Part 1 of a 5 part series by James W. Petty

(Published in the Jan.-Mar. Issue of The Virginia Genealogist, 2001)

Suppose your Immigrant Ancestor to Virginia was named Martin Westerlincke, and you found his name in a Virginia land patent as one of eight headrights claimed by Richard Jackson of York County, on April 5, 1653, for which Jackson obtained a patent for 400 Acres of land. What does this mean to you as a researcher? Consider the following questions. Was this the earliest record in Virginia naming Martin Westerlincke? Can this be considered a date for his arrival? Did he come as an indentured servant? Was he transported to Virginia by Richard Jackson? Did he come on the same ship with the other seven people on this list? Does this mean he settled in York County? The answers to this question are: No. No. No. No. No. And Maybe. Actually, Martin Westerlincke paid his own way to Virginia, and also that of his Wife and child. He obtained his own Headright Certificate from the York County Court on May 25, 1648 for his family and one other person, worth 150 acres of non-designated land. Sometime between 1648 and 1653, Martin Westerlincke sold this certificate, plus his own personal right, totaling 200 acres, to Richard Jackson for an unknown amount.

One might think this example of Martin Westerlincke is unique, but it isn’t. Similar cases abound. Every recorded Land Patent, based on the Headright system, was preceded by a Headright Certificate, which was submitted with the application for that patent. Most of the headright certificates, possibly as many as 80%, differed from the lists recorded on the patents, either as to the original owner of the headrights, or to the names on the list of headrights. Even more surprising is the fact that many Headright Certificates, perhaps even the majority, were never redeemed for land. The Headright Certificates were issued by either the Secretary of the Governor through the Land Office, or by the County Court in each county. The certificates of the Land Office no longer exist, except to the extent that they appear attached to the patents. But the certificates issued by the county courts appear in the County Court Order Books in each Virginia county, wherever such records have survived.

Headright Grants (or APatents@ as they were known in colonial terminology) have been regarded for over a century as a principle source for both Virginia historical research and Genealogy. This record source, listing the names of over one hundred thousand immigrants to Virginia, was made famous by Nell Marion Nugent, with her 1934 publication of Cavaliers and Pioneers – Abstract of Virginia Land Patents and Grants – 1623 to 1800, Vol. 1. Volume One consisted of abstracts covering the period of 1623 to 1666. In recent years five additional volumes have been added to this continuing series. Writers have expounded on the history of the system and have used this series for census and population studies, immigration, land, and other social historical research. Genealogists have depended on it as perhaps the earliest source for the name of an ancestor, with the added hope that it might provide a clue to locating their English origins. However, it is essential in all types of research, to fully understand the records being studied in order to gain the most from them. Without that understanding, incorrect interpretations of the historical record happen, which can limit the discovery that is the focus of such research. Such is the case with the use and interpretation of Headright Certificates.

Historians who have previously written on the subject of the Headright System of Land Management in Virginia, have regarded Headright Certificates only as a part of the patent process, and have relegated the idea of certificates being used as currency simply as an aberration, or an abuse of the land system. In accepting that premise, historians also assume that the primary purpose of the Headright Certificates was to obtain patent land, and that only a relative few of the certificates, perhaps only ten to fifteen percent of the total issued, were not used as such and are not found in the Land Patent Books of the Virginia Land Office.

The intent and purpose of this article is to show that Headright Certificates, and in particular, County Court Headright Certificates, were a separate document from the Land Patent, and that while associated with the land patent system, Headright Certificates were issued and used completely independent from the patent process, as legal tender, or currency. As a consequence, thousands of headright names were not listed in the land patents and are often overlooked by researchers unfamiliar with this record source.