The words screeched their way into my ears like a scoop shovel on a concrete bin floor.
I’ve heard “just a farmer” before and no doubt I’ll hear it again, but every time the utterance reaches the harmony of my inner ear, it irritates me on several levels.
I descend from generations of farmers. Generations. In fact, I’m the the first generation that didn’t support my family by farming. My pedigree charts are saturated with families whose entire lives were devoted to agricultural pursuits. Some of my grandchildren will probably be raised by a farmer as well (and some won’t which is perfectly fine). Needless to say I approach this with a chip on my shoulder.
I recently overheard two individuals discussing an 18th century German language christening entry that was difficult to read. They had apparently worked out the names and locations. But they were not finished. The occupation of the father was giving them difficulties.
“Just a farmer” one of them said. I’ve read a great many church records. The only time I saw the phrase “just a farmer” used was when it indicated they were baptized by “just a preacher.”
In other words, never.
The use of the phrase was frustrating on several levels and not just for the reason already mentioned
The second was that one should avoid taking a dismissive tone with anyone’s ancestor’s occupation. Justifiably or not, many of us develop something of a connection with our long deceased forebears and while they may have been far from perfect with long list of “issues,” we tend to identify with them as our personal representative from the past. There but for the grace of two hundred years, go us. Being dismissive of their occupation in the past almost comes across as being dismissive of us in the present.
It’s okay for me to make jokes about my ancestors, my background, or my ethnic group, but others had best avoid making such jokes. It’s a lesson many of us learn early in life.
But this post is not actually about being emotionally attached to our ancestors and their past occupations.
It’s about how in many societies and cultures one is not “just a farmer.”
There are those who are farm laborers, those who are tenant farmers, those who are small farmers owning just enough land to eke out a living, those who own enough land to have some social standing and maybe a hired man, and then there are those who own enough land that they actually manage it instead of physically farming it.
In some languages there are different words for each type of “farmer.” It matters to as us as researchers today just as much as it mattered to our ancestors centuries ago. It matters not so we can judge our ancestors for their economic success or failure, but so that we can discern as much about them as we can. It helps us to distinguish farmers with the same name from each other.
It matters so that we can effectively research them.
How I approach the research for a farm “laborer” differs from how I approach the research for a “planter.”
If I arbitrarily assume one type of farmer is the same as any other type of farmer, then I’m not going to research that farmer as accurately as possible. I’m not going to be able to mine the records efficiently; I’m not going to be able to interpret them correctly; and I’m not going to be able to tell his story as effectively as I could.
Every ancestor has a story to tell. Some just leave behind more records than others.
But don’t say your ancestor was “just” farmer, “just” a factory worker, “just” a laborer, or “just” anything.
After all, you aren’t “just” their descendant are you?