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A headright is a legal grant of land to settlers. Headrights are most notable for their role in the expansion of the thirteen British colonies in North America; the Virginia Company of London gave headrights to settlers, and the Plymouth Company followed suit. The headright system was used in several colonies, including Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Most headrights were for 1 to 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of land, and were given to anyone willing to cross the Atlantic Ocean and help populate the colonies. Headrights were granted to anyone who would pay for the transportation costs of a laborer or indentured servant. These land grants consisted of 50 acres (200,000 m2) for someone newly moving to the area and 100 acres (0.40 km2) for people previously living in the area. By giving the land to the landowning masters the indentured servants had little or no chance to procure their own land. This kept many colonials poor and led to strife between the poor servants and wealthy landowners.
The headright system began in Jamestown, Virginia in 1618 as an attempt to solve labor shortages due to the advent of the tobacco economy, which required large plots of land with many workers. The disproportion that existed between the amount of land available and the population created a situation with a low supply of labor, resulting in the growth of indentured servitude and slavery. The headright system was also a way to attract new colonists. Colonists who had already been living in Virginia were each given two headrights of 50 acres (200,000 m²); immigrant colonists who paid for their passage were given one headright, and individuals would subsequently receive one headright each time they paid for the passage of another individual. This last mechanism increased the division between the wealthy land-owners and the working poor. Headrights were given to heads-of-households and because 50 acres were accumulated for each member of the household, families had an incentive to make the passage to the colonies together.
After paying for the passage of an individual to make it to the colonies, one had to obtain a patent for the land. First, the governor or local county court had to provide a certificate that certified the validity of the importation of a person. The man seeking land would then select the land he desired and have an official survey made. The two basic surveying instruments used to mark plots of land were a chain known as Gunter's chain and a compass. The patent’s claimant would then take the description of this land to the colony’s secretary who created the patent that would then be approved by the governor. Once a headright was obtained it was treated like a commodity and could be bought, sold, or traded. It also could be saved indefinitely and used at a later date.
Individuals who could afford to do so would accumulate headrights by providing funds for poor individuals to travel to Virginia. (During the 17th century, the cost of transport from England to the colonies was about six pounds per person.) This system led to the development of indentured servitude where poor individuals would become workers for a specified number of years and provide labor in order to repay the landowners who had sponsored their transportation to the colonies. The claimaints to headrights could receive grants for men, women and children since anyone could become an indentured servant. Early documentation from the Virginia Company seems to suggest that a landowner could receive a headright even if the indentured servant whose trip they sponsored did not make it to Virginia alive. While the majority of headrights distributed were issued under the names of British immigrants, as time went on, indentured servants who provided the heads-of-households with land came from throughout Europe and could be used as headrights, as could slaves from Africa.
Plantation owners benefited from the headright system when they paid for the transportation of imported slaves. This, along with the increase in the amount of money required to bring indentured servants to the colonies, contributed to the shift towards slavery in the colonies. Until 1699, a slave was worth a headright of fifty acres. According to records, in the 1670s over 400 slaves were used as headrights in Virginia. This number increased in the 1680s and 1690s. Many families grew in power in colonies by receiving large tracts of land when they imported slaves. For example, George Menefie purchased sixty slaves, and thus received 3,000 acres of land in 1638. In 1699, it was decided that headrights would only be distributed for English citizens and that paying for the transportation of a slave could no longer guarantee land.
According to records, there was a large discrepancy between the number of headrights issued and the number of new residents in the colonies. This gap may be explained by high mortality rates of people during their journey to the colonies. Landowners would receive headrights for the dead and thus, the gap would widen between population growth and amount of headrights issued. Another explanation suggests that the secretary's office that issued the headrights grew more lax. There were few regulations in place to keep the headright system in check. Because of this, several headrights were claimed multiple times and people took advantage of the lack of governance. For instance, when a person was brought to the colonies, both the ship captain and the individual paying the transportation costs may have attempted to receive land patents or headrights for the same person. Another problem was that secretaries sometimes issued headrights for fictitious people. During the 1660s and 1670s, the number of headrights was about four times more than the increase in population. If this large discrepancy must be attributed to more than fictitious issuing, a final explanation suggests that people had accumulated and saved headrights. Headrights could be bought for about 50 pounds of tobacco each. The owners of the grants then claimed the land years later once the land had risen in value. Although keeping a count of the number of headrights issued may not lead to accurate estimations of population growth in the colonies, the number of patents issued acts as an indicator of the demand for land.
In addition to leading to the distribution of too much land at the lax secretary's discretion, the headright system increased tensions between Native Americans and colonists. Indentured servants were granted land inland, which was near the natives. This migration produced conflict between the natives and the indentured servants. Later, Bacon's Rebellion was sparked by tensions between the natives, settlers, and indentured servants.