you can learn the details of the type of livestock on the farm, crops produced and acres improved versus unimproved (land that is usually wooded).
With the information learned the results showed that the owner of the land listed had large animals (oxen and horses) that typically could pull or drag stones from the land to another location. Also the agricultural census years showed that, the owners amount of land considered “improved land” increased along with the amount of crops produced. For this to occur the client’s hypothesis is that the same acreage was cleared, along with the stones from the land to make it tillable for crops. At the time those rocks were placed at the property line between two farms. The information gathered does not provide full proof that the owner of the land (at the time) constructed the wall but it does provide “indirect evidence” of the possibility for this to occur with the resources available. The information found in the Agricultural Census provides “direct evidence” that the owner was a farmer on the land for the dates shown on the plat map and other correlated register of deeds information collected previously.
When other information about farming practices, date and time are considered for a working farm, the agricultural census can help to construct an explanation for how farms and the land changed since our ancestor’s lived there.
Enjoy your own discoveries.