History of American Landownership and Sharecropping

Landownership has been tied into the American identity since the very beginning of the country's history. Today in the United States, almost all citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote, but in the past, you had to own land, too. When the country was founded, voting was only open to white men over the age of 21 who owned land. Owning land is no longer a requirement to vote, but homeownership is still a cornerstone of the American Dream.

What Is a Landowner?

The simplest definition of a landowner is someone who owns a piece of land. It doesn't have to be a person: Businesses, governments, churches, nonprofits, and other entities can all be the legal owner of a piece of land. There are also many different types of ownership. Common forms of ownership are individual ownership, where one person is the legal owner and the land transfers to that person's heirs upon their death; joint tenants, when two or more people own the same piece of land and when one of the dies, ownership of their share of the property transfers to the other owner(s); and tenants in common, where two or more people own the land but each owner can will their ownership share to their heirs upon their death. Businesses often hold land in a limited liability corporation or general partnership.

History and Evolution of Landownership

In their earliest histories, nearly all societies around the world considered land as property of the community as a whole; no one person owned land. During the time of hunters and gathers, this made sense. The development of farming led to the idea of owned property. In Europe, many of the rights and responsibilities accorded to landowners evolved from Roman laws, and these ideas were later brought to America. One thing that encouraged settlement of North America is that Europe is a relatively small continent and there's only so much land. By the 1600s, it was hard for average people to acquire land, but there was plenty of land in North America. This desire for landownership is why many people chose to immigrate to America, where colonial governments often gave away tracts of acreage known as land grants to immigrants who qualified. Later in the 19th century, when America was an established country, the United States government used this same idea to populate the west.

What Is Sharecropping?

Sharecropping is a system of farming where people rent farmland from a landowner. Instead of paying the rent in money, they pay with a portion of the crops they grow on the land. It's a very old system that has been used around the world. However, when Americans hear the term "sharecropping," they usually think of the way it was practiced after the Civil War. People who had owned enslaved people now needed laborers to work their land, so they turned to the formerly enslaved people to work the land as sharecroppers. This era of sharecropping is now seen as having been abusive and economically disadvantageous to the sharecroppers.

History of Sharecropping

There's some evidence that sharecropping existed in the United States before the Civil War in the Mississippi River Valley, specifically around Natchez, Mississippi. Some months after the end of the Civil War, President Andrew Jackson ordered that all land seized in the Confederate states should be returned to the original landowners. However, many Southern landowners had depended on enslaved people to work their land. Now many of these landowners were cash-poor and had no one to plant and harvest crops. At the same time, formerly enslaved people had no land or money of their own and needed work. Soon, plantations were divided into small lots where one family could work. At this point, almost all sharecroppers were black. Soon, though, white people also became sharecroppers under this system.

The landowners decided what should be planted and how much of the crop they would take for rent. The sharecropping system continued for decades. By the 1930s, there were 5.5 million white sharecroppers and more than 3 million black sharecroppers in the United States. Sharecroppers farmed about one-third of all farm acres in Tennessee during this period. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was formed in the 1930s as a way to protest against the poor treatment of sharecroppers and help them better their lives. Landowners were angered by this union, and some landlords condoned violence against striking sharecroppers. However, the Great Depression forced more people into sharecropping. What eventually ended the practice was improvements in technology that allowed machines to do farm work that once was done by humans. Many former sharecroppers migrated to cities and took jobs in factories instead.

Sharecropping Today

The newest form of sharecropping started in Britain and is known as land-sharing. It works on the idea that a lot of landowners don't enjoy gardening or working on their property and a lot of apartment-dwellers love working with the soil but don't have the space for it. Most cities and some suburbs now have community gardens. However, some of those community gardens have long wait lists. Land-sharing programs connect landowners with those who wish to have a garden. These programs are popular in urban areas as a way to grow fresh food. At the start of the season, the landowner and gardener come to an agreement, and the gardener usually pays the landowner in fresh produce or flowers for using their property.

Fun Facts

Did you know that Ted Turner, who founded the cable news network CNN, owns more than 2 million acres of land? His land holdings are more than twice the size of the entire state of Rhode Island! But he's not the person who owns the most land in the United States: That title goes to John Malone, who made his fortune in telecommunications. Malone owns 2.2 million acres of land, including numerous cattle ranches. But he doesn't own the most farmland in the country. That title actually goes to Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, who owns 242,000 acres of farmland. That's definitely a lot, but it's only a small portion of the 900 million acres of farmland in the United States!