Cotton Pickers, 1935, Arkansas, LOC LC-DIG-fsa-8a16196

As genealogists, it’s difficult to research people who were poor and marginalized. The lives of wealthier and more prominent people simply created more records.

I’ve had many people say to me that they haven’t researched deed records because their ancestors did not own any land.

However, in many cases, the types of agreements that sharecroppers and tenant farmers made were documented.

Brief History

(Although I discuss specifics relating to African-Americans, these deeds apply to white sharecroppers and tenant farmers as well.)

Most African-Americans after emancipation were forced to sign year-long labor contracts with white planters, often their former masters.

After emancipation, I can only imagine the pain of realizing that because they were mostly illiterate, had no money or land, and knew primarily farming, they would have few choices.

In other words, actual freedom was a lot less free than they thought it would be.

I have previously discussed Reconstruction-era labor contracts, especially those facilitated by the Freedmens Bureau.

This system was rife with corruption and white planters abused and took advantage of the freedmen in many ways.

Black farmers often found themselves locked into debt year after year. Many decades after emancipation, well into the 1930s and 1940s, many African-Americans were still economically strangled by tenant farming and sharecropping.

Some of our ancestors escaped this; but most did not. Of course, this also meant they remained desperately poor.

While my interest is the effects of this on African-Americans, plenty of white Americans were sharecroppers and tenant farmers as well.

Henry Blake’s Testimony

Former slave, Henry Blake, of Little Rock, Arkansas, testified about this harrowing experience in the 1930s:

After freedom, we worked on shares a while. Then we rented. When we worked on shares, we couldn’t make nothing, just overalls and something to eat.

Half went to the other man and you would destroy your half if you weren’t careful. A man that didn’t know how to count would always lose. He might lose anyhow.

They didn’t give no itemized statement. No, you just had to take their word. They never give you no details. They just say you owe so much.

No matter how good account you kept, you had to go by their account and now, Brother, I’m tellin’ you the truth about this. It’s been that way for a long time.

…If you didn’t make no money, that’s all right; they would advance you more. But you better not leave him, you better not try to leave and get caught. They’d keep you in debt. They were sharp.

The Lien

African-American tenant farmers and sharecroppers borrowed the supplies each year for their crops. They needed animals, seed, fertilizer and clothing, food and shelter for their families.

When the crop came in, they first had to pay back what they borrowed. They were abused by planters telling them they only broke even each year, or worse, were still in debt.

Even if a freedmen could challenge a planter, the social caste system ensured that behavior would likely result in violence.

These agreements are essentially liens. If the farmer did not pay back the debt by a certain date, the lienholder could sell the property.

A farmer may put up animals or supplies as collateral or even land, if he owned some. In many cases, the lien was on the freedman’s share of the crop.

Their share was usually between one-third and one-half of the crop.

In Tennessee, my research state, these agreements can be found in Deeds of Trust, or Trust Deeds.

These records are kept separately from other deed records. Even though many of these people were poor, these records tell us much about their lives.

Mike Fendricks

Mike Fendricks trust deed (misspelled as “Fenrick”)

In Mike Fenricks July 1883 trust deed,  he owes $187. 35 to WH Carrington. He puts up as security:

 one sorrel mare, about 9 years old…and my entire crop of cotton now growing on the lands owned by Len Deberry a containing about 15 acres of cotton, all being in the 4th district

Mike did not own the mare outright; he still owed $105.00 for the mare and for the merchandise and supplies furnished by Carrington.

Both notes were due on 1 December 1883. He signed with his mark.

This is a typical sharecropping lien. It tells us where Mike lived (on Len Deberry’s land) and gives us some sense of his economic circumstances.

Now, in contrast, tenant farmers typically lived on someone’s land, but usually had their own tools and possibly their own animals. They were slightly higher on the economic ladder.

George Williams

George Williams

Later in the 20th century, many locales started to use pre-printed forms for deeds in general.

One such form is shown above, for George Williams in Calhoun County, Alabama. In 1893, to secure a $150.00 he puts up:

One yoke of cattle, one bridle ox named Buck, one white ox named Charley, one black mare mule named Kate, also two ¾ waggons, one milk cow red and white named White Face and one speckled cow named Hart

I was actually surprised that most of the animals had names. That’s probably because I didn’t grow up on a farm.

Search all the Records: Green Barnes

Be sure to research these records through a person’s entire lifetime. Sharecropping and tenant farmers were very transient, so you may find them working on one farmer’s land one or two years and another in subsequent years.

I researched my ancestor Green Barnes in all deed records throughout his life. Trust deeds, which record his liens, contain important information about his life.

His first trust deed, executed on 3 May 1879, indicates that Green lived on the farm of William Dodds. He farmed for Dodds until 1883. After that, he moved around and worked on land owned by other various farmers.

Green Barnes Trust Deed

In a 6 May 1881 trust deed, Green first referred to a lien on “15 acres of cotton growing on my land.” 

That tells me that Green acquired land of his own by that time. However, as subsequent deeds show, Green still had to sharecrop on other people’s land, even when he had his own.

In one deed, he had liens not only on crops on his land, but crops on two other properties.

How to Find Lien Records

Like most county-level records, you can find these in local county courthouses and state archives. Familysearch has digitized a few of these records.

Each state records these differently. As I shown, in Tennessee these liens are recorded in Trust Deeds. In other states, they are in records actually called Crop Liens.

I suggest asking the archivist at the state archives or the register of deeds in the county where historic liens are recorded.

Closing Thoughts

Be sure that you research the agricultural census in combination with lien records. Non-population census schedules have more detailed information about farms and are available on Ancestry and at various state archives.

For example, the 1880 agricultural census indicates that Green Barnes rented for shares on 65 acres of tilled land.

He farmed twenty-six acres of corn, five acres of wheat and fifteen acres of cotton:

Barnes, 1880 agr.census, partial

(Since its hard to read the column headers on these forms, I like the template offered at NARA) These records also provide the animals on the farm, farm value, and whether the named individual was the owner or manager of the farm.

Green was managing this farm and the trust deeds I reviewed tell me this was probably William Dodds’ farm.

So take a look at deed records for your sharecropping ancestors. You might be surprised at what you find. I’d love to hear in the comments whether you have already been successful in these records.

Note: The Library of Congress has 20th century photographs of black sharecroppers and farmers that are sadly, very illuminating.

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