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The chattel deed

On the 24th day of March 1876, T. B. Roberts of Tippah County, Mississippi, executed a deed in favor of Thomas B. Tigert.

It recited the usual legal requirements: “in consideration of (cash) in hand paid … the party of the first part … has sold and do by these presence bargain sell and convey unto the … party of the second part his heirs and assigns the following described property towit…”

But what followed the legalese wasn’t the usual kind of property description you find in a deed.

The “following described property”? “One Black Horse 4 years old noing (known) as the Wiley Lakey poney and all the Crop that is or may bee planted on the land noing as the John Mackelroy farm or any other land that he may plant in the County of Tippah & State of Miss planted in the year 1876…”1

It is, the cover of this old record book says, a chattel deed. And they’re wonderful records whenever they can be found.

The word chattel comes from the Middle English word chatel, meaning movable property, and that, in turn, has its origins in Old French and in the Latin capitāle, meaning wealth.2 In the law, it means “an article of personal property; any species of property not amounting to a freehold or fee in land. The name given to things which in law are deemed personal property.”3

Chattels can include certain types of interests in land. As Black explains:

Chattels are divided into chattels real and chattels personal; chattels real being interests in land which devolve after the manner of personal estate, as leaseholds. As opposed to freeholds, they are regarded as personal estate. But, as being interests in real estate, they are called “chattels real,” to distinguish them from movables, which are called “chattels personal.”4

So how did a chattel deed work? It was fundamentally a secured loan: an IOU with teeth. It contained specific terms that gave the person lending the money the absolute legal right to take possession of and sell the security — the horse or the crop in the ground — if the loan wasn’t paid back.5 And it was a common tool for farmers and sharecroppers to get the supplies or cash they needed to get through until their crops came in.

The Roberts-to-Tigert chattel deed said Roberts had gotten and would get “suplys furnished, and to be furnished & stock to enable (him) to rais(e) said crop.” He put up the pony and crop “to secure the payment of Sixty Dollars … due the first day of November 1876…”6

The deed continued:

Now if said first party shall pay said debt when due then this debt to be voyed, but if he shall fail to pay the same when due then second party shall have power to sell said crop and stock at Dumas, Miss, Tippah County to the hiest bidder for cash by first advertising time and place by written notice posted in three publick places in said County & State for days previous to sale and to apply the procds of said sail to the payment of said debt and the Cost of this trust…7

These deeds provide good information about, for example, the types of crops being grown in a particular area. The Tippah County chattel deeds speak of cotton and corn. They also give some measure of the expected value of a particular farmer’s crop: some could borrow hundreds of dollars; others, like Roberts, needed more than just his crop as security for a mere $60 in supplies. And they identify the wealthier members of the community — those in a position to make the loans.

In a good year, the farmer or sharecropper would redeem his crop or livestock or other property posted as security well before the deed would become effective to transfer title to the lender. Some chattel mortgages have marginal notes that they were paid, and when.

In a bad year, … well… there are reasons why our ancestors sometimes ended up moving on. And you have to wonder how things went there in 1876 when you realize that there is no T.B. Roberts on the 1880 Tippah County, Mississippi, census…


  1. Tippah County, Mississippi, Chattel Deed Book 1: 10, Roberts to Tigert; County Court Clerk, Ripley; digital images, “Mississippi, Tippah County Records, 1836-1923,” ( : accessed 16 Apr 2013).
  2. The Free Dictionary ( : accessed 16 Apr 2013), “chattel.”
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 197, “chattel.”
  4. Ibid., 197-198
  5. See ibid., 198, “chattel mortgage.”
  6. Tippah Co., Miss., Chattel Deed Book 1: 10, Roberts to Tigert.
  7. Ibid. You just have to love this clerk’s ability to spell…
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