Look Beyond the Population Schedules and Discover the Agricultural Census

I discovered the federal nonpopulation schedules some years ago. It wasn’t an educated choice of resource. Instead, I stumbled across it in a microfilm drawer late one afternoon after a frustratingly unsuccessful day. What I found changed the direction of my research and added substantially to my understanding of my research subject. If you are a frequent visitor to our blog, you know of my continued research into a North Carolina Barkley family. Despite almost no historical pictures or information available from living family members with whom I have spoken over the years, I nevertheless have painstakingly pieced together information about several generations from various records at the county, state and federal levels. I have become knowledgeable about the various documented events in their lives, and while these tell a story, I did not fully know these people as individuals, nor did I have a clear picture of how they conducted their daily lives.

The agricultural census information offered me a new perspective. I learned that in 1860 Joseph George Barkley, a Missionary Baptist minister living in Nash County, North Carolina, owned a farm valued over $100, the threshold for inclusion in that year’s agricultural census. He owned 190 acres, 50 of which were improved. The cash value of the farm totaled $2,000 and his farming implements and machinery were valued at an additional $25. Livestock included 2 horses, 1 ox, 2 milk cows, 1 “other cattle,” 9 sheep, and 17 swine valued at $710. Agricultural products produced during the previous year included 300 bushels of Indian corn, 10 pounds of wool, 20 bushels of sweet potatoes, 30 pounds of butter, 10 pounds of beeswax, and 80 pounds of honey. His homemade manufactures were valued at $32 and the value of animals slaughtered during the year totaled $172. Suddenly, from these seemingly lifeless statistics there emerged a picture of a busy farm with sheep and swine as the principal livestock, with the sheep yielding wool. Crops included vegetables, particularly sweet potatoes and corn. “Rev. Joe,” as he has been called in local reminiscences, was also a beekeeper and honey might often have been found on the family’s table at mealtime. What a richer picture of this family’s life was now available! A separate search in the slave census schedule for that year showed that Joseph owned four slaves: 1 male, aged 43; 1 female, aged 30; 1 male, aged 18 and a fugitive at the time of the enumeration; and 1 female, named Annie, aged 100.

When I began to research this article, I decided that it would be easier to repeat my agricultural census search for Joseph rather than try to find my notes among the welter of piles of long-neglected work on the Barkleys. These census enumerations are not available online, so as I was about make a day-trip to the National Archives, searching the file there seemed the easiest course of action. Was I premature! I should have done my homework first. Here’s what I should have known.

The agricultural census enumerations were taken every ten years beginning in 1850. In 1850 and 1860 farms with production valued at $100 or more were included. In 1870 and 1880, farms with a production of $500 or more were included. Enumerations provided the name of the farmer, ownership, acreage and use of land, land value and quantity and value of produce, livestock, and machinery. The figures provided were not actual inventories. If the farmer did not keep detailed farm records, all figures were estimates. In 1850, the enumerator asked fifty questions; by 1880 the number had doubled due to the government’s interest in an increased array of details about livestock and crops.

In 1918 (prior to the establishment of the National Archives), the Bureau of the Census decided to distribute the agricultural schedules to the states. Thus the censuses for 1850 through 1880 were not included in the collection of census enumerations transferred to the National Archives. This distribution is significant as it preserved these records for future research. The 1890 agricultural census was lost due to fire, the 1900 and 1910 agricultural censuses were destroyed by congressional order, and only fragments of the 1920 enumeration are extant. These records, either in the original or later on microfilm, made their way into various collections in state archives, state historical societies, and university libraries. Some of these institutions made microfilm copies available to the National Archives, so it is possible to view Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming as well as Baltimore City and County, and Worcester County, Maryland, in Washington, D.C. (Note the absence of North Carolina!). In addition, not all years for all states are available. A further caveat is that, unlike population census records which are extensively, if often poorly indexed, the agricultural census remains, for the most part, unindexed. In order to find the appropriate entry, you must first locate the individual in the population census and then use the county and locality information found there to identify the correct locality in the agricultural census. By reading line-by-line, you will be able to locate the correct individual’s listing.

I was definitely faced with a dilemma. Whom could I research in the limited microfilm available at the National Archives? Luckily my ancestors come from Massachusetts and one of the North Carolina Barkley families had migrated to Florida, and I knew the name of the county and town in which they lived. As these states are available at the Archives, I could salvage my research plan.

Nahum Aldrich lived in Belchertown, Hampshire County, Massachusetts. In 1850 he owned 30 acres, 15 of which were improved. The farm was valued at $1,200 and his farming implements and machinery at $25. He had 1 horse, 2 milk cows, 1 “other cattle,” 10 sheep, and 1 swine, all valued at $140. By 1860, he owned 100 acres valued at $1,000 and livestock valued at $180. During the previous year he had produced 15 bushels of rye, 70 bushels of Indian corn, 15 bushels of oats, 300 pounds of tobacco, 2 bushels of peas and beans, 40 bushels of Irish potatoes, $10 worth of orchard products, as well as 250 pounds of butter, 10 tons of hay, and 2 bushels of grass seed. The value of his homemade products totaled $25.00 and the value of slaughtered animals totaled $21.

Bolling B. Barkley lived in Marianna, Jackson County, Florida. In 1850 he owned 300 acres of land, 100 of which was improved. The farm was valued at $1,500 and his farming implements and machinery at $130. He had 3 horses, 1 mule, 1 cow, 2 oxen, and 45 swine, all valued at $375. He had produced 450 bushels of Indian corn, 14 bales (at 400 lbs. each) of cotton, and 175 pounds of sweet potatoes. In 1860, he had increased his land to 2, 248 acres (only 500 improved), valued at $11,600. His farming implements and machinery had a value of $300.  He had 5 horses, 14 mules, 5 milk cows, 2 oxen, 20 “other cattle,” 10 sheep, and 50 swine, all valued at $2,320. He had produced 1,800 bushels of Indian corn, 47 bales of cotton, 30 bushels of peas and beans, and 500 bushels of sweet potatoes.

A comparison of these three entries suggests some regional differences. The New England farm was smaller and more valuable per acre, perhaps because of a higher population density. It supported fewer livestock and grew oats, grains, hay and tobacco. The southern farms were larger with more livestock and cotton as a staple crop. A more extensive analysis of the 1870 and 1880 enumerations would provide an insight into the economic effects of the Civil War period on farms in both the north and southern regions of the country.

The agricultural censuses, often overlooked by genealogists, provide insight into the daily lives of our ancestors. They not only place an individual within a financial and social context, but act as supplements to other land, tax record, probate and estate research, and often can help distinguish between two individuals by the same name living in the same location or identify free blacks prior to the Civil War.

As always, you will want to cite your source correctly. Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained, now available in an updated 2nd edition, provides a model for citing the agricultural census on page 285.

It is well worth your time to discover the location of agricultural census collections. The Perkins Library at Duke University owns Colorado, District of Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has agricultural censuses for southern states from 1850 through 1870. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City owns the agricultural censuses for several states and years. Agricultural censuses are also scattered across the country in other institutions. If you are in the National Archives, ask the reference desk staff to see the “non-pop” binder which provides a state-by-state listing of accessible agricultural censuses and where they are available. You will find similar information on the National Archives website. Finally, be sure to check the holdings in the state libraries and historical societies in your geographical area of interest. If your state’s agricultural census is not in the National Archive’s microfilm collection, consider talking with your state library or other local institution to see if they will make a copy available for researchers in Washington.

You will definitely want to include the agricultural censuses in your normal plan of research for individuals in the 1850 to 1880 time period. They provide information you cannot afford to miss.




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