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England found itself territorially and financially falling behind its rival Spain in the early seventeenth century. The reason, they believed, was due to the Spanish conquest and colonization of Mexico and Central America in the New World. Spain was reaping the benefits of a seemingly unlimited supply of gold, silver, and other metals from these colonies. England began to charter explorations for permanent settlements in America in the 1580s, but its first permanent colony, Jamestown, was not established by the Virginia Company until 1607.
How would the Virginia Company attract more people to come to the New World? The headright system was their answer.
What exactly was the headright system? A headright was a land grant given to settlers, usually 50 acres, as an incentive to move to the colonies in America.
Those who could afford to pay for their passage- who were considered “Head of Household”- from Europe were granted a headright, as were those who were already settled into the colony and paid for the transport of those who couldn’t afford it. They could be granted two headrights for doing so. Any other men, such as family members, servants, or laborers, who the Head of Household could afford to charter with them, would grant them additional acreage per person they brought.
People whose passage was paid for by existing colonists usually migrated as indentured servants; in return for their passage, they would work for planters for periods ranging from four to seven years.
The purpose of the system was to attract new settlers, particularly in Jamestown. It aimed to fill the region's labor needs, as its economy was built on tobacco farming, which required lots of land and labor.
The Virginia Company created the headright system in 1618. In 1624, the Virginia Company was dissolved, and the area was made into the royal colony of Virginia, but notably, the King maintained the use of the headright system.
The headright system became widely used across the other colonies, primarily in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maryland.
The following is an excerpt from the instructions from the Virginia Company to the incoming Governor of the Colony in 1618, detailing the use of the Headright System.
“And that for all such Planters as were brought thither at the Companies Charge to inhabit there before the coming away [...] after the time of their Service to the Company on the common Land agreed shall be expired there be set out One hundred Acres of Land for each of their person Adventurers to be held by them their heirs and Assigns forever paying for every fifty Acres the yearly free Rent of one Shilling to the said treasurer and Company [...] the share be of one hundred Acres the share upon the first division and of as many more upon A Second Division when the land of the first division shall be Sufficiently peopled And for Every person which they shall transport thither within seven years after Midsummer Day One thousand six hundred and Eighteen.”1
How did this system affect the colonies? The table below details the significant impacts of the headright system.
The headright system led to the rapid expansion of the population of the English colonies. It encouraged families to travel together to the New World, as each person was a “head” that could be granted land in the territory. It allowed men who would not have customarily owned land in England the opportunity to not only own land but to make a profit and live off of its cultivation.
The system allowed wealthier Englishmen the chance to pay for the passage of those who could not afford it, allowing them to accumulate headrights and large portions of land in Virginia. This created a clear division between the wealthy and less wealthy members of society.
This grew as a direct result of the headright system as many people could not afford to make the journey themselves, so instead pledged their labor to someone who was wealthy enough to pay for their passage.
Wealthy farmers could be granted a headright for enslaved people they bought to work their land, ever-expanding their properties and creating large farms known as plantations. In the 1670s, around 400 slaves were used as headrights in Virginia. Slaves could be used for headrights in Virginia until 1699 when it was decided that only paying for the passage of free people warranted a headright.
Relations with Indigenous Peoples
The use of the headright system increased conflict with Indigenous tribes in proximity to many of the English colonies. As headrights were received, English claims began to creep and take over Indigenous lands. Clashes sometimes turned violent, such as the war between settlers in Jamestown/Virginia and the Powhatan Confederacy in 1622 and 1646.
Other nations who were colonizing North America copied the headright system to encourage migration to the continent.
For example, the Dutch created the Patroonship to encourage wealthy Dutch people to move to New Netherland (present-day New York). This system offered land grants that patroons (individuals) could generally administer how they saw fit.
When the English took over the colony in 1664, the English upheld the land rights of the patroons under the headright system, even though the patroonship allowed women to inherit property.
