The Headright System in Colonial America


The Headright System was established by the Virginia Company in 1618 as a way to increase immigration to Virginia and increase the workforce.

King Charles I of England, Portrait

King Charles I continued the Headright System after he took control of Virginia in 1625. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Headright System Summary

The “Headright System” was a land grant program that allowed investors to acquire land by paying for people to immigrate to the colonies to work on plantations. Once the investor acquired a headright, it could be converted to a deed of land ownership through a relatively simple process.

In the system, the investor paid the expenses for an immigrant — or a “head” — to move to the colony. For each immigrant the investor paid for, they earned the “right” to acquire a parcel of land, and the parcel of land was called a “headright.”

The system was created in 1618 by the Virginia Company because it needed more workers in the colony, especially in tobacco fields. Investors who paid passage for immigrants to Virginia were given the right to 50 acres of land. If an investor in Virginia paid to have 50 indentured servants move to the colony, the owner received 2,500 acres of land. The system was widely used in Virginia and most of the Southern Colonies.

Quick Facts About the Headright System

  1. In 1618, the Virginia Company approved the “Charter of Orders, Lawes, and Privileges” that implemented the Headright System. The system provided an incentive to wealthy investors to send more workers to Jamestown and the Virginia Colony.
  2. Most of the workers the investors paid for were indentured servants or enslaved people.
  3. The investor retained ownership of the land they received for each worker.
  4. The system contributed to the growth of the population in the colonies, especially Virginia, along with the expansion of the lower class and chattel slavery.
  5. The Headright System was modified in 1699 so investors could not receive land for indentured servants or slaves.
Oldest Tobacco Warehouse in America, Urbanna VA, Illustration
This illustration depicts America’s oldest tobacco Warehouse, which was built around 1680 in Urbanna, Virginia. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

History of the Headright System in Colonial America

In the early 1600s, England needed colonies in order to compete with other countries for wealth. At that time, the countries in Europe believed in an economic theory called Mercantilism. In the Mercantile System, colonies were essential for a nation to maintain and grow its wealth. Spain was an early leader in colonization and when Spanish explorers discovered gold in the Caribbean it expanded the nation’s wealth. England decided to follow suit and create colonies in the New World. Two companies were given permission from the King to “plant colonies” on the east coast of America — the Virginia Company of London and the Plymouth Company of London. The Plymouth Company failed in its attempts to establish a colony, but the Virginia Company was able to establish the first successful English colony in the New World in 1607 — Jamestown Colony.

Jamestown Colony and Tobacco

Jamestown was a business venture and needed to make a profit for the Virginia Company and its investors. Unfortunately, the colony struggled to find a way to make money. That is until John Rolfe introduced a new form of tobacco. It is believed that Rolfe took a trip to West Indies where he experimented with growing tobacco seeds. At the time, Spain dominated the tobacco trade. Rolfe believed he could create a new strain of tobacco that was superior and would grow well in the climate of Virginia.

“…tobacco… which there thriveth so well that no doubt but after a little more trial and experience in the curing thereof it will compare with the best in the West Indies.”

— John Rolfe

In 1612, Rolfe had a crop of tobacco that “smoked pleasant, sweete and strong.” It was shipped to England where it was a success and by 1614 Rolfe was making a profit on his operation. At that point, the Virginia Company realized it might have a path to success through farming tobacco. However, there were two significant problems with farming tobacco in the colony:

  1. The process of farming tobacco required a tremendous amount of manpower to plant, cultivate, harvest, and transport the product.
  2. Tobacco exhausted the nutrients in the soil, especially nitrogen. A single field could only be used for 2 or 3 growing seasons, so a tobacco farm — or plantation — required a significant amount of land.

Although the Virginia Company had been granted charters that gave it access to thousands of acres of land, the investors did not have the manpower needed to grow enough the amount of tobacco that was needed to make a profit.

Making matters worse, it was difficult to find people who wanted to emigrate to Virginia. The living conditions were harsh, diseases were common, and there were threats of attacks by Indian tribes. There were not many people who wanted to move there under those conditions, and many of the settlers left. They returned to England or moved on to other areas that were more attractive, such as Bermuda or the West Indies.

Tobacco Culture and Cultivation, Virginia, Headright System
This illustration depicts enslaved African Americans working on a tobacco plantation in Colonial Virginia. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Colonial Virginia Transitions to Private Land Ownership

The Virginia Company started to look at ways to keep people from leaving and decided it would allow settlers to acquire ownership of land — private land ownership — which was separate from the “common land” owned by the company. From 1613 to 1617 the company tried to come up with ways to entice servants to stay in the colony after their contracts expired.

