Sometimes, finding where a farmer ancestor lived is not as easy as discovering a land deed. Many farmers were landless, raising crops and livestock on rented land, subject to certain financial arrangements. These tenant farmers frequently moved from place to place, often living on different farms each year, which makes locating them for genealogical purposes challenging. So, how does one locate where a tenant farmer ancestor was living?
First, look at censuses and gazetteers. These sources will give you a general idea of where your ancestor was living. State gazetteers, directories of businesses and heads of households, also achieve this purpose. The gazetteers were more intermittent than censuses, but they may list your ancestor and where they were living in certain years.
Second, look at county tax records. Once you’ve determined which counties your ancestor resided in at the time of the censuses/gazetteers, look at those counties’ (and, if appropriate, surrounding counties’) tax records. These annual records may be found at state archives or in county courthouses. Oftentimes, tax records list the township/precinct and the school district where your ancestor lived at the time. Hopefully, with enough searching, you can locate where your ancestor was living each year.
Third, look at newspaper records for the communities where your ancestor lived. and are excellent sources. Sometimes, local newspapers would announce when tenant farmers moved. These articles sometimes named the owner of the farm that the tenant farmer moved to and/or moved from. Local newspapers also tend to show the people your ancestor interacted with, which will come in handy later.
Finally, look at maps. Atlases show county townships. A great source for this is Just keep in mind that townships changed over time, so look at atlases from when your ancestor was enumerated in tax records as living in a certain township. Sometimes, counties, libraries, and archives also have maps showing the boundaries of a county’s various school districts. Using these maps, narrow your search to within the borders of the townships or school districts listed in your ancestor’s tax records.
If you find the name of your ancestor’s landlord in an atlas as owning land within the township or school district you’re searching, then you’ve pinpointed your tenant farmer ancestor’s residence! If this isn’t possible, you’ll probably still be able to find the names of your ancestor’s acquaintances from the newspapers, which will give you an idea of where your ancestor was living. If the atlases don’t reveal the answer, you can also look at land deeds. These will show when and where your ancestor’s landlord owned land within the specific township or school district and again, suggest where you ancestor lived.
Pinpointing your tenant farmer ancestor is a tedious process requiring consultation of multiple types of sources. Genealogy is not always easy, but the hard-earned results are rewarding for generations to come.