Madison County Families

Kentucky Pioneers and Their Descendants

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

This site created by and maintained by Robert J. Parks, 11 Regents Park Lane, Frankfort, KY  40601-3845

© Robert J. Parks 2009-2015

Madison County Farms in 1850:

Hogs, Sheep, Oats, Flax and Corn

While it is impossible to paint an exact picture of Madison County in 1850, the U.S. Censuses of Population and Agriculture for that year give us a pretty good idea of how people were living.  First of all, Madison County was overwhelmingly rural.  The total population of the county was some 15,000, but only 411 lived in Richmond.  Berea didn't exist.  

Two thirds of the people were white, one third black slaves.  There were 1,850 heads of households, two thirds of whom owned farms.  810 had slaves.  Nearly everybody was engaged in farming.  There were no manufacturers.  Hogs, sheep and cattle were the most numerous livestock, but Madison farmers were beginning to breed of mules for sale to cotton plantations in the South.  These were “cotton mules,” small animals that walked between rows of cotton with saddle-type bags to collect plucked by cotton pickers.  

Hogs, along with horses, cattle and mules, were purchased by traders (like Samuel Shearer) and driven overland to Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta and other southern markets.

With large populations of horses, mules, cattle and hogs, it is not surprising that the leading crops were oats and corn.  Flax, which was used to make linen, and flaxseed were significant crops.  Tobacco was all but non-existent, as was hemp.  

Most of the roads – none paved -- followed the major creeks -- Silver, Tates, Otter, Muddy, Drowning, Paint Lick -- with side roads up hollows giving access to the ridges.   Roads along the tops of ridges (e.g., Red House Road, Barnes Mill, Poosey Ridge) were yet to be built.  There were no railroads and few bridges.  Ferries took people, livestock and wagons across the Kentucky River to Clark, Fayette and Jessamine.  Horses and oxen provided power for transportation and farm work.

Roughly speaking, there were three types of farms.

The first type, roughly half the total, can best be described as subsistence.  The families on these farms produced enough food to be self-sufficient but had little excess production to sell for cash income.  These farms would have 50 or so productive acres, a milk cow or two, some chickens for eggs and meat, several hogs, a yoke of oxen for plowing and hauling, a couple of horses for transportation and several sheep for wool.  There would be no slaves to provide labor, but many families had six to eight children to help with the work.  Oats and corn would be the main crops, providing food for both the animals and the people.  A vegetable garden and fruit orchard would provide more food.  For cash, they would sell excess calves and pigs and perhaps some wool, vegetables, cheese or eggs.  The house was likely to be log.  

The second type of farm resembled a Southern plantation.  While the median size farm in Madison County was 130 acres, there were 30 farms with 900 or more acres.  The median farm value was less than $4,000, but the largest 30 were valued at more than $25,000.  The workers on these large farms included many slaves.  Fairly typical of these large farms was that of Dudley Tribble, age 53, owner of 18 slaves and 800 acres near Richmond valued at $34,000.  Tribble was the youngest son of the Rev. Andrew Tribble, a crusading Baptist preacher and slave owner who moved from Virginia to Kentucky about 1785 and soon settled in Madison County, along with some of his large family.  Andrew and sons Peter and Silas, also both slave owners, are listed on the 1810 Census for Madison County.  By the 1850s, the Tribble clan was prominent economically and socially in Madison County.  Dudley's household in 1850 consisted of his wife and 10 children, ages 2 to 24.  The 18 slaves included 6 males ages 18 to 26, 3 females 16-34, and 3 boys and 5 girls younger than 14.  This suggests substantial farm labor plus some help with the children and housework.  

It is impossible to know what precisely what kind of farm operation Dudley had.  But data in the 1850 censuses allow us to estimate.  We know the total number of each kind of livestock in Madison County, and we can calculate the average per farm.  We also know from estate sales from the time the approximate value of livestock.  Dudley's livestock was valued at $4,340.   From all these sources, we can estimate that his farm had 30 horses, 10 mules, perhaps a donkey for breeding, 3 yokes of oxen, 10 milk cows, 100 other cattle, 50 sheep and 100 hogs.  Dudley would likely have been in the business of breeding horses, mules, cattle and hogs for markets in Atlanta, Charleston, Louisville and Cincinnati.  

Dudley's plantation was a busy and prosperous place, and Dudley would have business relationships with traders who drove livestock on foot to distant markets.  He would have significant income from these endeavors.  Based on the data, 200 or so farms -- about one in six -- would have been large enough to produce significant cash income.  Some of these farm owners also had also replaced their old log cabins with brick structures.  

The third type of farm would be larger than the subsistence type, and much smaller than the plantation.  It would have excess production for the market – hogs and cattle – but not a high volume.  The owner might have one or two adult slaves, one man to help with the farm work, one female to help with the housework, but many of these farmers had no slaves.  Children provided much of the labor.  

Regardless of size, most farms were largely self-sufficient.  They raised corn and other grain to feed their animals.  Some of the animals -- horses, mules and oxen -- were needed for power on the farm, and others provided milk, meat and wool.  Many grew flax for spinning and weaving into fabric.  Bee keeping was common, as was tapping maple trees for sugar.  The resulting honey and sugar were used as sweeteners.   A variety of methods were used to preserve and store grains, meat, fruit and vegetables for the winter.  

The US Census for this period lists almost every man as a farmer, and nearly all women were “keeping house.”  Madison County had only a handful of specialized professionals, mostly lawyers, doctors and merchants, along with an occasional blacksmith and stonemason.  Some of those listed as farmers may have had specialized skills that were employed part-time.  For example, there are no carpenters listed in the Census, but many homes requiring a variety of woodworking skills had been built and furnished with furniture.  Most farmers were jacks of all trades, able to perform a wide variety of tasks on their farms.   Many farmers “swapped work” or bartered labor.  

My father observed that when he was a boy – the 1920s – a farmer who had 40-50 acres, a milk cow or two, a good sow or two, a nice corn field and a big vegetable garden, could get by pretty well.  He could sell calves and pigs for cash, which could be used to buy an automobile and niceties at country stores or from fancier merchants in Richmond.  My mother said when she could first remember – in the 1920s – the only thing her rural parents bought in town were sugar and coffee.  Everything else they raised on the farm.  

My parents’ descriptions of their memories from the 1920s serve to reinforce how self-sufficient farmers were.  They were even more self-sufficient in 1850.  

Per Farm





Beef Cattle




Milk Cows


Asses & Mules





Per Farm







Irish Potatoes




Sweet Potatoes


Peas & Beans





Per Farm











Maple Sugar




Other Products

Per Farm