  • In 1613, servants were given a 3-acre parcel of land if they stayed in Virginia.
  • In 1617, the land given to servants was increased to 50 acres.

Unfortunately, the company continued to struggle, and it used the land to pay its debts and raise money — which increased private land ownership.

  • The company was unable to pay a cash dividend to investors. Instead, it gave each investor the rights to 50 acres of land.
  • The company started selling shares of the company, and a share included the rights to 50 acres of land.

The Headright System Starts with the Great Charter of Virginia

In 1618, Sir Edwin Sandys assumed the position of Treasurer for the Virginia Company. Sandys believed Virginia needed two things in order to be successful.

  1. Traditional social institutions from England that immigrants were familiar with.
  2. Production of more than just tobacco as a commodity.
Sir Edwin Sandys played a key role in the implementation of the Headright System.

The company gave a letter to the new Governor, Sir George Yeardley. The letter is called “Instructions to George Yeardley,” but is often referred to today as the “Great Charter.” It outlined changes for Yeardley to make when he arrived in Jamestown. The major changes were:

  1. Institute English Common Law as the legal system for the colony and improve the administration of the law.
  2. Set up a “General Assembly” — the House of Burgesses — with members that were elected by the settlers.
  3. Implement the Headright System to encourage the growth and development of the colony by granting land ownership in return for investment in immigration. 

The Headright System incentivized Immigration in two different ways:

  1. Investors Sponsoring Immigrants to Move to America — Instead of buying land, investors were encouraged to pay for people to emigrate from England to Virginia. For every person they paid for, they received the rights to 50 acres of land. Most of the people the investors sponsored were indentured servants. These immigrants worked on land owned by the investor. When their contract was up, they were given land, but it was not the land they had lived and worked on. It was usually undeveloped land on the western frontier that had very little value.
  2. Large Groups and Families Paying Their Own Way to America — If they did, they received 50 acres of land per person — and owned the land.

The Headright System offered people from the lower class in Europe the chance to own land. For indentured servants, large groups, and families, it was a unique opportunity. Many of them came from the lower class in Europe and were not part of the nobility. In Europe, the land was almost entirely controlled by the nobility. 

Benefits of the Headright System

The Headright System contributed to the growth of the colony in terms of population, private land ownership, and westward expansion. 

  • Over the next 5 decades, it is estimated that roughly 70,000 people emigrated to Virginia. 
  • Many immigrants who started as indentured servants were able to become landowners.
  • In 1625, King Charles I took control of Virginia and continued the Headright System. During the English Civil War, some of his supporters — known as “Cavaliers” — moved to Virginia and bought large tracts of land.
  • Immigrants and investors pushed westward and bought cheap, undeveloped land.

The benefits of the system allowed Virginia to establish itself as one of the most wealthy and influential of the 13 Original Colonies. Other colonies that implemented the system gained the same benefits, especially Southern Colonies with large plantations.

Steps to Convert a Headright to a Deed of Land Ownership

In the Virginia Headright System, having a claim to land did not mean someone actually owned land. It simply gave that person the right to go through the process to gain ownership of land. There was a specific process that had to be followed.

  1. Claim Headrights — The person who wanted to claim headrights went to the county court and presented proof to the local officials they had paid to transport immigrants to America.
  2. Verify Headrights — The court issued certificates that verified the person had paid to transport immigrants and had a valid claim to headrights.
  3. Approve Headrights — The person showed the certificates to the Secretary of the Colony who approved the right to the land.
  4. Authorize Land Survey — The Secretary of the Colony issued a document that authorized a survey of the land that had been claimed. The acreage was based on the number of headrights that were approved — 4 headrights amounted to 200 acres of land. After the Secretary completed the document it was sent to the County Surveyor. 
  5. Conduct Survey — The land would be surveyed and a report would be delivered to the Secretary of the Colony.
  6. Prepare Land Deed — The Secretary prepared the land deed — sometimes called a “patent” or “grant” — based on the survey.
  7. Review and Approve Land Deed — The Secretary sent a copy of the land deed to the Governor who reviewed and approved it.
  8. Award Land Deed — After the deed was approved, a copy was sent to the person that originally claimed the headrights.

