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Historical Tidbit
Taken from Michael Upchurch 1624-1681, page 20.

The Headright System and Indentured Servants
by Mae Davenport Cox

In the early 1600s, many people in foreign countries wished to leave their homelands for various and sundry reasons. Most had one thing in common: they were poor and couldn’t afford the trip. A variety of systems was introduced to help pay their passage to America.

The Headright System
The Headright System was a plan designed by England to encourage emigration to the colonies. Any person immigrating to Virginia was a potential headright. Any person who settled in Virginia or paid for the transporta-tion expenses of another person who settled in Virginia was entitled to receive fifty acres of land for each immi-grant. A person whose passage was paid by another wasn’t entitled to free land, only his or her sponsor. The person being sponsored was called a headright.

There were no restrictions on age or gender.  Headrights could be, and often were, children. In fact, many imported were teenagers. Families frequently sold their children into indentured servitude — hopefully this was done not for the money, but instead to help that child find a better way of life.

Both large and small landowners imported slaves, or purchased them from ship captains who brought them to the colony for sale. The headright claims for the indentured servants listed the names of the individuals, but the claims for slaves rarely identified individuals.

The headright system encouraged wealthy individuals to pay to transport laborers to Virginia in return for free land. Virginia planters who brought in slaves were awarded fifty acres per slave, just as they were awarded fifty acres per indentured servant.

Patenting Process
There were several steps required to acquire the free land. First, the patentee petitioned the county court for a certificate of importation. The certificate, usually recorded in county court minute books, was considered proof of the number of headrights claimed. Patentees took their certificates to the Secretary of the Colony, who issued a right of fifty acres per headright.

The right was taken to the county surveyor, who surveyed the chosen land and created a plat. The patentee then returned all these papers to the Secretary, who made two copies: a copy to be recorded, and a copy that was sent to the governor who signed it. It was then sealed and delivered to the patentee.

Once the patent was issued, the patentee had three years to seat and plant the land. Seating required payment of the quitrent —annual payment to the crown of one shilling for every fifty acres. Planting required either cultivating one acre or building a house and keeping livestock.

By early 1700, colonists wanted more land and the crown wanted to expand the colony, so the treasury right was created. Those wanting new land could, for five shillings, receive a right to fifty acres. Most land was patented by treasury right instead of by headright after about 1715.

Indentured Servants
These immigrants had their passage paid by a landowner. In theory, the servants would work five to seven years for the sponsor, and could not acquire title to land through their work during their term of service.

At the end of their term of indenture, they were given basic clothing and equipment, and were free to go their own way in the unsettled frontier.

Both Indentured Servant and Headright
Though frequently thought of as two different systems, many times a headright was also an indentured servant. The sponsor received fifty acres and the indentured servant, whose passage was paid, promised four, five, or up to seven years of service to the sponsor.

Abuse of the System
As with most any system, there was abuse. Greedy landowners found it easy to buy names of farmers already in Virginia, and place those names on claims, receiving fifty acres for each name.

Fraudulent claims were made for persons who had no intent to inhabit, such as sailors and traveling merchants. Shipmasters augmented their profits from a voyage by selling entire manifests listing passengers and sailors, even though the sailors would leave on the next sailing. The passengers were also claimable by whoever paid their passage. Again the greedy landowner profited by receiving more land.

Perhaps more importantly, it appears that use of fictitious or irrelevant names was common by the late seventeenth century. Eventually the corruption of the system led to its demise.

For more about these systems, just search the Internet for Headright or Indentured Servant. You’ll be surprised at the amazing amount of material available.


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