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Headrights (VA-NOTES)

In order to encourage immigration into the colony, the Virginia Company, meeting in a Quarter Court held on 18 November 1618, passed a body of laws called Orders and Constitutions which came to be considered "the Great Charter of privileges, orders and laws" of the colony. Among these laws was a provision that any person who settled in Virginia or paid for the transportation expenses of another person who settled in Virginia should be entitled to receive fifty acres of land for each immigrant. The right to receive fifty acres per person, or per head, was called a headright. The practice was continued under the royal government of Virginia after the dissolution of the Virginia Company, and the Privy Council ordered on 22 July 1634 that patents for headrights be issued.

Although seldom used during the eighteenth century, the procedure remained in effect until the passage of an act in the session begun in May 1779 which, in adjusting and settling titles to lands, gave a period of twelve months from the end of the legislative session for such rights to be claimed or be considered forfeited.

A person who was entitled to a headright usually obtained a certificate of entitlement from a county court and then took the certificate to the office of the secretary of the colony, who issued the headright, or right to patent fifty acre of land. The holder of the headright then had the county surveyor make a survey of the land and then took the survey and the headright back to the capital to obtain a patent for the tract of land. When the patent was issued, the names of the immigrants, or headrights, were often included in the text of the document.

As valuable properties, headrights could be bought and sold. The person who obtained a patent to a tract of land under a headright might not have been the person who immigrated or who paid for the immigration of another person. Headrights were not always claimed immediately after immigration, either; there are instances in which several years elapsed between a person's entry into Virginia and the acquisition of a headright and sometimes even longer between then and the patenting of a tract of land.

The headright system was subject to a wide variety of abuses from outright fraud to multiple claims by a merchant and a ship's captain to a headright for the same immigrant passenger. Some prominent merchants and colonial officials received headrights for themselves each time they returned to Virginia from abroad. As a result of the abuses and of the transferable nature of the headrights, the system, which may have been intended initially to promote settlement and ownership of small plots of land by numerous immigrants, resulted in the accumulation of large tracts of land by a small number of merchants, shippers, and early land speculators.

The presence of a name as a headright in a land patent, then, establishes that a person of a certain name had entered Virginia prior to the date of the patent; but it does not prove when the person immigrated or who was initially entitled to the headright.

For extended analyses of Virginia land policies, see Fairfax Harrison Virginia Land Grants (New York, 1925, Richmond, 1979); Robert A. Stewart's introduction in volume one of Nell M. Nugent's Cavaliers and Pioneers (Richmond, 1934); Daphne Gentry's introduction in volume four of Dennis Hudgins' Cavaliers and Pioneers (Richmond, 1995); and the introduction to the Virginia Land Office Inventory, first published by the Library of Virginia in 1973.

An online series on Research in Virginia Documents.
Prepared by Daphne Gentry, Publications and Education Services Division.
Copyright by The Library of Virginia; this note may be reproduced in full if proper credit is given and no changes are made.