1850: Zebulon Blakeslee’s farm

Sepia Saturday 459. Second in a series on the early life of my paternal great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, a Union Civil War widow.

The 1850 U.S. census for Conklin, Broome Co., New York shows my great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth Blakeslee, 12, attending school and living on a farm with her parents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee.

Alas, this federal census doesn’t contain addresses for rural properties — so I’m not sure exactly where the farm was located. And my first attempt at land research hasn’t turned up anything, either.

Image by 12019 on Pixabay
A New York  State farm. In 1850, my great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, 12, lived on a farm with her parents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee in Conklin, Broome Co., N.Y. — an area with rural landscapes similar to this. Image by 12019 (CC0) on Pixabay

However, an 1850 U.S. agricultural census was also conducted about a month after the population census. And I was thrilled to find the farm of “Z. Blakesley” on its roster — providing many details about the farm where Mary lived as a girl.1

Horses and milk cows and swine, oh my!

On 5 Aug. 1850, when the agricultural census taker came calling, the Blakeslee family was living on an 80-acre farm. Most of the land was productive — with 70 acres described as “improved.” Only 10 acres were “unimproved.” which could mean forested or rocky or in some other way un-farmable.

I spent my early childhood on a 10-acre farm in upstate New York, so the 80-acre Blakeslee farm seems large and impressive by comparison. Its cash value of $2,000 [equivalent to about $65,542 in today’s dollars] underscores this impression.

Although the Blakeslee farm was mostly geared to field production, there were a few farm animals — which may have fascinated my great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth when she was growing up. Specifically:

  • Horses – 1
  • Milk cows – 3
  • Swine – 2
  • Value of Live Stock – $156 [about $5,034  today]
Image by VIVIANE6276 on Pixabay
A pair of swine. In the 1850 U.S. agricultural census, Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull’s father Zebulon Blakeslee reported owning two swine, three cows and a horse. Image by VIVIANE6276 (CC0) on Pixabay

There may also have been cats (typically kept on New York State farms to reduce the rodent population) and maybe even a dog — but these are not addressed in the census.

A productive spread

A second census page lists the agricultural production of Zebulon Blakeslee’s farm, indicating a focus on grains and hay — with the three milk cows contributing to substantial butter production and the swine, presumably, contributing to the slaughtered animals.

  • Indian corn – 100 bushels
  • Oats – 351 bushels
  • Buckwheat – 65 bushels
  • Butter – 300 pounds
  • Hay – 20 tons
  • Value of Animals Slaughtered – $40 [about $1,291 today]

For my great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth, all of this might have formed more of a backdrop to her life as a pre-teen attending school.

Yet she may have had before- or after-school chores that the population census doesn’t tell us about — since  the report lists no boarders or farm hands living with the Blakeslee family.

Up next: What else can I learn about Mary Elizabeth’s early life in Conklin, N.Y.? Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here

© 2019 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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6 thoughts on “1850: Zebulon Blakeslee’s farm”

  1. Many thanks to everyone for your comments. The U.S. Census Bureau conducted non-population censuses the same year as the regular census (agricultural, mortality and social statistics starting in 1850 and manufacturing starting in 1820). These special schedules can provide insights into a family’s daily life. Details are available on NARA’s website — and some reports have been digitized. Smaller farms were not counted in 1850, so the next-door farm of Zebulon’s son-in-law William Whitney was not included. Luckily, my ggg grandfather Zebulon’s farm made the cut — and no wonder, with an annual output of 300 pounds of butter in addition to field crops!

  2. I didn’t know there was an agricultural census. I know there’s a business one and a regular one.

    Thanks for the enlightening post.

  3. Guess we are all taken aback by the amount of butter! I need to remember to look for agricultural censuses. This provided a lot of information.

  4. I’ve never seen an agricultural census which I suppose was a way for a state to assess growth and development. Perhaps it was an outcome in the 1850s after the California Gold Rush surprised Americans with a new reason for internal migration. Reading your list of the farm produce made me think of how seasonal farm work was. Each month a different activity was required: April for planting, August for harvesting, December for slaughter, etc.

  5. That’s a lot of butter from 3 milk cows. I had no idea they could produce that much – even over a period of time. Hopefully they were able to sell what they didn’t need for themselves in a timely manner.

  6. What did they do with all that butter? I know folks had spring houses and ways to refrigerate dairy products back then, but I wonder how long 300 lbs could last. Well, of course, they didn’t produce it all at one time but 25 lbs a month is still a lot to store.

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