In 1860, there were 163,110,720 acres of improved farmland in the United States, for a total estimated value of $6,645,045,007.
Three of my farming ancestors living in Gordon County, Ga., in that year owned an impressive 260 acres, worth $6,300. Well, it isn’t all that impressive, but it is my heritage, so for me it has great significance.
Thomas Akins, Elijah Stansell and Isaac Tate were subsistence farmers, meaning they didn’t produce more than it took to feed their large families.
They all owned horses, milch cows, sheep and swine. They raised wheat, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes and molasses. They also raised Indian corn and oats to feed their livestock.
How do I know all this — and why should you care?
I know it from researching in the 1860 Agriculture Schedule of the federal census for that same year. You should care because most of you probably had ancestors who farmed their land, and you probably could find them on that agricultural schedule.
By looking at all the farms surrounding your ancestors, you can see how well off they were compared to their neighbors. Were they poor dirt farmers or the biggest landowners in the county? Certainly knowing that will allow you to make an educated guess about how respected they were in the community and whether the family had money for an occasional nice luxury or barely eked by.
Just as with the traditional population censuses, the census taker listed the farms in the order of his visits (rather than alphabetically). It was easy for me to see that my Atkins, Stansell and Tate ancestors lived on adjoining farms — which is logical when I know that my Tate great-grandfather (Isaac’s grandson) married Elijah Stansell’s daughter, who also was the granddaughter of Thomas Akins.
The government kept agricultural schedules in 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880. Census takers acquired such information as name of the owner or manager; number of improved and unimproved acres; the cash value of the farm, farming machinery, livestock and animals slaughtered during the past year; and “homemade manufactures.”
The schedules also list the number of horses, mules, milch cows, working oxen, other cattle, sheep and swine owned by the farmer. The amount of oats, rice, tobacco, cotton, wool, peas and beans, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, barley, buckwheat, orchard products, wine, butter, cheese, hay, clover seed, other grass seeds, hops, hemp, flax, flaxseed, silk cocoons, maple sugar, cane sugar, molasses, and beeswax and honey produced during the preceding year also is noted.
Additionally, 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.
But an ancestor had to be a “real” farmer to be included on these schedules. If an 1850 or 1860 family produced less than $100 worth of products, they were not considered farmers. In 1870, a farm had to be more than three acres or produce more than $500 worth of produce.
Agriculture schedules a few years ago were hard to find. Some were available on microfilm through the National Archives, in some local libraries and in some state archives. Now Ancestry (www.ancestry.com) has digitized and indexed these schedules, and you can view them from home if you have a subscription or at your local library.
The data columns on these schedules are very hard to follow, and it is easy to get off track. It helps to have a preprinted form for extracting the lines of interest. These forms are downloadable from the Pikes Peak Genealogical Society at www.ppgs.org/content/genealogy-forms.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.