The use of the headright system ended in Virginia in 1779 but continued in other colonies.
England created the royal colony of Georgia in 1732 as a territorial buffer between the other English colonies and Spanish-controlled Florida. The headright system was introduced in Georgia in 1783 after the American Revolution and was used until 1804.
How did the Georgian headright system work?
200 acres was given to soldiers who had fought in the Revolution and to heads of households.
50 extra acres were given for every additional household member, counting slaves.
The goal was also to attract settlers and defend the colony. Landholders were expected to serve as militiamen against the Spanish.
Initially, women were prohibited from inheriting land owned by their husbands, but this was soon changed to attract more people.
Eventually, there was not enough land to continue the system, hence its end.
The Virginia Company established the headright system in 1618 to encourage Englishmen to settle in Jamestown, mainly to tackle the labor shortage.
A headright was usually 50 acres and was given to those who could pay for their passage to the New World. Alternatively, existing settlers could pay for others’ passage and receive headrights. Those who traveled this way usually became indentured servants.
The system successfully expanded the population of Virginia and was used in other colonies to do the same.
The practice directly impacted the relationship between English settlers and Indigenous Peoples as it led to rapid population growth, and headrights soon encroached on Indigenous lands.
The Headright system also influenced the importation of enslaved Africans to the colonies, as farmers and plantation owners could count them as headrights and gain more land.
1. Susan Myra Kingsbury, ed., "The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 8. Virginia Records Manuscripts. 1606–1737." Records of the Virginia Company, 1606–1626, 3:98–109.
Farmers and plantation owners used slavery to increase territorial claims. They would claim enslaved people they purchased as headrights and be granted additional acreage for the number of enslaved people they owned.
The headright system was very successful as most colonies that implemented the practice saw a rapid increase in settler population and territorial control. Though it led to conflicts with Indigenous Peoples, the headright system helped establish the English colonies permanently.
The Headright System was the English system that offered land grants (“headrights”) to encourage migration from Europe to the colonies in North America. “Headrights” were given to settlers who paid for their own passage or to existing settlers who paid for the passage of others.
The headright system was used in Georgia in 1783 to encourage men to move to the colony and to serve as militiamen to defend the English settlements against the Spanish if necessary, who held the neighboring colony of Florida.
The Headright system's effect on Jamestown was that it significantly increased the colony's population. Before the Virginia Company introduced the headright system, the settlement was struggling to maintain a population of farmers and workers to keep it functioning. The headright system encouraged Englishmen to settle in and around Jamestown with the prospect of owning their own land.
What year was the Headright system established?
Who or What originally created the Headright system?
The Virginia Company of London was a practice to incentivize Englishmen to come to the colony of Virginia.
Describe what is offered through the Headright system.
50 Acres and Up to 100 Acres for Englishmen who could afford their own passage to the Virginia Colony, and additional acreage for other people they could afford to bring with them.
True or False: the Headright system was adopted in other Royal Colonies as a means of expanding the colony’s population and agricultural output.
How did the use of the Headright system lead to the creation of Plantations?
The headright system allowed for wealthy Englishmen to afford to pay the passage of a number of laborers, each laborer qualifying for a headright
What best describes the influence of the headright system on the use of slave labor in the English colonies?
The headright system rapidly increased the number of English willing to migrate to the colonies, increasing the number of farms and cultivated lands, which created a large demand for labor.
Why did Georgia continue the Headright System after the American Revolution?
To entice soldiers to move to the state to serve a militia against any Spanish invasion from Florida
Why did the headright system end in Georgia?
Eventually, there was not enough land to continue the system
What was the "Headright System" that was used by the Dutch in New New Netherlands?
What was the social impact of the Headright System on southern colonial society?
The system allowed wealthier Englishmen the chance to pay for the passage of those who could not afford it, allowing them to accumulate headrights and large portions of land in Virginia - this created a clear division between the wealthy and less wealthy members of society.
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