Life in the Thirteen Colonies

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What is the significance of the Headright System?

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Domenick Franecki eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The headright system, initiated in colonial Virginia in 1618 and later used in other American colonies, was a means of encouraging settlement when labor was badly needed to grow tobacco and other crops. At first, settlers were given two headrights of land, each measuring 50 acres, while immigrants were granted one headright. If settlers paid for the passage of another person, including that of a slave, to the colony, they would also receive a headright. 

The significance of this system is that it encouraged the settlement of indentured servants (whose passage to the New World was paid for in return for 2–7 years of labor) and the importation of slaves into Virginia and other colonies. Over time, slavery increased, as did the differences between indentured servants and wealthy white plantation owners who were able to amass large tracts of land. This tension precipitated Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, an uprising of landless whites against the white elite in Virginia, and the resulting turn to slavery as the dominant institution for growing crops in the colony. 

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Kelvin Brakus eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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When the colonists settled in America, they faced an extreme labour shortage. As a result, in 1617, the Headright system was introduced by the Virginia Company to encourage people to emigrate to America and begin the cultivation of the tobacco plant. In essence, the system worked by giving 50 acres of land to each immigrant who paid their passage to the colonies. This system had some important consequences:

  • The population of the Maryland and Virginia colonies grew considerably as a result of the Headright System. 
  • Existing settlers (called planters) often paid for other people to come to Virginia in return for their service. This is called indentured servitude and enabled settlers to grow very wealthy off the labour of others and dramatically increase their landholdings.
  • Indentured servants rarely lived long enough to receive their freedom dues. For the 40 percent who did, wealthy planters often gave them land in the west of the colonies which was mountainous, less arable and threatened by Indians. This created an angry and impoverished class of pioneer farmers who threatened the planters with rebellion. 
  • This paved the way for the widespread adoption of slavery. After Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, planters turned to slaves, instead of indentured servants. They were easier to control, were not entitled to freedom dues and were much cheaper to transport to the colonies. 


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