Most of my ancestors were farmers. And by most, I would say at least 90%, which means--at least for my U.S. ancestors--that I make regular use of agricultural census schedules. The first federal agricultural census in the United States was taken in 1840, and continued on a decennial basis until 1925, when the frequency increased to every five years. Unfortunately, however, Congress and the Bureau of the Census didn't feel they had space to store these records, and they were regularly destroyed after the statistical information was extracted. Thankfully, the 1850-1880 agricultural censuses were offered to interested state libraries, historical societies, and other repositories, with the rest sent to the DAR Library for safekeeping, and most have survived to this day. Scattered returns do exist for agricultural censuses after 1880, but unfortunately the majority did not escape destruction.
Portion of 1880 agricultural census schedule for Henry C. Koth, Pocataligo, Hampton, S.C.
What can you learn from an agricultural census record? 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
For years for which the individual farm schedules are no longer extant, there are published statistical summaries available which can at least tell you what farm life was like in the community in which your ancestor lived. These are organized by state and county, and sometimes township, and are available for pretty much every year in which an agricultural census was taken.
Agricultural censuses are also not all about the farm. You can often use these records in more creative ways -- to sort out individuals of the same name, identify possible employers for sharecropping farmers, and to determine how and if the Civil War may have impacted your ancestors. One of my South Carolina ancestors, Samuel R. Ihly, was a known Union supporter during the War (although you could probably more accurately describe him as anti-war). When Sherman's troops went through Pocataligo in late January 1865, they confiscated almost everything he had that wasn't nailed down. This turn of fortune is reflected in the agricultural schedules. In 1860, Samuel owned 475 improved acres, and 1398 unimproved acres valued at about $10,000.1 In 1870, following the end of the Civil War, he owned a farm of just 35 acres, with $225 annual production.2
See Research in Agricultural Census Records for more information about which schedules exist, and where to find them, both online and off.
1. 1860 U.S. census, Beaufort County, South Carolina, agricultural schedule, Prince William Parish, pp. 9-10, line 4, Saml R Ihly; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 September 2012); citing microfilm series F 600204, roll 3, South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH), Columbia.
2. 1870 U.S. census, Beaufort County, South Carolina, agricultural schedule, Pocotaligo, Prince William Parish, pp. 7-8, line 8, S R Ihly; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 September 2012); citing SCDAH microfilm series F 600204, roll 5.