The landed gentry who paid to import indentured servants to the New World received four to seven years of the servant’s labor in return for paying the transport costs (which were about £6, or equivalent to more than £600 by today’s standards). As much as this seems like a bargain for the plantation owner, there was yet another incentive to encourage bringing people into the colonies — the promise of free land. Several colonies, notably Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas, having seemingly limitless territory but a dire shortage of workers, devised the headright system. This system rewarded anyone who conveyed himself, his family or any others to the colonies with 50 acres of land per head.
The headright system was first used in Virginia. The Virginia Company had founded Jamestown and received a charter from the English Crown in 1609 granting the company vast stretches of land. Settlers and stockholders of the company at first held the land in common. After a few years, the company began granting land privately. The headright system was created to reward those who would pay to import much-needed laborers into the colony.
A headright refers to both the grant of land itself as well as the actual person (“head”) through whom the land is claimed. The person who has the “right” to claim the land is the one who paid to transport any person to the colony.
Wealthy gentry and plantation owners (only about 5 percent of the population) were rewarded with land for importing white or black indentured servants, and later African slaves. The effects this system had on society were several. While it served to populate the colonies, it also added to a society where the rich got richer, in the form of accumulating more and more land. The poor, once released from their servitude, were expected to move further west and populate the frontier. This led to some angry uprisings on the part of the poor.
The process for claiming title to the land under the headright system took several steps. The person making the claim had to present proof to the county court that he had paid to transport others into the colony. The court then issued a certificate of importation, which was taken to the secretary, who issued a “right.” This right was presented to the county surveyor, who parceled the land. Finally, a patent (deed) to the surveyed land was issued and signed by the governor. Only after this last step was completed was the land actually transferred to the new owner. The headright system in Virginia functioned for nearly 100 years, when it was replaced by the sale of land.
The deeds from the Virginia Land Office, online at the Library of Virginia website, www.lva.virginia.gov/, list the names of each person under which the grantee was claiming land. For instance, the 1638 land patent of John Fludd for 2,100 acres includes the names of 41 people including himself for whom he paid to transport to Virginia. Unfortunately this site’s search engine doesn’t seem to be able to identify the names of those through which the land is claimed (the indentured servants), but just the name of the person claiming the land.
When looking for headrights, be aware that the rights were often bought, traded and sold, and the land could have been patented by a completely different person than the one making the original claim. Sometimes the claims were made years or decades after the fact. There were also many abuses of the system. One was multiple claimants, like both the ship’s captain and the plantation owner, making claims for importing the same people. There were also fraudulent claims using fictitious names. In the end, more claims were made than there was available land.
Continued next week