The common law definition of chattel is any property that is not land or physical items belonging to that land. Today, chattel is defined as any item of personal property and that can be moved. Examples of chattel, as defined in common law, include furniture, clothes hanging in the closet, and cattle on a farm. When someone moves out of his home, the items he takes with him are chattel. To explore this concept, consider the following chattel definition.

Definition of Chattel


  1. Items of personal property that are moveable
  2. Physical property other than land, buildings, or things annexed or attached to the land
  3. A slave


1175-1225       Middle English chatel  (from the word “cattle”)

What is Chattel

Chattel refers to any physical property that can be moved, as the property is neither a parcel of land, nor an item that is attached to a parcel of land, such as a home, or a tree that grows in the yard. Chattel is anything that a person might take with him if he needs to move to another location, like toiletries, appliances, or furniture (“personal property”). The word “chattel” comes from the Middle English word for “cattle,” which, during feudal times, were the most valuable property someone could own, aside from his land.

Chattel differs from a fixture in that a fixture cannot be removed from the property, while chattel can be. An example of a fixture is a building that is placed on a piece of property. The building cannot just be picked up and moved, and so it is considered to be one with the property. Chattel, too, can become a fixture. For instance, if a wooden board is sitting on someone’s property, then it can be moved and it is chattel. However, if that board is then picked up and then used to construct part of a house, then that chattel becomes immovable and a fixture.

There are also chattel mortgages, which are loans for which the item being bought is used as security, in case the borrower defaults on the loan. The item being bought is referred to in these cases as “collateral.” A chattel mortgage is often used for the purchase of a car, the “chattel” being the car. A less acceptable transaction involving chattel is chattel slavery, which is a situation in which people are bought and sold as if they were physical property.

Chattel Mortgage

Chattel mortgages are loans that are used to buy cars and other items, such as commercial equipment. A chattel mortgage consists of the chattel (the car) and the mortgage (the loan that must be paid back). When the car is purchased, it becomes the property of either the person or company purchasing it.

When a chattel mortgage is taken out for a car or equipment purchase, the lender uses the item purchased as collateral, helping to ensure that the lender can recover its money, even if the buyer defaults on the loan. If, for some reason, the purchaser fails to make the payments on the chattel mortgage, the lender has the right to take the car or equipment back, or repossess it. This is why a chattel mortgage is considered a “mortgage,” because just like a house, the purchaser can lose his property if he fails to pay.

Chattel mortgages are different from the average car loan. When used in business purchases, the can actually claim tax benefits on a chattel mortgage, both when it takes out the mortgage, and over the course of the loan. While the initial purchase can be written off, so too can the interest the purchaser pays over the life of the loan. Purchasers can also enjoy tax breaks based on how much the car depreciates over time.

Also attractive with a chattel mortgage is that it can cover up to 100 percent of the value of the car or equipment, so that the purchaser does not have to spend a dime out of pocket. Purchasers may even be able to take out a chattel mortgage for more than the car is worth, to account for insurance and other potential add-ons.

Chattel Slavery

Chattel slavery is the kind of slavery that most people think of when they try to imagine slavery. Chattel slavery involves the buying and selling of people as if they were pieces of property. Examples of chattel slaves are those who were inherited when their owners died and “willed” them to the next generation. Also considered chattel slaves are those who were used as currency in a trade, rather than being traditionally bought for cash.

Slaves were treated like the property they were purchased as, rather than as individual people with civil rights. They were abused, beaten, branded, and even killed. Slave owners would often pair up slaves with superior genetics in order to breed them with each other in order to provide slave owners with more slaves who could do more and harder work in less time.

Many may think that slavery has been abolished worldwide, but it is actually still in practice in certain areas of the world. East Africa still enslaves thousands of people, particularly in the countries of Mauritania and Sudan. The punishments these slaves endure are rather brutal. Genital mutilation is also quite common among both young men and women, and slaves are branded with heated metal objects like cattle to discourage their escape. Those who decide to escape anyway risk having their Achilles’ tendons cut and becoming permanently crippled.

