Landed Gentry: A Measure of Wealth

By MARGARET M. HOFMANN

COPYRIGHT © 1983, 2005—ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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Land records are perhaps the most important of all documents to the local historian or genealogist. Because of land’s tremendous importance as a measure of a man’s wealth (and it constituted the ultimate status symbol), land records in one form or another can nearly always be found. The shortage of coinage in colonial North Carolina made agricultural lands important in the barter system which developed between neighbors, between North Carolina and the mother country, and between North Carolina and other colonies.

Timber land was important since lumber was necessary to shelter man and beast, and could be exported. The ship building industry flourished in coastal Carolina because of an unlimited supply of good timber (and its by-products, pitch and tar), and a good year-round climate for working out of doors. Large land holdings made possible the control of water rights, and the man with a mill or ferry was well-off in early North Carolina.

In addition, “the land is still there,” and has come down to the present owner leaving a treasure trove of documents of ownership.

Old marriage contracts of the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, usually found in deed books, were made prior to the wedding of a widow or any other woman who owned sizeable acreage, to spell out who had control of her land for the duration of the marriage and after her death. Such a contract was made between Mrs. Sarah Welch Jones Burton, daughter of North Carolina statesman, Willie Jones, and widow of North Carolina Governor Hutchings G. Burton, and her intended, Andrew Joyner, in September, 1839, in Halifax County, N. C.

Deed books also contain, among various other entries, the routine buying and selling of land, the mortgaging of land, and its sale for taxes by the sheriff.

Another important disposition of land was its division among heirs in which a research can nearly always pick up the names of a man’s living children, names of sons and daughters of deceased children, and the married names of daughters. Many years ago, land was considered the property of the husband, and he received it in the right of his wife, living or dead.

Land was frequently passed on by will, the recipient of land under a will called the devisee. Identification of such land ranged from the vague to the definite: “the plantation I now live on,” its geographic location on a creek or river, and name of the former owner of the tract, the names of adjoining owners, the number of acres, the plantation name, or any combination thereof.

Sometimes the land description in metes and bounds was recited in the will. Rarely in the old records will you find a deed for land acquired in this manner. The will served as proof of ownership.

Some early plantation (and their owners) in Northampton Co., N. C. were: Mount Royal ( John Lovick), Reedy Pond (Winborne Jenkins, Sr.), Monte Cailloux (Halcott Briggs Pride), Mount Gallant ( Allen Jones), the Peebles Place (Henry Crittenden), and Parker Place (Thomas Bryan), and Careys Place (claimed by both Thomas Bryan and Benjamin Bryan). John Lawrence, in addition to North Carolina land holdings, owned Kinder Plantation and Hammon Plantation in Nansemond County, Virginia.