William Wingfield (1792-after 1880) of Franklin Co., Virginia: Sharecropper or hireling?

In 1860 William Wingfield filed a suit in Chancery Court (Virginia Memory) against his son Pinckney Green Wingfield, claiming that they worked in partnership in 1858 and 1859 growing tobacco, mainly. The agreement was that after deducting expenses 2/3 of the profits were to go to Pinckney, on whose land the crops were grown, and 1/3 to William. The tobacco crop for 1859 was sold to Jesse Prunty for $570, but Pinckney was now demanding that William settle for $100 as his share. William sought to prevent the purchaser from paying Pinckney the balance still due on the crop since William felt that because of Pinckney’s situation he would be unable to ever collect once Pinckney got the money.

William, the "old man," had been living on Zachariah Finney’s land and hadn’t paid his rent for a whole year. He came to his son and asked him to co-sign a bond so that his landlord wouldn’t take all his personal property for the debt, and Pinckney agreed because he didn’t want to see this happen to his father, who already faced being "turned out." He then arranged for his father to move to his own land, building a cabin for his parents.

William worked Pinckneys crops, but all the testimony supported that this was for hire. Not one person, even those testifying on William's behalf, had heard that they were or considered them to be partners. There were reports of conversations between father and son that included direct references to the fact that William worked for hire.

Pinckney paid William $100 for his work in 1858, when less than $400 was realized on the crop, and at the end of the season encouraged him to grow his own crops on Pinckney’s land the next year, offering to let him use his horse. William did not do this, but continued to work for Pinckney. It seems that he was a good worker for a man his age, not as infirm as his son claimed, but that he was unable to perform heavy labor. No one who was asked felt his labor was worth more than $50. Pinckney explained he paid him this much to help William pay off his debts and from a desire to ease the situation of his parents, not because he considered it a fair wage. He provided other support for William including  feeding his cattle over the winter, and feeding him, as he did his other workers,  but also his family at least some of the time.

After the first year tensions became evident. William did not approve of Pinckney’s hire of a slave woman in 1859 as a field hand, and unsuccessfully tried to block this. Since Pinckney's wife bore their fourth child in October 1859, and was in bed with the fever during the oat harvest, it was probably true, as William asserted with disapproval, that this woman also helped with household chores. In the winter early in 1859 Pinckney's brother-in-lawSharrel Cooper, living and working on the plantation, cut fire wood for William's cabin, and he was clearly irritated by the fact that William didn't take care of his own house, leaving his daughter to freeze while he 'flew' around on other matters.

After the tobacco was sold in 1859, probably in late August, William had a conversation with Pinckney demanding more money. William came to Pinckney as he worked with Sharrel Cooper, who heard them and reported on it when questioned. William asked if Pinckney had already gotten some of the tobacco money, and how much the tobacco had brought. He said he was "in a hard place and wanted some money. "  Pinckney said he thought $70 of the tobacco money had already been paid to William  (though other testimony showed it went toward his bond, now held by Robert Prunty).  William said he had not gotten any cash and thensaid he "intended to have a third of the tobacco." Since the tobacco crop was worth more than the year before, he should get more for his work. Pinckney asked how he could pay his hireling and cover his expenses if he did this, and William responded "it was none of his look out what the expenses was that he cared nothing for that."

The tensions came to a head in September. William deposed that "There was a difficulty between the plaintiff’s wife [Mary] and a negro girl and the defendent [Pinckney] come over to his house the following night and used very abusive language and he the plaintiff [William] attempted to get his stock [staff] and the defendent caught holt of him and hurt him very badly." Was Mary trying to avail herself of the services of her son's employee, perhaps as a house servant? In any case, for the slave to get into a "difficulty" and then report the conflict to her master implies that this was not a one-time occurance and that Pinckney had already had words with his parents about their treatment of the woman. It was clearly more than a mild disagreement, since it led to such an emotional and physical conflict.

This incident finally led to a breach in the relationship between father and son, where the attempt to claim a 1/3 share had not. Following this William no longer worked for Pinckney, although he was present for part of the oat harvest. This may have been as a result of efforts by friends to mediate the disagreement. Elisha Mitchell and Robert Prunty visited the men in such an effort and were later questioned about the exchanges. They had delivered a message to Pinckney that William was ready to return and finish the crop,  but when Mr. Prunty asked Pinckney what part of the crop his father was to have, he said there was no bargain the share the crop. William, clearly irritated by this report as testimony was given, clarified the actual contents of the original message by  asking them to confirm what he had actually said ... "did I tell you to tell Pinckney if I could come back and finish the crop in peace I was ready to do so. If not, as he had forbid my striking another lick on the place, that I was able to prove it, I should contend for my part of the crop to the last nubin  or ounce of tobacco."

William was in his mid-60’s, not as old and infirm as Pinckney implied, and his neighbors were willing to allow that his was able to do a lot of work for a man of his age. However, he had not grown enough grain to have a surplus to sell for 4 or 5 years, nor had he had animals to sell, explaining his inability to pay his rent. He had not grown any tobacco, a much more physically demanding crop. He had gotten to the point he couldn't do enough work to support himself, his wife and daughter, even with the help of a younger sharecropper (who got 1/3 of his produce in 1867). His household included his wife Mary and Parthenia, his daughter, who lived with her parents and various siblings her entire life and had some disability, being reported as deaf and dumb in several censuses.

Remarkably, not one of those called to make depositions, some certainly at his request, showed any sympathy for William so you might assume he was as abrasive with others as he was with his son.

The suit was formally filed 20 Aug 1860, and most depositions were taken in September, but the arbitrators ruling wasn’t issued until 15 July 1867, certainly because of the intervening war. It ruled that Pinckney should pay William $30 extra to total $100 for his labor in 1859, but that William should pay the court costs.

Genealogically, this suit  is a rich resource. William had his nephew Lewis Wingfield report his birthdate as recorded in the family Bible, then in his possession, to prove he wasn't as old as Pinckney claimed. The depositions vividly show who the Wingfields, father and son, worked and did business with.  The details into the business of farming in Franklin County before the War are vividly shown and remarkably similar to tobacco farming in Colonial Virginia.

© 2010 Footie Lund