How to Research & Tell the Stories of Farming Ancestors

By | About.com

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So you know your ancestor was a farmer? But do you know the size of his farm? What crops he grew or animals he raised? How much he made? How he and his family lived? What they ate and wore? How his farm compared to those of the neighbors? Although “farmer” on the census doesn’t tell you much, there are a number of available records that can help you research and tell the story of your farming ancestors.

Census Records

Census records often provide our first clue to an ancestor’s occupation, and if your ancestors lived in rural areas like mine, then you’ve likely discovered page after page of farming families. Beyond traditional census population schedules, however, there are records such as Griffith’s Valuation in Ireland which describes among other things the net value and sizes of buildings and farms.

In the United States, agricultural schedules from 1850 through 1880 contain very detailed information about crops, animals, and products produced for sale. The questions vary slightly by year, but the types of information you might expect to find includes:

  • acres of improved and unimproved land
  • cash value of the farm
  • value of farming implements and machinery
  • livestock in numbers (horses; asses and mules; milch cows; working oxen; other cattle; sheep; swine; chickens)
  • value of livestock
  • produce in bushels or pounds (wheat, rye, Indian corn, oats, rice, tobacco, ginned cotton, wool, peas & beans, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, barley, buckwheat, hay, clover seed, other grass seeds, hops, both dew rotted and water rotted hemp, flax, flaxseed, silk cocoons)
  • processed products including wine, butter, cheese, maple sugar, cane sugar, molasses, beeswax, and honey
  • values of orchard products; produce of market gardens; homemade manufactures; animals slaughtered

Even for years for which individual agricultural schedules aren’t available, statistical information from agricultural censuses can provide general information about farms in your ancestor’s locality such as the number and size of farms, the types of crops grown, livestock, farm values and mortgage debt, and farm population by sex, age, and color. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cornell University, for example, have online a historical archive of the USDA Census of Agriculture 1925–1987. Or explore the Historical Census Publications on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, with statistical information going back to the 1840 census.

Information about farming ancestors may appear in other special census schedules as well, such as the U.S. manufacturing, industrial or statistical schedules. Some farmers operated sideline businesses along with their farm, such as my third great grandfather, Henry Koth, who operated a grist/flour mill in addition to his farm, and is enumerated in the 1880 manufacturing schedule of Hampton County, South Carolina. It may be harder to find the special census schedules online than the traditional population schedules, but many are still available. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, for example, offers free access to 1850 and 1880 agricultural census images for every township in every Pennsylvania county, plus the 1927 Triennial agricultural census. Ancestry.com (subscription required) hosts a selection of non-population schedules for seventeen U.S. states. Many special census schedules not available online can be found in state archives and historical societies. Some states forwarded copies to the National Archives, and FamilySearch has selected schedules available on microfilm.

Diaries & Oral Histories

While you would have to have quite a bit of luck to find a diary written by your farming ancestor, a diary or journal written by a farmer from the same time period or same community can still provide a lot of insight into what life was like for your own ancestral families. Explore online catalogs for university and historical society manuscript collections to see what type of farm diaries they may have available, such as the Farm Diaries collection at the University of North Carolina and Minnesota Historical Society’s collection of Minnesota farmers’ diaries. For more recent memories, oral histories offer first-hand reminiscences of agricultural communities and how things have changed over time. Look for collections such as the University of Kentucky Libraries’ Family Farms of Kentucky Oral History Collection, held by state archives, university libraries and historical societies.

Local & Social Histories

To learn more about farming life in a particular locality, you can also can turn to social histories. Books such as “Farm: A History and Celebration of the American Farmer” by Gary Paulsen (Prentice-Hall), “Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, 1920-1950” by John and Anne Van Willigen (University Press of Kentucky), and “Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-1972” by John T. Schlebecker (Iowa State University Press) can introduce you to a life very close to the one your ancestors lived. Items created for farmers at the time your ancestors were farming are another good source for historical information. Look for items such as the Farmers’ Bulletin, produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 1889, and Farmers’ Almanacs. Many are available online for free at sites such as HathiTrust Digital Library.

Farming, Agricultural and Commercial Directories

Directories are not just for big-city residents. Rural directories were also created which identify farmers, farms and other agricultural information. At least some of these directories required farmers to pay for their listing, so just because your farmer ancestor isn’t listed, it doesn’t mean they weren’t living and farming in the area. A Google search for your locality, plus farmers and directory may turn up sources such as this list of squatters and farmers in the Wright’s Australian and American Commercial Directory and Gazetteer. The Sherberne County, Minnesota, historical society has online a transcription of the 1914 Atlas and Farmer’s Directory, which names farm owners, family members, farm location and acreage, and the number of years of residence in the county. For farmers in Ontario, Canada, the 1915 Vernon’s Farmers and Business Directory covers the counties of Frontenac, Grenville, Hastings, Leeds, Lennox, Addington, and Prince Edward. Check sources of digitized historical books for these directories as well, including Internet Archive, HathiDigital Trust, and Google Books.

Patents

Patents are another rich source of information for adding color to your family history. Even though your farming ancestor may not have been an inventor, the designs of others were a part of his daily life–from the plow he used to cultivate his fields, to the kerosene lantern he used to light his home. If you want to get creative you can use a combination of published histories, newspapers, museum collections, and even patent descriptions and timelines to discover and describe the implements your farming ancestors most likely used.

Southern Claims Commission Records

For those whose ancestors farmed in the Southern United States prior to 1865, the records of the U.S. Southern Claims Commission are an often-overlooked source of valuable information on farming families as claimants were required to support their ownership and loss of crops and livestock. The testimony includes details on not only what crops were grown in the community, but how and why they were raised, stored, and used. Even if your ancestor never made a claim, it is possible that one or more of their neighbors did. Read the claim records from your ancestor’s community and you’ll come away with a wonderful picture of what farming life was like in your ancestor’s community prior to the Civil War.

Historical Surveys & Reports

In some cases you may find that a lot of the background research has already been done, during the process of a county-wide historical survey, such as Forsythe County’s Agricultural Heritage. This study, prepared by Heather Fearnbach for the Forsythe County Historic Resources Commission in 2012, provides a “more informed understanding of Forsyth County’s agricultural development.” Much of the information comes from federal and state agricultural/farm censuses, interviews, maps and historical building surveys. To illustrate her points, the author also digs in deeper into specific townships and farm owners. Additional examples include Pennsylvania’s Agricultural History Project and Crop Report History by Decade from Fresno County, California. Search with terms such as agricultural history report or historical farm survey plus your locality of interest.

A wide variety of available resources can be used to put together and tell the story of an ancestor’s farm. Beyond the sources discussed in this article, search for resources available from local farm bureaus, agriculture history societies, state agriculture departments, and state or local heritage registers.

Enjoy the story!