Quitrents were annual land payments made originally to the Lords Proprietors and later to the British crown that permitted tenants to own, deed, bequeath, or transfer acreage in colonial South Carolina. The rents were synonymous with those that free English peasants had been paying since the Middle Ages and exempted their payers from all feudal obligations except allegiance.
They were brought to North America by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in Quitrents 767, 1578, required of Virginia’s colonists by 1624, and introduced into North Carolina by the Carolina Proprietors in 1663. Six years later these rents, now incorporated into the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, were charged to South Carolina as well.
Quitrents in South Carolina were designed to encourage immediate colonization by taking into account settlers’ lack of money. Quitrents were not due until 1689, and the system provided settlers with land immediately while the proprietors retained allegiance and indirect ownership through a perpetual lease. Rent could be as little as a penny an acre. Although the Fundamental Constitutions permitted the collection of these fees in kind (indigo, pork, rice, beef, cotton, silk, and peas), the proprietors insisted on payment in sterling, or silver. Attempts to enforce this decree, however, were futile, and the proprietors were eventually forced to recognize payment in kind, to remit select rents in arrears, and even to resort to the outright sale of their land to settlers for one shilling per twenty-five acres, excepting one shilling per one hundred acres for rents. In 1731, after South Carolina had become a royal colony, the crown mandated three shillings sterling or four shillings proclamation (paper) money for each one hundred acres granted, but the declining value of paper money made profits elusive.
During the colonial period, the proprietors and the crown appointed quitrent collectors called receiver generals, who received a percentage of what they collected. In South Carolina, however, the holders of this office were unable to raise more than a fraction of the amounts owed. Colonial officials and landholders, in order to protect their holdings, conspired to undermine the compilation of an accurate rent roll. The quitrents that were collected were used to pay the salaries of important officials, such as the chief justice, the attorney general, and the provost marshal. The Revolutionary War ended the quitrent system.
Ackerman, Robert K. South Carolina Colonial Land Policies. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.
Bond, Beverley W. The Quit-Rent System in the American Colonies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1919.
Watson, Alan D. “The Quitrent System in Royal South Carolina.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, l971.