Increased population density changed the character of tenancy. Gilbert town Metro Map With most land developed by the 1750s, landlords usually rented land for short periods and charged substantial rents, amounting to a third or even half of a single worker’s crop. Tenants in these areas could barely afford the high rents, as they rarely accumulated much savings. Short-term tenancy grew in regions like the Hudson River Valley, where tenancy was already common, and in places tied to growing for urban markets such as southeastern Pennsylvania. Frontier landlords commonly granted leases at nominal rents for several generations. In return, tenants were required to improve the land by building structures and planting orchards.
Although tenants lived autonomously, they depended on landlords for land, building materials, tools, and often for marketing their crops. Most tenants paid a portion of their crop as rent, since they owned little other property. The richest tenant might own a horse, a little livestock, and live in a small house, but few had outbuildings like kitchens to improve their standard of living. Most tenant farmers did not stay in the same neighborhood for more than a few years, usually they moved away in search of land or other opportunities. Markets complicated the dependence of tenants upon landlords. Each party tried to gain wealth from the land, but landlords could raise rents at will and dispose of the land whenever they wanted. Since tenants were dependent on landlords, good weather, and markets, many received charity from local officials. Common types of relief, often provided by or at the direction of county court justices, were exemptions from taxation, cash payments, and donations of food or manufactured goods.
Church vestries also provided indigent childcare and paid medical expenses for poor. The children of tenants received little help from their poor parents, whether the parents were alive or dead. Middle-aged tenants usually had estates valued at less than 45 pounds, leaving their beneficiaries with only a small sum after debts were paid. Even when tenants could add an inheritance to accumulated property, they rarely had enough money or collateral to buy a slave or a tract of land. The most frugal tenant could only amass the money necessary to buy a 50-acre plot after benefiting from five years of good crops, high market prices, and saving more than half of each year’s profits. This was a very difficult task, however, since tenants paid taxes and needed to purchase manufactured goods and subsistence items with their profits. Some former tenants escaped their hardship by moving to either a raw frontier or a rapidly developing area.