What is the difference between the headright system and indentured servitude?

The landed gentry who paid to import indentured servants to the New World received four to seven years of the servant’s labor in return for paying the transport costs (which were about £6, or equivalent to more than £600 by today’s standards). As much as this seems like a bargain for the plantation owner, there was yet another incentive to encourage bringing people into the colonies — the promise of free land. Several colonies, notably Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas, having seemingly limitless territory but a dire shortage of workers, devised the headright system. This system rewarded anyone who conveyed himself, his family or any others to the colonies with 50 acres of land per head.

The headright system was first used in Virginia. The Virginia Company had founded Jamestown and received a charter from the English Crown in 1609 granting the company vast stretches of land. Settlers and stockholders of the company at first held the land in common. After a few years, the company began granting land privately. The headright system was created to reward those who would pay to import much-needed laborers into the colony.  

A headright refers to both the grant of land itself as well as the actual person (“head”) through whom the land is claimed. The person who has the “right” to claim the land is the one who paid to transport any person to the colony.

Wealthy gentry and plantation owners (only about 5 percent of the population) were rewarded with land for importing white or black indentured servants, and later African slaves. The effects this system had on society were several. While it served to populate the colonies, it also added to a society where the rich got richer, in the form of accumulating more and more land. The poor, once released from their servitude, were expected to move further west and populate the frontier. This led to some angry uprisings on the part of the poor.

The process for claiming title to the land under the headright system took several steps. The person making the claim had to present proof to the county court that he had paid to transport others into the colony. The court then issued a certificate of importation, which was taken to the secretary, who issued a “right.” This right was presented to the county surveyor, who parceled the land. Finally, a patent (deed) to the surveyed land was issued and signed by the governor. Only after this last step was completed was the land actually transferred to the new owner. The headright system in Virginia functioned for nearly 100 years, when it was replaced by the sale of land.

The deeds from the Virginia Land Office, online at the Library of Virginia website, www.lva.virginia.gov/, list the names of each person under which the grantee was claiming land. For instance, the 1638 land patent of John Fludd for 2,100 acres includes the names of 41 people including himself for whom he paid to transport to Virginia. Unfortunately this site’s search engine doesn’t seem to be able to identify the names of those through which the land is claimed (the indentured servants), but just the name of the person claiming the land.

When looking for headrights, be aware that the rights were often bought, traded and sold, and the land could have been patented by a completely different person than the one making the original claim. Sometimes the claims were made years or decades after the fact. There were also many abuses of the system. One was multiple claimants, like both the ship’s captain and the plantation owner, making claims for importing the same people. There were also fraudulent claims using fictitious names. In the end, more claims were made than there was available land.

Continued next week

Indentured servitude is a form of labor where an individual is under contract to work without a salary to repay an indenture or loan within a certain timeframe. Indentured servitude was popular in the United States in the 1600s as many European immigrants worked in exchange for the price of passage to America.

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was passed after the Civil War, made indentured servitude illegal in the U.S. Today, it is banned in nearly all countries.

  • Indentured servitude is a form of labor where an individual is under contract to work without a salary to repay an indenture or loan.
  • Indentured servitude was popular in the United States in the 1600s as many individuals worked in exchange for the price of passage to America.
  • Indentured servants could be sold, loaned, or inherited, at least during the duration of their contract terms.

Indentured servitude served as a type of barter system for many immigrants. An individual who sought a new life in America, but who could not afford the steamship fare from another country, may contract with a wealthy U.S. landowner to perform a type of work for a fixed period in exchange for the price of the boat ticket.

Approximately 300,000 European workers immigrated to the American colonies in the 1600s as indentured servants, and indentured servitude continued throughout much of the 1700s.

Indentured servitude in the U.S. began in the early 1600s in Virginia, not long after the settlement of Jamestown. Many early American settlers sought cheap labor to help manage their large estates and farms, and commonly agreed to fund the passage of European immigrants to Virginia in exchange for their labor.

Other parts of the world also engaged in indentured servitude at the same time that it was occurring in the United States. Many citizens left Europe for the Caribbean to work as indentured servants on sugar plantations.

Contracts stipulated that the worker would repay the loan to the lender by performing a certain kind of labor for a set period. Skilled laborers were usually indentured for four or five years, but unskilled workers often needed to remain for seven or more years.

The indentured servitude system allowed landowners to provide only food and shelter for indentured servants, as opposed to wages. Some landowners offered their servants basic medical care, but typically labor contracts did not provide for this.

Some indentured servants served as cooks, gardeners, housekeepers, field workers, or general laborers while others learned specific trades such as blacksmithing, plastering, and bricklaying, which they often parlayed into future careers.

Most workers who became indentured servants were males, generally in their late teens and early twenties, but women also entered into these agreements and often worked as household employees or domestic servants.

Although some indentured servants completed their contracts and received land, livestock, tools, and other necessities, many others did not live to pay off their contracts because they perished from diseases or work-related accidents or fled before completing their terms of service.

Indentured servants enjoyed little personal freedom and some contracts allowed landowners to extend the work period for servants who were accused of behavior that was deemed improper.

Indentured servitude was historically used to pay an apprentice who agreed to work for free for a master tradesman to learn a trade but evolved as a way for an individual to pay the cost of transportation to the American colonies. Workers were commonly bought and sold when they arrived at their destinations. Great Britain used indentured servitude as a punishment for captured prisoners of war in rebellions and civil wars. 

Until the late 18th century, indentured servitude was common in America and a common way for Europeans to immigrate to the colonies. The system was also used to exploit Asian immigrants who were used mainly to construct roads and railway systems.

Over one-half of all European immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and the American Revolution came under indentures. Many young children were taken from England to the American colonies as indentured servants, often kidnapped off the streets and sent off as merchandise to be sold as servants in the New World.

Both the American and British governments passed laws that helped the decline of indentured servitude. The United Kingdom's Passenger Vessels Act of 1803 regulated travel conditions aboard ships to make transportation more expensive and an American law passed in 1833 abolished the imprisonment of debtors, which made prosecuting runaway servants difficult. The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, following the American Civil War, made indentured servitude illegal in the United States.

Virginia and Maryland operated under the "headright system" where incentives, such as 50 acres of land, were provided for planters to import workers. This system was used by wealthy plantation aristocrats to increase their land holdings.

Immigrants often entered indentured servitude contracts of their own free will, as opposed to slaves, who did not. Both slaves and indentured servants could be sold, loaned, or inherited.

The treatment of indentured servants differed greatly from one master to another. Some masters considered their indentured servants as personal property and made these individuals work difficult jobs before their contracts expired.

Others treated slaves more humanely than their indentured servants because slaves were regarded as a lifetime investment and servants would leave within a few years.

Indentured servants did have limited rights including access to the courts and entitlement to own land. However, masters retained their right to prohibit their servants from marrying and had the authority to sell them to another master at any time.

After serving their time as servants and paid with meals and housing, indentured servants were given "freedom dues" which often included a piece of land and supplies.

Indentured servants often served as field workers, gardeners, cooks, and laborers.

An indenture is a contract and for indentured servants, these contracts contained "indented" marks along the sides of the document. When the document was finalized, two copies were made. One copy was placed over the other and the edges of the pages were defaced or marked with indented characters. Servants were often uneducated and could be cheated so marking the two original copies helped to ensure a lasting means of authenticating the contract.

Indentured servitude is a labor contract where an individual will work to repay an indenture or loan over some time, commonly several years. Indentured servitude was popular in American colonies as many worked in exchange for the price of passage to America. Following the Civil War, the 13th Amendment made indentured servitude illegal in the United States.