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Those early rents

Reader Tonya Ferguson thinks she’s having a little trouble understanding some language in a deed.

“I have a deed from Frederick County, Maryland dated 1767,” she writes. The deed “mentions a yearly rent on a deed that appears to have been part of a father’s estate. The deed granted to Henry and Christopher Zomwald land on Toms Brook and receiving unto Regina Fight (their step-mother) one third part of the land. They were to pay the rent of one shilling sterling money annually on Feast Day of Saint Michael the Archangel. … Not sure I understand why they are paying rent on land inherited from their father.”

Now here’s the key, and shows that Tonya understands more than she may think she does. She asks: “Would this be considered quit-rent?”

Ding ding ding ding! We have a winner!

That’s exactly what this was.

1780 quitrent law

So… what’s a quit-rent?

One legal dictionary definition explains that: “In England, quit rents were rents reserved to the king or a proprietor, on an absolute grant of waste land, for which a price in gross was at first paid, and a mere nominal rent reserved as a feudal acknowledgment of tenure. Inasmuch as no rent of this description can exist in the United States, when a quit rent is spoken of, some other interest must be intended.”1

Well, that’s really helpful, isn’t it, since the dictionary editor doesn’t suggest just what that “other interest” might be.

And if you go to Black’s Law Dictionary, it’s not much better: “Certain established rents of the freeholders and ancient copyholders of manors are denominated ‘quitrents,’ because thereby the tenant goes quit and free of all other services.”2

So… think of the quit rent, quit-rent and quitrent (however it’s spelled, in whatever form you see it) as, essentially, a land tax. It was the way the royal authorities continued to produce3 income from land they transferred to private owners and, not incidentally, kept a form of control over those private landowners.

It was “a survival of feudalism,” a carry-over of the “feudal notion of land-tenure, that the soil belonged to the crown, who either collected the feudal dues, chiefly in the form of quit-rents, or else transferred this right to the proprietors” and took the form of “an annual fixed and heritable charge upon the land.”3

It was instituted at one time or another in most of the British colonies but nowhere was more successful and more consistent than in Maryland, where it was “established at the very foundation of the colony and continued until the Revolution.”4

When land was initially granted by the Sovereign (the English Crown) through the royal representative in America, such as the proprietors or the colonial governor, to an individual, the grant required an annual payment. Sometimes the payment was in commodities — in 1633, Maryland’s quit rent was 20 pounds of wheat per 50 acres,5 and later quit rents were often paid in the form of tobacco.6 Sometimes it was fixed in terms of money — in 1641, Maryland’s quit rent was set at one shilling except on large estates and that was raised to two shillings in 1649.7

This amount stayed with the land. If the land was sold, given or willed to someone else, that someone else was chargeable with the quit rent. It was a perpetual charge.

And it lasted, in Maryland, Virginia and other colonies, right up until the Revolution. It wasn’t until 1780 that the Maryland Legislature passed a law declaring that “the citizens of Maryland, from the declaration of independence, and forever, be, and they are hereby declared to be, exonerated and discharged from the payment of the aforesaid quit-rents, and that the same shall be for ever abolished and discontinued.”8

So that one shilling sterling in 1767 — at least in theory — can be traced back to the first time that land was transferred from the royal representative to the first private owner … and all the way forward to these two men as they inherited that land from their father.

You got it, Tonya.

The quit rent.


  1. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia : Childs & Peterson, 1856), 2: 416, “quit rent.”
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 986, “quitrent.”
  3. Beverly W. Bond, Jr., “The Quit-Rent System in the American Colonies,” The American Historical Review 17 (April 1912): 496-516; PDF version, JSTOR ( : accessed 12 Aug 2018).
  4. Beverly W. Bond, Jr., “The Quit Rent in Maryland,” Maryland Historical Magazine 5 (December 1910): 350-365; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 12 Aug 2018).
  5. Ibid., at 350.
  6. Bond, “The Quit-Rent System in the American Colonies,” at 509.
  7. Bond, “The Quit Rent in Maryland,” at 351.
  8. “An ACT to abolish for ever the payment of quit-rent,” Chapter 18, Laws of 1780, First Session, in Hanson’s Laws of Maryland 1763-1784 (Annapolis: State Printer, 1784), 238; digital images, Archives of Maryland Online ( : accessed 12 Aug 2018).
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