The Headright System

The early inhabitants of Jamestown were employees of the Virginia Company and were supposed to direct their labors toward the production of profits for the investors. It quickly became apparent that gold and silver did not exist in appreciable amounts in eastern North America, a fact that left the colony without a cash crop and the resultant threat of bankruptcy.

The advent of the tobacco economy in the 1610s changed the course of Virginia’s development. Tobacco production required large tracts of land and many workers. The company held title to tremendous amounts of land, but had few workers at their disposal.

In 1618, the headright system was introduced as a means to solve the labor shortage. It provided the following:

  • Colonists already residing in Virginia were granted two headrights, meaning two tracts of 50 acres each, or a total of 100 acres of land.

  • New settlers who paid their own passage to Virginia were granted one headright. Since every person who entered the colony received a headright, families were encouraged to migrate together.

  • Wealthy individuals could accumulate headrights by paying for the passage of poor individuals. Most of the workers who entered Virginia under this arrangement came as indentured servants — people who paid for their transportation by pledging to perform five to seven years of labor for the landowner.
The ability to amass large plots of land by importing workers provided the basis for an emerging aristocracy in Virginia. Plantation owners were further enriched by receiving headrights for newly imported slaves.

The implementation of the headright system was an important ingredient in Virginia’s success. Land ownership gave many people a reason to work hard, with the assurance that they were providing for their own futures, not that of the company.

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