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Reconstruction Period Research Forum

Looking for Farming Ancestors in 1870 Census

Many researchers suspect that their Southern ancestors worked as tenant farmers, sharecroppers, or farm laborers, and that their employer or landlord was their former slave owner. Sometimes an employer-employee connection can help to make the connection to slavery. Most Reconstruction-period labor contracts, being private documents, were probably never recorded. Even though many contracts were filed with the Freedmen's Bureau, probably the vast majority in most locations were never seen by a Bureau agent.

Do not despair! Lacking a contract, there are ways to find a possible employer in the 1870 census. Can we use the census to test a theory that an ancestor was a tenant farmer? Yes. Here are some suggestions to make maximum use of the 1870 census by comparing data from Schedule 1 (Population) with Schedule 3 (Agriculture).

For purposes of the following discussion, I am assuming that the ancestor is listed as head-of-household in the 1870 census.

First look at Schedule 1 and note the ancestor's occupation, and whether or not the ancestor owned real or personal estate, and if so what it was worth. The enumerators' instructions for 1870 said, in part, "Be very particular to distinguish between farmers and farm laborers. In agricultural regions this should be one of the points to which the assistant marshal should especially direct his attention."

A farmer managed his (or her) own farm, whether owned or rented. A farm laborer was an employee. Sharecroppers were legally employees whose pay came after harvest in the from of a portion of the crop. If the ancestor is not listed as engaged in farming, the rest of this discussion may be irrelevant.

Next look at Schedule 3 and see whether or not the ancestor is listed as a farmer. Keep in mind that the following caveat: census enumerators in 1870 did not take down data exactly the same way. Different enumerators may have interpreted their instructions differently, or carried them out incorrectly -- so as in any census research, leave room in your analysis for human error.
(a) If the ancestor IS listed in Schedule 3, this is a good indication that the ancestor was raising his or her own crop -- and could be a landowner or renter.
(b) If the ancestor is NOT listed in Schedule 3, then perhaps he or she was not raising crops in his or her own name -- this could mean that the person was a hired farm laborer or sharecropper.

Now, let us say that your ancestor is listed as a farm laborer in Schedule 1, and does not appear by name in Schedule 3. Comparing entries in Schedules 1 and 3, does it appear that the enumerator followed the same household ORDER for both schedules? -- in other words, are farmers named in schedule 3 listed in the same order as they appear in Schedule 1? They probably are, but if not, you may not be able to use this technique.

By extracting the names of farmers who appear in Schedule 3, who live in the three or four households immediately before and immediately after your ancestor's household, you may find candidates for the ancestor's employer. How much land did each of these farmers own, how much agricultural produce did each of them raise, and how much did they pay in wages the previous year? (see Schedule 3). Does one or more of these farmers seem a likely candidate to be your ancestor's employer?

Did farm laborers necessarily live on the land they worked (and therefore are they near neighbors to the employer-farmer)? Not necessarily, but highly likely since most landowners did not like other people's employees living on their land (example: wife could theoretically work for different employer from her husband, and both live in same house -- not inconceivable, but highly unusual because most employers in 1870 preferred to hire whole FAMILIES rather than individual family members).

Getting away from the census for a last comment. I do not know the format for any states' tax digests except Georgia, but if you have access for any tax digests for the years you are researching, take a look. Georgia listed freedpeople under the names of their EMPLOYERS, which is very useful for Georgia researchers.

If you want to read a more detailed analysis of tenancy as it appears in the censuses, I highly recommend Frederick A. Bode and Donald E. Ginter, Farm Tenancy and the Census in Antebellum Georgia (University of Georgia Press, 1986), chapter 5, "The Forms of Tenancy." Bode and Ginter's discussion is useful for all states, not just Georgia.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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