Friday, October 25, 2013

Thoughts on the 1880 Agricultural Schedule

A year or two ago, I checked the 1880 Agricultural Census available at for two of my Ancestors from Peoria County, Illinois: William Graves, and Lawson Lair.  While I was able to locate them and read their entries easily, the headings on the forms were nearly completely illegible – so much so that the data was meaningless.  I tried different scans from neighboring areas, and looked around the internet for a blank copy of this form, but to no avail.  I emailed Ancestry requesting a blank form, and received no answer.

Today, I tried again.  The scan has not changed in quality, unfortunately, and I still saw no link to a blank form at Ancestry.  Overall, I’m a happy Ancestry customer, but this major oversight for this database left me disappointed.  Data isn’t worth anything if you don’t know what it means.

However, eventually a Google search pointed me to a wealth of information on not only the 1880 Agricultural census, but others.  Blank forms were provided, as well as background information.  This information, in the form of a pdf, can be obtained at the government’s census website here.

The information provided by this enumeration gives a good “snapshot” of what life on the farm was like – at least during the year 1879.  Land ownership, or the nature of the rental agreement, is the first item to be addressed, progressing into how much land is both improved and unimproved.  Farm values are noted, as well as the worth of the implements and machinery owned by the farmer, so comparing to that of their neighbors, it was easy to get an idea of the financial standing of the farm relative to its neighbors. 

The details help forge a picture of the farm as it was then – was livestock raised, crops planted, or both?  Did the family keep milch cows?  Did they produce butter or cheese?   How many horses did they keep?  Did they keep poultry, and if so, how many eggs did they produce?  Sheep and Swine details were also given.

If crops were planted, what kind?  How many acres?  What was production like in that growing season?  These agricultural censuses will differ in what specific crop questions were asked, depending on region of the country.  Orchards, vineyards, and bee-keeping were also addressed.

Looking at the data for Lawson Lair, who was at the time 47 years old with a family of nine, owned an 80 acre farm just west of Princeville.  With farm values of his immediate neighbors ranging from $2,600 to $15,000, Lawson’s farm was toward the bottom at $3,200.  Interpreting this data isn’t always straightforward, however; other sources paint a different picture of Lawson, who owned property in the nearby town of Princeville, deriving a great deal of future income as a landlord.  He passed away with quite a tidy sum of money accumulated.  Had I not already known this, I might have been tempted to decide Lawson was financially compromised, based on the value of his farm.

Lawson had 4 milch cows and sold 450 gallons of milk in 1879; however, they didn’t make butter or cheese on the farm.  He had 45 head of swine, and 40 barnyard poultry which produced 125 dozen eggs over the previous year.  With his family of nine, this averages out to 3 eggs per person per week, which leads me to believe they produced eggs primarily for their own consumption. 

Regarding his crops, he grew Indian corn, potatoes, and sorghum, from which he produced 90 gallons of molasses – far more than his immediate neighbors who grew sorghum.

All in all, this was an interesting look at the 1879 picture of Lawson’s farm, and that part of his life.  The most significant piece of information I learned was that he was not as invested in his farm as I had imagined – he made his money from other means.  Previous farm schedules may paint a different picture.  Every little piece of the puzzle helps to put flesh on the bones. 


  1. I love the agricultural census records! For me, too, it's one more way to get to know about the lives of my ancestors, not just the names and dates. I wrote a post a while ago about the 1850 - 1880 ag. censuses and linked to another blogger who created transcription forms for several or all of those censuses (I can't remember which ones). Anyway, the post is at You'll have to email her to request the pdfs for the transcription forms. They have been fabulous to use.

    1. Thanks, Nancy - I appreciate you passing this on. How nice of her to share her work!