This is a guest post by George Morgan, genealogy expert and co-host of The Genealogy Guys podcast.
I can document two U.S. presidents in my family tree. While their lives are fascinating, their stories don’t pique my interest nearly as much as the lives of the
common men and women who embody the spirit of the American farmer: the people who migrated, cleared land, built homes and farms, cultivated crops, bred livestock, raised families, and founded the communities that helped make America.
To effectively research your ancestors — whether they were farmers or financiers — you have to become a student of history. That way, when you look for details that pertain to your family, you’ll have a better handle on the social situations that may have prompted certain events or choices. And it helps to start at the beginning.
America’s early farmers often worked the land to repay debts they incurred getting to the new colony. Frequently the price was a period of indentured servitude. Investors, who often owned the land and fronted the cost of transport to America for the settler, may have also shared the proceeds of the settler’s labor. At the end of the period of servitude, the settler was often given land and livestock and continued to live in the colony.
But times were tough. Farmers cleared land, plowed, planted, and harvested, raised livestock, and traded with one another for what they didn’t produce. Women grew vegetable gardens, prepared and preserved food, spun thread, wove cloth, sewed the family’s clothing, scraped and tanned hides, made quilts, soap, and candles, maintained the house, and cared for children.
Diaries and journals from the 17th century often paint bleak pictures of early colonists beginning with nothing. Some managed to do little more than eke out a meager living in the face of an inhospitable climate, disease, Indian attacks, crop failures, and any number of disasters that could decimate a population. Things could only get better.
As the country expanded, farm life improved. The Erie Canal, the Louisiana Purchase, and other federal acquisitions, including treaties that removed Indian tribes, opened more lands to settlement — and agriculture — and accelerated expansion west and south. Tools that previously had to be made by the farmer were now available for purchase. Railway depots opened and towns sprang up around transportation hubs that moved mail, people, farm produce, livestock, timber, ore, and other commodities.
People continued to move to the cities following the Civil War as the second Industrial Revolution took hold, and markets for livestock and other agricultural goods grew both in the cities and overseas. Steamships reduced overseas transport time to half what it had been before the Civil War, and international trade in agricultural and industrial goods exploded. Working the land was still hard but getting better.
Then came the 20th century. Opportunities for foreign trade seemed unlimited — until June 1914, when hostilities in Europe escalated into World War I. American farmers suffered as overseas shipping lanes and trade were dramatically affected, though much of their effort was redirected to the war effort and supplying the military. Post-World War I revitalization was halted when the Great Depression struck, which was complicated further by droughts in the Great Plains. Hundreds of thousands of farmers in the Dust Bowl migrated to California and other states seeking work. And, while World War II brought new employment opportunities that lured farmers who had not been drafted into industrial work, for more than a few young men, it meant an end to life on the farm.
Getting Personal — Records of Farm Life
Plenty of sources exist to help you dig into the details about your family’s farm life. You can start by turning to a source you’re already familiar with: the federal census.
From 1850 forward, federal census population schedules indicated the profession of each person in a household and the value of real estate owned. Going forward and backward through census years and noting changes in land value might help you gauge a family’s prosperity and can suggest a look at other records.
A land value on a census record will point you directly to the county courthouse to look for indexes of land transactions, which could include indentures, mortgages, and satisfaction of indebtedness to a lender.
Annual property tax records are usually found in the office of the county property tax assessor at the county seat and can tell you the years your ancestor owned the land as well as any debts that may have resulted in liens or foreclosures. Pay careful attention to what was happening both in your family and in the area in which they lived to see if you can determine what may have caused financial hardship or gain. For example, a drought may have caused negative financial impact on your family’s farm, while a new irrigation canal could have spurred financial gain. You can also compare land ownership values from census to census for hints of other purchases and sales you should search for.
Land changing hands may also clue you into a few personal details about your family’s relationships. My great-grandfather Rainey Baines Morgan and his wife, Caroline A. Morgan, purchased a little more than 270 acres in Caswell County, North Carolina, from Rainey’s father, Goodlow Warren Morgan, for $4,900 in 1883. Later that year, Goodlow gifted additional land to Rainey. By reading that deed, checking 1880 census records, and consulting maps, I determined that the gifted property was Goodlow’s own farm. It seems that Goodlow had married his second wife on 5 March 1883 and was moving to Iredell County, his new wife’s home. He gifted his land to son Rainey, but the terms of the deed said that Rainey would farm the land and pay Goodlow revenue from the produce.
The federal government included an agricultural schedule in the 1840 through 1910 censuses to gather detailed information about farm production and land usage (note that the 1890–1910 schedules did not survive). I researched my great-grandfather Green Berry Holder, his father, and his brother in Floyd County, Georgia, in the schedules from 1870 and 1880. Green Berry owned 400 acres of land, six horses, five mules, 56 head of cattle, pigs, chickens, and a few sheep. All of his land was being used for agriculture, none for timber or mining. He grew corn, wheat, oats, and barley. He also produced eggs, butter, and more than 400 pounds of honey each year. Moving to another family, I found that in 1880, Goodlow’s farm was producing tobacco and soybeans and employed two farmhands. Existing agricultural schedules have been microfilmed and are available at the National Archives, the Allen County Public Library, through LDS Family History Centers and the Family History Library, and in larger regional public libraries (though these may be limited to a regional scope). You can find a handful at Ancestry.com.
Newspapers often include reports of land transactions, estate transfers from probate courts, auctions of land and personal property, liens filed against property
holdings, and tax lists, any of which may provide clues from which you can make inferences. One of my distant cousins, James Alexander Wilson of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, enlisted in the Confederate Army on 16 September 1861 as a 1st lieutenant. He resigned his commission on 11 December 1862 due to disability incurred in battle. Subsequently, the Charlotte Observer reported that his property taxes were not paid for 1864 and 1865 and that his farm was auctioned off for taxes in May 1866.
Government Land Documents
Bounty land warrants, homestead applications, and land patents all give you more details about land transactions. My great-great-grandfather Spencer Ball traveled from Virginia to Alabama in 1822. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office, Spencer purchased four tracts of land on 26 November 1822 in the town of Cold Water, in the district of Huntsville, Alabama. He purchased two additional tracts in Mardisville, Talladega County, Alabama, on 1 August 1837. While the land patents provide dates, exact locations, and sizes of land parcels, the case files (also known as jackets) can provide details about the purchase, use of the land, and other information about the transactions and the family. Full homesteading land entry case files are available through the National Archives. You can also find homestead-related land patents for a number of states online at Ancestry.com and from the Bureau of Land Management. Visit here for links to websites.
Despite the vital role they played, if your agricultural ancestors are like mine, you won’t find them in textbooks. I found mine woven into local histories like The History of Mecklenburg County [North Carolina], 1740–1900, by J. B. Alexander, published in 1902. My grandmother Morgan was born in Mecklenburg County in 1873, after her ancestors arrived there in the 1840s from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Important as those specific mentions in the book were, the understanding I got of the county and its people, religious life, and social customs was every bit as useful.
Farmers were businessmen, so they left a paper trail of records associated with their affairs. Learning to read between the lines of those records and going further by researching social conditions, other nearby farms, and tracing that business forward and backward through the years will help you appreciate your own family’s farmers, America’s heroes, even more.
George G. Morgan is an internationally recognized genealogy expert. He has written eight books including The Official Guide to Ancestry.com. He is co-host of The Genealogy Guys podcast and videocast, found here.