Harvest Time: 1850, part 2

Washington County farm output at mid-century

Today’s post is a continuation of our previous post, Harvest Time: 1850, part 1, which introduced us to the agricultural schedules that were part of the U.S decennial federal censuses of 1850-1880. If you missed that post, you might want to click the link and start there. And, as I mentioned in a footnote to Harvest Time: 1850, part 1, if you are wondering “Wait a minute! Mequon—and the Clark House—is in Ozaukee county. Why do you keep referring to Washington county census returns in 1850?” then it’s been too long since you read my April 21, 2016, blog post, Where are we?, in which I explain the convoluted history of the location of the Jonathan Clark House. In 1850 the farm was still in Washington county; by 1860, it was in Ozaukee. Click the link for more on that.

On to the data!

As I mentioned on Wednesday, you can find PDFs of the original 1850 federal census documents (but not the schedules themselves) by going to the Census Bureau’s website. Once there, you’ll note the bureau—for some reason—has not made a separate link to the 1850 Wisconsin statistical report pages. Of course, you can download the entire 1850 census statistical report (and if you can, do!, it’s full of interesting information), but the complete report runs 179MB and you may not want the whole file. No worries! I have made a handy, 5-page PDF extract of the Wisconsin agricultural information1. Just click this link to open and view the complete 1850 Wisconsin Table XI; download and save a copy for yourself, if you like.

On to the 1850 census’s Schedule 4. — Agriculture, for the Clark’s home county of Washington Co., Wisconsin. We’ll present the data in the original order of the schedule. Explanations of terms or schedule categories is taken from the 1853 census report (see note 1, below), pages xxiii-xxiv:

Agricultural data for Washington Co., Wisconsin, 1850

Acres of land in farms
• 42,963 acres of improved land [i.e., cleared for grazing, grass or tillage, or fallow]
• 108,335 acres unimproved land [i.e., not cleared; can be a woodlot]

Value of farms and implements
• $1,321,499 cash value of farms
• $80,898 value of farming implements & machinery, “including wagons, thrashing [sic] machines, cotton gins, sugar mills,” etc.

Live Stock
• 400 horses
• [zero] asses and mules
• 5,407 milch [i.e., milk] cows
• 3,989 working oxen
• 3,117 other cattle [presumably beef cattle]
• 1,253 sheep
• 10,217 swine
• $194,971 value of live stock
• $29,690 value of animals slaughtered [during the preceding year]

Produce during the year ending June 1, 1850
• 123,806 bushels of wheat
• 42,189 bushels of rye
• 34, 524 bushels of Indian corn
• 102,859 bushels of oats
• [zero] pounds of rice
• [zero] pounds of tobacco
• [zero] 400-pound bales of ginned cotton
• 1,824 pounds of wool
• 727 bushels of peas and beans
• 123,252 bushels of Irish potatoes
• 100 bushels of sweet potatoes
• 10,078 bushels of barley
• 3,406 bushels of buckwheat
• $ [zero] value of orchard products
• [zero] gallons of wine
• $ [zero] value of produce of market gardens
• 171,822 pounds of butter
• 300 pounds of cheese
• 3,261 tons of hay
• 6 bushels of clover seed
• 141 bushels of other grass seeds
• [zero] pounds of hops
• [zero] tons of “dew-rotted hemp”
• [zero] tons of “water-rotted hemp”
• 578 pounds of flax
• 8 bushels of flaxseed
• [zero] pounds of silk cocoons
• 106,637 pounds of maple sugar
• [zero] pounds of cane sugar
• 375 gallons of molasses
• 176 pounds of beeswax and honey
• $ [zero] value of homemade manufactures

A few observations

These raw numbers for Washington county’s agricultural output during the 12 months preceding the census date of June 1, 1850, give us some insight into the favored crops and livestock of Jonathan M. Clark and his neighbors. If you download the 1850 agricultural tables for all of Wisconsin, you can compare Washington county’s productivity with that of the state’s other counties.

