Reconstruction Mortgages, A Vintage Vignette

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Reconstruction Mortgages
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
June 15, 2011

After the tornadoes of April 27 reconstruction mortgages were needed for rebuilding devastated communities in this area. Over the last few years as I have continued my hobby of photographing all of Madison County's land records in the deed books from the 1800s, I have reached a period of “reconstruction” after the Civil War. At that time the need for mortgages was not so much to enable rebuilding of demolished dwellings. Rather, mortgages were needed to enable destitute farmers to purchase supplies for planting crops and to feed their families until new crops could be harvested. Accordingly, I have noticed many of the former slaves and even plantation owners borrowed money for these purposes and used their property as collateral against the loans.

I usually make digital photographs of the pages of the deed books as rapidly as possible, since the average book has over 600 pages plus some inserted notes or annotations that require separate photographs for clarity. As of the time of this writing, I have photographed 72 of the Madison County books, leaving about 21 yet to go in order to finish covering the 1800s. Still, since I have learned about so many of the pioneer families, I cannot help but occasionally stop to read about the details of these loans to the families of that time that I have come to “know” and care about so much. In the process, I have realized something about the hardships of life for farmers in those days when several notable landowners and merchants increased their wealth and land holdings dramatically.

Some landowners and merchants apparently came through the war period with considerable resources at hand, including United States currency. They may have transacted business with the occupying Union troops in this area in order to keep their estates solvent. Yet many more Southerners had lost nearly everything in the war, especially those who had extensively converted to Confederate money. After the war the freed former slaves began to rent acreage from the land owners, and the Freedmen's Bureau facilitated their actual purchase of lands whenever possible. Both the former slaves and the poorer land-owning Confederate soldiers who returned home from the battles needed money to begin farming and to await harvest time while supplying food for their families. The needed funds were often obtained through “account advances” or mortgage liens from merchants and others who had accumulated cash capital. Unfortunately, the process was based upon considerable risk for the borrowers.

Deed Book GG in 1867 contains records of liens against expected crops and equipment taken by such Madison-area men as R. D. Tribble, John W. Farrald, John Landers, and numerous others for supplies and cash advanced by Madison merchants James H. Bibb and George W. Martin and by landowner Owen Jamar. Of course, they were simply helping the families of the area survive the hard times by making the loans. However, other merchants charged up to 20 percent interest, while Martin and Bibb generally did not even specify a rate for interest. Alex Bradford (a “colored” man) rented 150 acres by pledging one-third of the produce and borrowing $125 at 8% interest from partners William B. Dunn, James H. Pride, and James H. Bibb (Deed Book GG, pages 51-4). This time some additional stipulations were made. The wording included restriction that prior to the division of the harvest no part of the required crops of oats, corn, and cotton could be used by Bradford without full accounting. The agreement further specified that with respect to the partners' land, “There will be no promiscuous visiting allowed during working days.”

Perhaps some prosperous merchants and wealthy landowners expected failure when they offered funds. The impoverished farmers risked their lands, personal property (including farming implements), stock, and crops to the lenders if the yield was small in any given year because of drought, insects, or other calamities. The lender almost couldn't lose. If the crop yield was high, the lender got back the principal with interest and then often sold merchandise to the newly-monied farmer. The risks were entirely on the farmers in the days before government bailouts or crop insurance coverage.

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