Tenant farmers made up a large part of Virginia’s population during George Mason’s lifetime. Land was very expensive. While well-to-do families like the Masons owned tens of thousands of acres, most people could not afford any land at all. Instead, many Virginians leased property from the wealthy. Since cash was scarce in the colonies, tenant farmers usually paid their rent by giving the landowner a portion of their crop.
Tenants and landlords signed a contract for how much land was rented and for how long, what the tenant would pay each year for rent, and any additional requirements made by the landowner. For example, the first European farmer to work on that land had extra responsibilities. The lease typically required the renter to build a house to live in and to construct barns for storing crops and equipment. These “improvements” were a good deal for the landlord, as they allowed him or her to raise the price of rent for a future tenant.
For George Mason and other colonial social elite, owning large amounts of land was a sign of power and wealth. With holdings in several counties in Virginia, Maryland, and even the present-day Midwest, at his death Mason owned approximately 100,000 acres. By leasing portions of these properties, Mason gained a steady income stream and transferred the work and responsibility of cultivating some of his vast tracts of land to tenants. Rents from these tenants helped keep the Mason family in luxury.
Over the years, Mason likely leased land to dozens of renters. The names of only a few of these tenants have remained through time. The few land leases that have survived give us clues about who was renting the land and what their lives were like.
Thomas Halbert signed a land lease agreement with George Mason in 1752, agreeing to pay 1,050 pounds of “good tobacco” each year in exchange for the use of two hundred acres of land. This rent was approximately equivalent to the labor of one adult person for an entire year.
The lease makes clear that the Halbert family planned to grow tobacco as a cash crop, since they were to pay their rent with that commodity. In addition, Thomas Halbert agreed to establish an orchard of 1,000 fruit trees. The apples and peaches produced by these trees were likely useful to Mason for making ciders and brandies.
The agreement was intended to last for a long time. The lease was binding for not only Thomas Halbert’s life, but for the length of three consecutive lives of himself and his family. Thus, if Halbert died, his wife Lydia could continue to live on and farm the same plot. After her death, their eldest son John could also rent with no change to the original contract.
John Ward may have initially come to Virginia in 1727 as a convict, known as a King’s Passenger, to serve his sentence by working as an indentured servant. If he survived to the end of his punishment, Ward was free to settle and work as he wished. By 1764 Ward was still struggling, having not yet been able to make enough money to purchase his own land. He and Geroge Mason signed a lease agreement in 1764 for one hundred acres in Fairfax County. It featured a common stipulation that if Mason or his children wanted to reclaim the land before the contract’s time was finished, they could do so. In that case the Masons would have to pay John Ward for any buildings he had constructed, such as houses and barns. In 1772, Mason gave Ward six months’ notice that he wanted to take back the one hundred acres Ward farmed. Mason paid Ward £27 and 10 shillings for the cost of the houses and barns which Ward had built. We do not know why Mason wished to recover the land or what happened next to John Ward.
Researching the names and lives of the tenant farmers who rented from George Mason is an ongoing project. We look forward to sharing more information as we better understand the lives and work at Gunston Hall beyond the Mason family.