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Agricultural census yields bumper crop of data

DONNA MURRAY ALLEN
Published May 22, 2003

Agricultural censuses, a supplement to the more well-known population censuses, can verify that an ancestor owned or leased a plot of land at a specific time. They can fill in the gap for missing land or tax documents and point researchers toward related resources, such as deeds, mortgages and probate records. Occasionally, someone who was inadvertently left off the population census might appear on an agricultural census. (Not all property owners actually resided on the land. A few lived in a neighboring township or county or even another state.)

The schedules, as they are officially called, also include details like the number of calves birthed that year, the amount of butter produced, and the farm's value. This glimpse of life from the mid to late 1800s adds great color to family histories.

The federal government first attempted to take an agricultural census in 1840, presumably to trace migration patterns and economic growth. That slipshod effort yielded little useable data and most of the records have vanished. Other efforts proved more successful. However, only those taken each decade from 1850 to 1880 still exist. The rest were destroyed by congressional order.

The 1850 census included the name of the owner/renter, the value of the farm's equipment and machinery, an inventory of the livestock, crops produced that year and the total value of the farm. By 1880, costs associated with construction of new buildings, repairing fences and wages paid to laborers was added.

Not every farm was counted. In 1850, farms producing less than $100 worth of products were excluded. The cut-off in 1880 was farms of fewer than 3 acres and/or $500 worth of products.

Around 1919, the Census Bureau gave the original agricultural schedules back to the states. The records ended up scattered among state and university repositories and with any other entity that would take them. The National Archives and Records Administration didn't exist then. In more recent times, NARA asked these repositories to return the original records or to furnish it with copies.

Thus, researchers may view microfilmed records at any NARA facility or borrow them to view locally through interlibrary loan. Go to www.archives.gov and look for special censuses. A few public libraries, like the Largo Library, have a small selection of these records on hand in their Special Collections departments. They are also available through any Mormon Family History Center.

(Canada and other countries also conducted agricultural censuses. Dates and availability of records vary).

A small selection of abstracted agricultural census records may be found online. A visit to the Web site of Lauderdale County, Ala., at http://rootsweb.com/allauder/index.htm shows Nathaniel Pool owned 120 acres in Lauderdale in 1880. He cultivated half. The total value of his land was $600. Similar thumbnail sketches of landowners in Franklin County, Pa., and Augusta County, Va., in 1880 are at rootscolumn@yahoo.com. Or visit her Web site: www.rootsdetective.com

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