Copies of land titles were kept in the office of the Secretary of the Colony and bound into books. However, the Secretary of the Colony was only involved in the initial acquisition of the land. The land was divided and resold over time, but those land transfers and surveys were only kept by the local county courts.

Harm Caused by the Headright System

Unfortunately, the Headright System created problems in the colony that had long-lasting negative effects that fell into four main areas:

  1. Indentured Servants — Investors that paid for indentured servants to move to Virginia owned the land the servants lived and worked on. This kept a large number of immigrants poor.
  2. Chattel Slavery — The owners of large tracts of land — plantations — realized they could acquire headrights by paying for the importation of slaves from Africa. In 1638, George Menafie imported 50 slaves into Virginia and was given the right to 3,000 acres of land.
  3. Corruption — The system was abused in various ways. There was disorganized paperwork, bribery, and outright falsification of records. In some cases, high-ranking officials would claim a headright when they returned to Virginia after traveling abroad.
  4. Conflict with Indian Tribes — The westward expansion of settlements brought Virginians into close contact with the Indian tribes. Colonists pushed into the traditional hunting grounds and territory of the tribes, which led to attacks on settlements and villages — by both sides.

Eventually, the tension between landowners and tribes led to war in 1675-76. Settlers on the western frontier asked the Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley, to provide military support. Many of the settlers were former indentured servants — black and white — who had completed their servants and been freed. Berkeley failed to provide support, which led to an armed rebellion — Bacon’s Rebellion — that was led by a wealthy landowner — Nathaniel Bacon.

Bacon's Rebellion, Burning Jamestown
The Headright System contributed to social unrest that led to Bacon’s Rebellion. This illustration depicts the Burning of Jamestown that took place during the Rebellion. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

End of the Headright System

In 1699, significant changes were made to the Headright System. That year, the laws were changed so landowners could no longer claim headrights for indentured servants or slaves. The General Assembly canceled the Headright System on June 22, 1779, during the American Revolutionary War, and replaced it with a new system that granted land to men who served in the Virginia Line, the Continental Line, or the Virginia Navy.

10 Interesting Facts About the Headright System

  1. The Virginia Company established the Headright System in 1618 because it needed more workers in the Jamestown Colony. Later, it was expanded to Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
  2. The Headright System dramatically expanded private land ownership. Before the system was put in place, the rights to the land were owned by the Virginia Company. The system transferred land from the company to individuals who were often land speculators — also known as investors.
  3. The headright was not always an investor. A family could pay its own way to emigrate from England to Virginia. Under the system, the head of a family of 5 would be given 5 headrights, which amounted to 250 acres of land.
  4. When the system was put in place, it took into account that many people had already moved to the colony. The people that were already living in Virginia were given headrights.
  5. When indentured servants were released from their contracts, they were given land on the western frontier, which was undeveloped.
  6. The establishment of settlements on the frontier created violent conflicts with the Native American Indian tribes. 
  7. The system contributed to the development of the class system, especially in Virginia, which led to the first armed rebellion against English government officials in the colonies — Bacon’s Rebellion — which took place in 1676–77.
  8. Over time, the system was modified and benefited wealthy landowners, but it was also rife with corruption and abuse due to poor record-keeping, bribery, and falsifying documents.
  9. The system contributed to the expansion of slavery in the Southern Colonies. In 1638, Virginia landowner George Menefie purchased sixty enslaved people and received a total of 3,000 acres.
  10. In 1699, the system was changed so headrights were not granted for indentured servants or enslaved people.

Significance of the Headright System

The Headright System was important to the history of the United States because it encouraged immigration and helped grow the population in America. It contributed to westward expansion and the development of more settlements, but it also led to an increase in chattel slavery, conflicts between colonists and Indians, and tension between wealthy landowners on the east coast and farmers on the frontier.

Headright System APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Colonial Era,  Colonial Virginia, and the Chesapeake Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Headright System APUSH Definition

The Headright System was a land grant system that gave land to investors who paid for immigrants to move to Colonial America. It was created by the Virginia Company and first used in Jamestown in 1618. Over the course of 50 years, around 70,000 people moved to Virginia alone.

Headright System Video for APUSH Notes

This video from CrashCourse discussed the colonization of America, including the Headright System.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Headright System in Colonial America
  • Date 1618–1779
  • Author
  • Keywords Headright System, Virginia Company, Virginia Colony, Indentured Servants, Enslaved People, Chattal Slavery, Bacon's Rebellion
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 8, 2024