Family Farm Research

How to frame your research

Farm Landscape, 1982.

Frame your research:

  • Focus on the land on which the building is located.  How have the boundaries of the land changed over time?  What livestock were originally raised?  Who first claimed the land?
  • Consider the building itself.  What were the architectural styles of the farm? When were the buildings constructed and what building materials were used?  Are you able to find out where barns, houses and other buildings were located on the property over time?
  • Think about the people who lived in or worked on the farm.  Who originally owned the farm and did ownership change?  Was the farm operated by tenants? 
  • Explore the events and activities associated with the farm.  Did the people on the farm join any reform organizations such as the Grange or the Farmers' Alliance? What was the state of the farms economic affairs?





The following books expand on these research suggestions and are great reads for family farm researchers:

American Farms: Exploring Their History, by R. Douglas Hurt.
Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1996.
MNHS call number: S441 .H919 1996

Century Farms: A Central Minnesota Experience, by Thomas Dockendorff.
​Article in Pioneer America Society Transactions, Vol. 11 (1988).  
MNHS call number: E172.P563 v.11.

Locating the family farm

Map of Burnsville TownshipWhen starting your research, you need to determine where the farm was located.  You can do this by consulting census records, plat books and other library materials.


U.S. Nonpopulation Census Schedules, 1850-1880  
This microfilmed collection contains the agricultural censuses for Minnesota in 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880.  For each farm unit enumerated, information is given on the name of the owner, agent, or manager; amount and/or value of land, implements and machinery, livestock, homemade manufactures, slaughtered animals, and forest products; wages paid, and total value of the farm.
MNHS call number:

  • 1860-1880: See Digital Finding Aid for the microfilmed collection.  Agricultural census schedules can also be searched with (subscription required; visit the Library to use our subscription for free).
  • 1850: The non-populations schedules for 1850 are available on microfilm, as part of the Minnesota Territorial Census Schedules.  For more information and a specific list of what is on each reel of film, see the Digital Finding Aid

Minnesota State Farm Census, 1921-1960
A serial published by the U.S. Dept of Agriculture in cooperation with the MN Dept of Agriculture. This census does not list individuals. It does, however, list annual statistical information about crops, farm ownership, and agricultural practices.
MNHS call number: HD1775.M6 M72 (1921-1922) and HD1775.M6 M73 (1923-1960)

Federal Census for Minnesota, 1850-1930
The federal census occurred in the years ending in “0” beginning with 1850. There was an additional territorial census taken by the federal government in 1857. Although Indian people were not supposed to be listed before 1875, some are listed in the 1850 census. Note: the 1900 census had a separate Indian census schedule.
MNHS call number: See the finding aid in the library (Microfilm). You can also access these census records through the subscription database This database is free of charge for library visitors.

Minnesota State Census, 1849-1905 
The Minnesota state censuses were taken in 1865, 1875, 1885, 1895, and 1905. The territorial government also took a census in 1849, 1853, 1855, and 1857. Despite governmental instructions to the contrary in the early years, some Indian people are listed.  
MNHS call number: Online index, see the finding aid in the library (Microfilm). 

Plat Maps can also help you determine the location of the family farm.  Plat maps in county atlases show land ownership, which often indicates farm ownership, in rural townships.  They show the size and location of your family's farm and can provide some insight into identifying neighbors.  During the late 19th and early 20th century, these maps included colorful hand drawn maps and promoted local communities and businesses by including advertisements, photographs of notable residents and buildings, and property owner indexes.  

To locate your family farm on the plat map, take the information you grabbed from the census (county and township), and find the related plat map online or at the Library:

Online Resources:

  • Minnesota atlases and platbooks online at MNHS  (pre-1917).
  • Minnesota atlases and plats at the Borchert Map Library (all dates, some digitized, searchable by county).
  • An alphabetical list of all townships in Minnesota and which county they are located in.

Print Resources:

  • Most maps at MNHS can be found in the library catalog.  Atlases and plats can be searched as "Ramsey county atlas" or "Ramsey county plat."

Useful Terms

Census Records- Census records identify, record, and quantify some aspect of life in a particular area.  Often they are used for individual people, but there are other kinds of census records available to researchers. Additional information about census records can be found on our Census Records Research Guide.

Plat Map- Plat maps in county atlases show land ownership, which often indicates farm ownership, in rural townships.  They show the size and location of your family's farm and can provide some insight into identifying neighbors. Additional information about plats can be found in our Maps at MNHS Research Guide


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