The Headright System: 9 Things (2022) You Must Know

During the settlement of what would become the United States of America, the Virginia Company encouraged immigration to the colony using the headrights system.

These headrights were land grants given to anyone who settled in certain colonies or individuals who paid for the transportation expenses for another person.

Typically, the headright was an allotment of 50 acres of land for each immigrant.

The practice wasn’t used often in the 18th century.

However, it was effective until the passage of an act in the General Assembly, which began in May 1779.

This session settled titles to land and gave a period of 12 months from the end of the legislative session for such rights to be claimed.

Otherwise, they would be considered forfeited.

In this blog, we’ll discuss what you need to know about the headright system and how it has evolved in this country today.

Let’s get started.

1. What is a headright?

A headright refers to a legal grant of land given to settlers during the period of European colonization in the Americas.

Headrights are known for their role in the expansion of the Thirteen Colonies.

Most notably, the Virginia Company granted headrights to settlers in colonies such as Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

2. How large was a headright?

Most headrights were between 1 to 1,000 acres of land.

They were granted to those who were willing to cross the Atlantic, and helped to populate the colonies.

They were also granted to those who would pay for the transportation costs of an indentured laborer.

These headrights contained 50 acres for someone moving to the area and 100 acres for those who already lived there.

This was beneficial for the wealthy as it guaranteed that the landowning masters had legal ownership of all land acquired through the headrights of servants whose passage they paid.

Therefore, the indentured laborers were not able to procure their own land even after gaining their freedom.

This kept a large portion of people in the colony poor and led to rising tensions between laborers and landowners.

3. What is the headright system?

The concept of a headright is explained above, but the headright system itself began in the colony of Jamestown in 1618.

The system was intended to solve labor shortages due to the advent of the tobacco economy, as the tobacco crop required large plots of land and numerous workers.

4. How was the headright system abused?

Unfortunately, the headright system was abused in a variety of ways.

Outright fraud often occurred.

For example, a merchant and ship’s captain often claimed a headright for the same immigrant passenger.

Additionally, some prominent merchants and colonial officials would continually receive headrights for themselves each time they returned to the colonies from abroad.

While it was originally intended to promote settlement and ownership of small plots of land by numerous immigrants, the system eventually resulted in the accumulation of amounts of land by a small number of merchants, shippers, and early land speculators.

Thus, the presence of a person’s name as a headright in a land patent established them as having entered the colonies prior to the date of the patent.

However, it does not prove when the person immigrated or who was initially entitled to the headright.

5. How did the headright system impact slavery?

Plantation owners directly benefited from the headright system when they paid for the transportation of slaves from Africa.

This not only increased the workforce on their land but also the land itself.

Until 1699, an enslaved person was worth a headright of 50 acres.

By simply paying a slave’s way across the Middle Passage, the slaveowner would expand their land.

Even if a person was brought over as an indentured servant (not a slave), the person who paid their way would still retain their headright.

Records show that over 400 enslaved people were used to claim headrights in the 1670s.

The numbers increased in the 1680s and 1690s.

Colonial families were able to grow in their power, prestige, and wealth because they were receiving large tracts of land simply by importing enslaved people.

One example of this is a man named George Menefie.

He purchased 60 enslaved people and received a total of 3,000 acres in 1638.

This changed in 1699, however, when it was decided that headrights could only be granted to free citizens.

Transporting indentured laborers and slaves would no longer be a guarantor of land.

6. What type of issue is seen with land patent records?

It doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise that records back in the 1600s aren’t perfect.

That said, there is a discrepancy between the number of headrights issued and the number of new residents in the colony.

This inconsistency could be explained by the high mortality rates of Black people who were enslaved at the time as well as the inhumane conditions that they endured while crossing the Middle Passage.

When enslaved individuals would die in transit, landowners would still receive headrights for the dead.

Therefore, the gap would widen between population growth and the number of headrights issued.

A second potential explanation is that the secretary’s office that issued headrights was simply relaxed in their approach to enforcement.

While there were regulations to keep the headright system in check, several headrights were claimed multiple times.

It appears there may have been a lack of governance that people (i.e., merchants, shippers, landowners, etc.) took advantage of.

This would often occur when a slave was brought to the colonies and both the captain and the landowner would attempt to receive the headright for the same individual.

Secretaries also sometimes issue headrights for fictitious people.

This is seen by the fact that the number of headrights was about four times more than the increase in population in the 1660s and 1670s.

If you need another potential explanation, people may have accumulated and saved their headrights since they could be purchased for 50 pounds of tobacco each.

The owners of the grants would then claim the land years later once the land rose in value.

While keeping track of the number of headrights issued may not lead to accurate estimations of population growth in the colony, the number of patents issued acts as an indicator of the demand for land.

7. What were the consequences of the headright system?

The headright system was originally supposed to entice people to bring over laborers and settle the colonies.

As tobacco required large plots of land and numerous workers, the system was intended to solve laborer shortages.

However, the impacts rippled far beyond that.

bulletDistribution of too much land due to a lack of discretion by the secretary’s office

bulletIncreased tensions between indigenous tribes and colonists because individuals were often granted land in regions bordered by native tribes (for ex: Bacon’s Rebellion was sparked by tensions between natives, settlers, and indentured servants)

8. How did the headright system impact land redistribution after the American Civil War?

The United States has a long history of land disputes.

These range from broken treaties with Native Americans, poor white landowners being treated dishonestly, and property being taken from Black families.

When the Civil War came to an end, decisions had to be made about what would happen to newly emancipated slaves.

What about the land and property of the now defeated Confederates?

From November to December 1864, General William T. Sherman marched Union forces through the South and issued a military order to seize Confederate land and distribute it among former slaves.

This is now popularly remembered as promising emancipated slaves “forty acres and a mule.”

As General Sherman marched through Georgia, thousands of former slaves followed him.

They were now free, but didn’t have any means of support.

In January 1865, General Sherman used his military power to issue Special Field Order Number 15, which will set aside more than 400,000 acres of abandoned coastal plantations from South Carolina to Florida for settlement exclusively by ex-slaves.

Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton met with a group of 20 African American ministers to understand what they need to take care of themselves.

The answer was, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land and turn it and till it by our own labor, and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare. We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”

A few months later in March 1865, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, to oversee the country’s transition from slavery to freedom.

A month later, in April 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated.

In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson offered amnesty to most Confederates, which allowed southern planters to reclaim abandoned lands occupied by freedmen.

In September 1865, Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania proposed a bill to Congress to confiscate all lands in the former Confederacy owned by slave owners and redistribute the land in 40-acre portions to ex-slaves and poor whites.

Unfortunately, few other Congressmen supported this bill, and it was never voted on.

Overall, within just a few months of the war ending, redistribution to former slaves was no longer part of plans for Reconstruction.

Land that their ancestors originally provided the headrights for were snatched away not just once, but twice due to a broken system.

9. When did the headright system officially end?

The headright system lasted from 1618 until it was canceled by the General Assembly in 1779.

It was canceled because there were too many claimants and not enough land to fulfill those claims.

While it was formally over, the consequences of the headright system were seen for centuries after.

Final Thoughts

The headright system was a way of solving a few problems that the early American colonies were facing.

Colonies were actively looking for more settlers and labor to help with the tobacco crop.

Unfortunately, this system wasn’t used honestly, and it ultimately helped the rich and powerful become richer and more powerful.

It also encouraged the practice of slavery because plantation owners benefited from paying for the transportation of slaves from Africa.

Even centuries after slaves traversed the Middle Passage, the land that they should’ve been entitled to through their headrights was never granted.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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