Did You Know?
The Jamestown settlement, where the headright system was first established, was also the first British colony in the Americas.
The first European explorers were drawn to the New World by dreams of finding gold and other riches. To get there, they had to brave long sea voyages on primitive ships. However, their ordeal did not end just there. On reaching their destination, they had to deal with tropical diseases, parasites, and formidable tribes, some of which were cannibalistic. Moreover, starvation was an ever-present threat, as the settlers relied on food supplies which had to be shipped from back home.
If the settlers triumphed over these hazards, then the land itself presented further obstacles. Thick forests had to be cleared to gain access to the interior of the continent and allow cultivation. Needless to say, most of these problems could be dealt with skilled and unskilled labor, which had to be attracted to such remote areas by offering some incentives. This strategy was the foundation for the headright system, whose significance is explained in the following sections.
Headright System Facts
- The headright system offered grants of land to those who sponsored an immigrant's voyage to the British colonies in America.
- Non-resident sponsors received grants of 50 acres of land for each immigrant, while, for sponsors already residing in a colony, this grant was 100 acres.
- Immigrants were also offered land grants of 50 acres per person, if they paid for their own journey across the Atlantic.
- The person sponsoring an immigrant's voyage was called a 'patentee' (since he would obtain a land patent), while both, the claim of land and the immigrant was called a 'headright'.
- Land grants were only given to men, not women and children, though one could receive grants for sponsoring their voyage too. For this reason, entire families were encouraged to emigrate together, as the head of the family would receive grants for every member.
- The headright system was implemented in all thirteen British colonies, though it was more widespread in Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, North and South Carolina.
- Most of the immigrants sponsored by patentees were white British men from the lower economic strata, though women, teenagers, and children were also included. These people worked as indentured servants, meaning that, they pledged to work for their sponsor for 5 to 7 years to pay back the 6 Pounds paid by their employer for each immigrant's sea voyage.
- After the completion of their contract, these laborers were given some wages, clothes, a gun, and some land at the frontiers of the colony.
- A lesser number of headrights were immigrants from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and even other North American Colonies.
- On 14 May 1607, a settlement was established in Jamestown, Virginia, by the Virginia Company from Britain, which was a joint-stock venture.
- Initially, its investors expected to make profits from gold, but because reserves of such precious metals were not found, the company ran the risk of going bankrupt.
- Its saving grace came in the form of tobacco plantations, which thrived in the colony, earning profitable revenue to the company from exports to England.
- Tobacco cultivation required huge plantations with a large number of laborers. However, around the beginning of the 17th century, Virginia was only sparsely populated, so the company began using the headright system from 1618, to attract more immigrants.
- In 1624, Virginia became a royal colony, when Britain dissolved the Virginia Company. However, the headright system was allowed to continue by the Crown.
- In 1699, Britain restricted the headrights to only British citizens, thus excluding slaves and foreign immigrants. Moreover, the crown introduced treasury rights, which meant land patents could now be obtained by paying five Shillings for 50 acres of land.
- The headright system continued for a few decades after the 1699 ruling, though it received a lesser response. Finally, in May 1799, the British Parliament abolished the system, and gave a year's deadline for patentees to claim their land, failing which, it was to pass to the Crown.
Procedure to Obtain Headrights
- To obtain a grant of land, a sponsor needed to give a petition to a county court regarding the number and identity of immigrants whose journey he was paying for.
- The court then issued a 'certificate of importation', which was to be taken to the Secretary of the Colony to obtain a headright for the land.
- The sponsor now had to approach a surveyor with the headright, so that he could inspect the land and generate a map.
- The sponsor had to submit these documents to the Secretary, and he would receive a land patent if they were approved.
The headright system helped draw in a large number of immigrants, who were attracted by the chance of having their own land at the end of their contract. These people realized they were working for their own future, and not for the company. This influx of workers helped in the expansion of the British colonies, by occupying land previously under forest cover. Tobacco cultivation reached new heights during this period. Many of these indentured servants would later set up their own farms, and become the forerunners of the future colonists.
This system helped wealthy landowners in the colonies to become even richer, by paying the travel expenses for every laborer and slave that they imported, in return for huge grants of land. Besides, they could now extract free labor from the immigrants for a period of several years. In fact, the laws allowed them land grants even if their sponsored laborer didn't make it to the colony alive, which was a common occurrence.
The system was easy to misuse, owing to the lack of headright auditing. In many cases, both, the patentee as well as the captain of the ship that brought the immigrant would separately claim a land grant for the same individual. Since the grant of land required a petition detailing the immigrants to be presented before a county court, some sponsors would present multiple petitions for the same immigrant to several county courts. In other cases of fraud, sponsors would claim grants for people who had not immigrated at all. While the Virginia Company expected the land grants to attract more immigrants, in the end, these corrupt practices resulted in only a few wealthy landholders owning most of the land.
While the laborers were promised wages, their freedom, clothes, weapons, provisions, and land at the end of their contract period, this was easier said than done. Many laborers would fall victim to diseases and starvation, sometimes even during their voyage. Besides, the land granted to them at the end of their labor, was, most often than not, on the frontiers of the colony, where they had to brave fierce attacks from the Natives, which claimed many lives. In other cases, they were given possession of unproductive land. These land grants to indentured servants was later completely revoked by the British Crown, when the availability of good land decreased. Moreover, the plantation owners received newer grants of land for every single laborer they brought to the colony, which greatly widened the gap between the patentees and the laborers. This led to frequent tensions between the workers and the employees, such as the Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, in which the Governor of Virginia himself was driven away by rioters.
Rise of Slavery
The increasing tension between indentured laborers and their employers led to many landowners turning to imported African-American slaves for labor. In fact, until 1699, the headright system gave equal weightage to the immigration of both, laborers and slaves, for distributing land grants, which was an added incentive for sponsors to turn to slave labor. Thus, it can be said that the headright system contributed to the scourge of slavery in the future.
The importance of the headright system in securing British Colonies in America cannot be overemphasized. Besides populating the new colony, it bolstered its growing economy, and helped create a protective 'buffer' between the colony and marauding tribes like the Creoles and the Cherokees.