A quick look at the statewide Table XI shows that Washington county has more “improved” acres under cultivation than all but two counties; only Rock and Walworth counties have more improved acres in 1850. Interestingly, the value of Washington’s farms and implements is respectable, but eight other counties have land of greater value.


In 1850, Washington county had a middling number of horses and sheep, and not a single mule or or ass2. The county boasted a much larger number of milk cows, working oxen, “other cattle”—presumably for beef— and a lot of pigs. And yet, the county’s “value of live stock” and “value of animals slaughtered” is lower than that of many other counties in Wisconsin. What that says about the value of various kinds of livestock as working animals versus as bacon or steaks is not clear from this report. Readers: any insights?

Some things just don’t grow in Wisconsin

This was, after all, the national decennial census, and it collected and interpreted agricultural information for a very wide variety of agricultural lands and climates. So it’s no surprise that typically southern crops such as rice3, cane sugar, silk cocoons, and cotton were not grown in any Wisconsin counties in 1850. And only seven of the state’s 31 counties tried to grow tobacco, with only a meagre 1,268 pound harvest of the “noxious weed” to show for their combined efforts.

I would have assumed that even as early as 1850 our German-speaking immigrant farmers would have been growing substantial amounts of hops, but not in Washington county. In 1850 you had to get your local hops in Waukesha Co. And in 1850, no one in the state was interested (or able?) to grow hemp, whether “water-rotted” or “dew-rotted.”4

Three Wisconsin counties managed to produce a mere 113 gallons of wine in 1850; Washington was not one of them. Given the climate, terrain and subsistence needs of the early settlers, the cultivation of the vine would probably not have been practical. It’s interesting that no orchard crops were produced in county in 1850. Perhaps orchard trees had been planted by 1850, but were not mature enough to produce fruit yet?

I also find it odd that Washington county farms were not producing any produce for “market gardens.” It would appear that Washington Co. farmers, like many of the state’s farmers, did not have any produce to spare for sale “in town.” Looking at the data, the only counties that had large volumes of produce for market gardens were counties with growing cities, namely Milwaukee Co. (Milwaukee), Dane Co. (Madison) and Rock Co. (Beloit and Janesville).

Top crops and animal byproducts

Favored, or highly productive, crops in 1850 Washington county included wheat, oats, and Irish potatoes.5 The many “milch cows” were responsible for a lot of butter: almost 172,000 pounds of it in one year. And the county’s “unimproved” farm acres must have had a large number of maple trees; they produced almost 107,000 pounds of maple sugar in one year.

Looking ahead

It will be interesting to compare this 1850 information with similar information collected and published in the censuses of 1860, 1870 and 1880. I’m guessing that more and more acres will be cleared and “under cultivation” as the years go by, and that the quantities of livestock and farm produce will rise. But will the favored crops and animals change or stay the same? Will the growth of railroads in the coming years—and the increased access to larger markets in Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond—cause the Washington/Ozaukee farmers to change their preferred crops and livestock?


  1. United States. Census Office. The Seventh Census of the United States: 1850 […]. Washington: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 1853. Extract with title page, and Table XI, agricultural data for the State of Wisconsin, pages 930-933.

  2. Of the four-footed kind.

  3. Of course, there are parts of Wisconsin that are known for wild rice, and that crop was—and still is—harvested by Wisconsin’s indigenous peoples. But the large-scale, labor-intensive cultivation of rice as a cash crop remained centered in the lowlands of slave-owning states such as South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana.

  4. OK, I knew absolutely nothing about the various kinds of “rotting” (or “retting”) of hemp and other crops, such as flax. If you’re curious, here’s a quick link for more info. You learn something new every day.

  5. Irish potatoes would be more or less what we think of as Idaho or russet potatoes, as opposed to sweet potatoes.

4 thoughts on “Harvest Time: 1850, part 2

  1. Pingback: Hops | Clark House Historian

  2. Pingback: Happy 208th Birthday, Jonathan! | Clark House Historian

  3. Pingback: The farm garden | Clark House Historian

  4. Pingback: Preparing for planting | Clark House Historian

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