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20 or 40: How many acres do you work?

My mother grew up on a farm called "The Twenty" and I always wondered why it was called that. It turns out there is significance to farms called The Twenty and The Forty, and not just in the United States.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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In 1856, freeholders needed at least 20 acres of "rented" land in order to vote for legislators in the first election held. Many countries around the world continue to use the 20-acre parcel as a minimum for launching farming operations. Agricultural recommendations claim it takes 20 acres to support a single cow.

In 1865, Gen William T. Sherman declared that freed blacks were to be given 40 acres and a mule. After the assassination of President Lincoln, the order was revoked by Andrew Johnson.

My family referred to the land they worked as "rented" farms, but my family were share-croppers, plain and simple. To say they were poor is an understatement, especially living on The Twenty, which was half the amount of land Sherman felt every American should be entitled.

To survive, my grandfather delivered milk and picked up garbage with horse and wagon. Later, he gave up sharecropping for a while and moved "to town" where he went to work in a broom factory.

In the South, sharecropper arrangements were essential to landowners. If a landlord borrowed money, a financial institution determined their credit line based on enough money for one year to cover the expenses of the landlord and his tenants. The standard used was based on one tenant for each 20 acres. Sharecropping was an important part of the economy and you'll often find multiple sharecroppers for a single landowner.

Although sharecropping still exists, genealogists looking for sharecroppers in their family tree have a challenge ahead of them. There is the vague "Rural Route" address used before fire districts numbered every dwelling, that makes it difficult to locate Grandpa's sharecropper cabin. Plus, my family moved frequently from one farm to another. And, then moved back again.

Luckily for me, my family referred to the properties not only as The Twenty, for example, but by the name of the landowner. They lived at the Dove Place for awhile and then at the Hogue Place. So it is possible to piece together enough information to know which county they might have been in or which one-room school the children might have attended during a given school year.

And lest you think sharecropping is a Southern tradition from a long ago era, you might want to reconsider that when you are doing research. My sharecropper ancestors lived in Central Illinois during the early 1900s.

Sharecropping also knows no race boundaries. My family shares a sharecropping tradition with Johnny Cash whose family also lived on 20 acres. So thank your sharecropper ancestors if they passed on some of these quaint names for where they lived. They will make searching for their genealogical information a bit easier.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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