Chattel Slaves in Mauritania

In Mauritania, Africa, in particular, chattel slaves are used as maids or farmhands, as sexual objects, and for breeding with other slaves. They can be traded for things like weapons, camels, or vehicles. Should a chattel slave have a child, that child is born the property of the slave owner as well. Even if slaves are able to achieve freedom, their former masters still have inheritance rights over their property.

Many chattel slaves are born into slavery, and die slaves, never knowing what it is like to actually be free men and women. The Islamic religion forbids the enslavement of Muslims, and Mauritanian Africans converted to Islam as their main religion over 100 years ago. However, despite the doctrine of their religion, slavery continues to be rampant in the country.

Trespass to Chattels

Trespass to chattels is a type of tort. A tort is a claim that may be made in a civil lawsuit. The accepted definition of “trespass to chattels” the intentional interference with another person’s lawful ownership of a chattel, or piece of property. Types of interference that can be argued in a trespass to chattels case can include:

  • Taking the property
  • Destroying the property
  • Getting in the way of the owner’s access to the property

In order for the victim to be successful in a trespass to chattels case, it must be proven that the other party’s acts were a direct interference with the chattel, regardless of whether or not the chattel suffered any damage. Additionally, the party being charged with the infringement or trespass must also fail to disprove the claim of intent.

In the United States, a victim can only win a trespass to chattels case if the direct interference with the chattel was so significant that it caused an injury. The injury must have been a direct result of the interference with the chattel. A victim can also be victorious in his claim if the damage to the chattel was so substantial that the chattel was being damaged beyond repair. At this point, the chattel can no longer be owned by the victim because it must be thrown out or otherwise disposed of.

Chattel Example in U.S. Slavery

Perhaps the most famous Supreme Court case involving chattel slavery was the case involving Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri who was taken by his owner, Dr. John Emerson, to Illinois before the Civil War. Illinois was a free state, where slavery was outlawed. Still, when Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, was transferred to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory, he took Scott. Scott married in Wisconsin and, when Emerson was transferred elsewhere, Scott and his wife remained behind, having been essentially leased out to someone at the Fort.

Emerson later got married in Louisiana, and sent for Scott and his wife. The pair had a daughter born on a steamboat on their way to Louisiana, in free territory. Eventually, Emerson died, leaving Scott and his family to his wife, Irene. The Scotts sued for their freedom, based on the fact that they had lived an extended period of time in free territories, and claiming to be a citizen of the state of Illinois – a free state.

In March of 1857, the Supreme Court had declared that no black men, whether they were slaves or not, would ever be citizens of the United States. However, because Scott had lived in free territories, in both Illinois and Wisconsin, before moving back to Missouri – a slave state – he thought he had a good chance of being granted his freedom if he appealed to the Court.

Unfortunately, the Court did not see things his way. Citing the Constitution, the Court held that the law of the land only applied to “men,” and that slaves were chattel (property) and not men. The Constitution as it was written noted that white people were not obligated to respect the rights of black people, because black people had no rights to respect. Blacks were reduced to slavery, the Court explained, and they would continue to be bought and sold as merchandise, as true examples of chattel.

The Supreme Court ruled that Scott would remain Sandford’s property, and did not agree that slavery should be abolished. The Court cited the “all men are created equal” phrase from the Declaration of Independence, and argued that it was “too clear for dispute” that black slaves were never meant to be included in that reasoning.

With its decision, the Court struck down the possibility of the abolishment of slavery. However, the case became historic for publicizing the horrors involved with chattel slavery, and it became the first step toward the demise of slavery in the United States.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • LienThe right to keep possession of property that belongs to someone else until the debt owed is paid in full.
  • Tort – An infringement on someone’s rights that leads to civil litigation.