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Weekly Tip: Finding Genealogy in Unlikely Places: The USDA Agricultural Library

From USDA Online Exhibit, http://www.good-potato.com/beans_are_bullets/chapter4/ch4gallery10.html

Learning about our farming ancestors can mean looking in non-genealogical collections for information from their time period that would tell us more about what farming was like.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library has books, manuscript collections and digital collections that can help fill in the information about your farming ancestor. Our ancestors faced many battles in their lives as they farmed their land, insects, drought, tools, obtaining seeds, selling their crops, etc. This website is full of not only this type of information but also information that has to do with the food we ate as a nation.

This collection is huge, but just looking at a few of its highlights can provide you with some ideas.

Part of their digital collections is a section titled Past Spotlights. There are  quite a few articles here that would be of interest to the family historian.  One example is a study from 1937 that looks at Knott County, Kentucky. According to the introduction of this article, “This study of family living in Knott County, Ky., depicts the effect of farming on the land, much of which is below the margin of profitable cultivation, upon material conditions of family life.”

Another series available in this digital archive is The Yearbook of Agriculture which is available to browse by date or topic. Browsing by date might be more helpful in your search. These yearbooks have amazing information on anything from what crops people were farming to issues that affect farming. According to the description, “In 1895, Congress passed a law providing for an annual publication to disseminate the USDA’s research developments to scientists and farmers. The first volume published under this law was the Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture for 1894, with over 25 articles on such topics as “The grain smuts,” “The improvement of public roads in North Carolina,” and “The crow blackbird and its food.”

These yearbooks cover the years 1894-1937 and 1938-1992.  I highly recommend browsing in these for information that would have pertained to your ancestor’s locality.

On the right hand side of the website are links to subjects within the website.  By clicking on History, Art and Biography you can read more about topics such as school gardening and war propaganda posters. The link for the History of American Agriculture goes over developments by decade and topic. Farm, Field and Fireside Newspaper Collection  takes you to a website for the University of Illinois, which has free downloadable farm newspapers and periodicals from the 19th century.

And then of course, they have a library.  The library catalog has two separate search engines to look for books or articles.  You can search by keyword, basic search or advanced search. Books are available for loan to libraries, to read more about this click here. The website also has a page to help you with your searches here.

In the library catalog I searched on the term “grasshopper”.  As many people know, grasshoppers or crickets could be an enormous pest to farmers.  In my own family, when the Utah valley was invaded by the “Mormon Cricket” they were so thick that my ancestor’s dress was devoured by the insects as she ran for cover.  404 entries can be found by searching on grasshopper, including hits for Wyoming, Colorado and Australia. A search on the word “women” brought up histories of women in agriculture.  I would suggest searching on the state your ancestor was from for some books that might be relevant.

The USDA Library is so vast that it’s impossible to describe it all in a tip.  But it is a good example of finding historical information about your ancestor’s life in a website that is not about “genealogy”.


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