Monday, October 11, 2010

Make the most of the ag census on methodology monday

Ever since I discovered the existence of agriculture schedules for the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses, I've been so amazed that I can know how many pigs my ancestors slopped and how much maple syrup they spent endless spring hours cooking down.

So I've promoted these schedules as a way to add flesh to a skeletal family tree. What was grown, or not grown on the farm; how it compared to its neighbors at the time; how it developed (or failed to develop) over time -- all can tell a lot about what it was like to grow up and live there. Now I have even more reasons and fewer excuses to use these scandalously under-used records.

The "fewer excuses" part is that Ancestry now has agriculture schedules on line for fourteen states including Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan. They're under the obtuse heading of "Selected US Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880," which is not included in the drop-down menu of other US censuses.

One caution if you haven't dealt with these in microfilm or hard copy before: In 1850 the entries for each farm are so numerous they stretch across two pages. On the left side of one page are the names and the first set of entries, and then on the back side of that page (the following image in Ancestry) are the remaining numbers. So to get all the good stuff you need to click forward and match up line numbers. (This also means that every knowledgeable citation to these records will refer to two page numbers, not just one!)

The "more reasons" part is that the agriculture schedule is not a perfect mirror of the population schedule. This means at least two things. One, some people show up there who own no property according to the population schedule (either a mistake was made or they are "managers"). Two, some people have their names grossly mangled in one schedule and not in another. A man who is probably not a relative of my wife (another story!) is indexed in Genesee County, New York, as "Rosabel" in the population schedule, but more accurately as "Roswell" in the agriculture schedule. I'm sure there's more, but the point remains the same: this data set is a must-do for any serious researcher.


N. LaRue said...

As usual, you're completely right, Harold. These are really a must-use resource, especially with ancestry beginning to upload them. I've only used the 1850 Indiana ag census so far, and of course that's not included in ancestry's current collection (I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the future though). But that schedule is especially important because according to an almanac I read, there were some huge storms across much of Indiana at the time of the 1850 enumeration so many people are not found there. So if they were farmers, and many probably were, the ag schedule would be the place to find them. Great resource!

Debbie Parker Wayne said...

Great tip, Harold, to check the ag schedules. I was amazed the first time I saw them. It can really make you think about the life of your ancestors when you see the livestock, produce, and number of improved acres they actually worked. My ancestor's 1860 ag schedule enumeration made me wonder how all the families in that county could use so many pounds of butter. Almost every family on the schedule had made 100 to 200 pounds of butter, with some in the 500 to 600 pound range. Even dividing the total pounds stated by the total population of the county still seemed like a lot of butter per person.

Tex said...

ALL of my ancestors were farmers. I found the agricultural censuses early and they are such a terrific way to flesh out their story. I had no idea people in East Texas grew so many sweet potatoes--I grew up in the panhandle and we weren't much into food crops. :-) Like Debbie, I'm always amazed at how much butter each family produced, but I do remember having a milk cow or two early on and we definitely had lots of cream and sometimes it made it past our cereal to be churned.

I, too, am glad to find these schedules more readily available.

Patti Hobbs said...

Tex, you might be surprised to find that your farmer ancestors in the population schedule might have had some other trade which might be found in the manufacturing and industry schedules. I also have only looked at the "other" censuses in one location (Pennsylvania), but I was surprised to find an ancestor who was a farmer in 1860 and 1870 and was missed totally in the population schedule in 1850 (or that section wasn't copied to the national version) was a miller in the manufacturing and industry schedule. It helped to explain why he might have been taking people to court for debt. Later he was being taken to court for debt. The court records don't tell what the debts are for -- just that they exist.

Harold said...

Nice catch of the miller, Patti! My experience of debt cases is similar -- only the really involved ones give much indication of what was going on. But sometimes, in the loose papers . . . And of course, if you want to make a career of studying just one ancestor, there may be clues in the opposing party's occupation or location. I saw one interesting case locally where workmen who were building a boat sued for their pay.