17th Century Virginia County Court Headright Certificates – Part 2 of 5 part series
by James W. Petty

Headright Certificates were simply lists of names of immigrants to Virginia, for whom the transportation fees had been paid by the holder of the list. The certificate was the equivalent of a Land Warrant which qualified the named holder to a number of acres, determined by multiplying 50 acres with the number of names (or headrights) on the list. These certificates therefore were documents of value, and could be traded, sold, or assigned to others.

Several years ago, I penned an axiom, that I have lovingly entitled A Petty’s Paradigm On Prevaricated Pedigrees. Stated simply:
If a person has an idea, it’s a Possibility.
If the idea is written down, it becomes a Probability.
If the idea is published, it becomes a Fact.
And if the published idea is quoted, it becomes Gospel Truth.

It is the nature of people to assume that the men and women of the past, who studied history and records, and published their findings were the experts. They were the experts in their day, but not necessarily in ours. New records are found, new interpretations are deduced, and the historical record grows and develops. In 1934, when Nell Marion Nugent, Director of the Virginia Land Office, published her landmark volume Cavaliers and Pioneers – Volume 1 (hereafter referred to as ANugent), she was lauded as the foremost authority on Virginia land records. But in her introduction to the book, she stated confusion over Aone surviving record book of Charles City County of the seventeenth century (1655-65) [in which] appear entries of land grants (with headrights and acreage but without indicated bounds) that escaped inclusion in the Land Books that cover their period. Today we recognize these records as the County Court Headright Certificates. She may have come to understand what those records were, but the published narrative is what endures in the mind of students and researchers. Nugent’s ideas became facts in 1934, and today are regarded as Gospel Truth.

Other writers have followed Nugent’s lead, and have failed to recognize the importance of the County Court Headright Certificates. Beverly Fleet, in various volumes of the series Colonial Virginia Abstracts, raises questions about Headright Certificates on many occasions. He was abstracting the County Court Order Books, and when he found headright entries that were unclear, or in which there were spellings that were difficult to interpret, he referred to Nugent’s publication for comparison, thinking that all such certificates should be reflected in the Land Patent Books of the Land Office. Not understanding the nature of the County Court Headright Certificate, Fleet expressed confusion, and dismay, because records in the county didn’t appear consistently in the records of the Land Office. Like Nugent he assumed that all headrights (or at least the vast majority) listed in certificates eventually were redeemed for land, and were therefore recorded in the Patent Books. Again and again, he found differences between the two sources, and rather than recognizing that these were indeed separate records, he lauded Nugent’s scholarship, and presumed that her records were more correct than his, or he assumed that some of the information not found in the Land Office files were the result of lost records. Nugent and Fleet continue to be regarded as among the foremost names in published records in Virginia, but a great deal of new information and records have become available since the time of their writings, that changes or greatly affects their conclusions.

Description of Headright Documents.

It is not the goal of this article to reexamine the whole Headright process in Virginia land history, but rather to concentrate on the role of the County Court Headright Certificate. However, to do this we must review the Headright process to understand the association of the Headright Certificates with other documents.

The procedure for obtaining a Land Patent based on the headright system consisted of four principle steps. The initial step was to obtain a Headright Certificate from either the Secretary of the Governor at the Land Office, or from the County Court, which was issued upon receiving proof that the importation fees for a number of stated persons, or headrights, had been paid by the applicant. This was also considered as a warrant. Second, an official Survey of the property desired, had to be submitted and approved. Third, the Certificate and the Survey were submitted to the Secretary of the Colony; and fourth, the Application had to be approved, signed by the Governor, and recorded in the Patent Books of the Land Office. After the patent was recorded, the other documents presented to the Land Office were destroyed.

These steps evolved over time in Virginia law. When land patents were initiated in 1619, properties were divided among the inhabitants according to their station or length of residence in the colony. Prior to 1634, governmental divisions in Virginia consisted of Plantations, Hundreds, and Parishes which were growing rapidly in number with the continuing influx of immigrants. The Land Office was the sole authority for headright certificates, surveys, and patents. In 1634 the Plantations, Hundreds, and Parishes were grouped into eight Shires, or Counties, and the responsibilities of the Colonial government began to transfer to the County governments. Patents, based on the Headright system, were granted to individuals through the Land Office by the Office of the Governor and Council at Jamestown. The organizing of counties in Virginia did not change the authority and responsibility of the Land Office, but the granting of Headright Certificates became an issue associated with the county courts. Evidence that certificates were issued by county courts, from the establishment of the county system of government in 1634, is found in the County Court Orders for Northampton (Old Accomack) County, wherein thirty seven certificates were issued for transporting persons to the colony, between 1635 and 1640. The only other county for which records exist back to that time period is York County, but their Court Order Books from 1633 to 1645, appear today as a selective transcript, which provides only a few of activities of the court, but does not show any of the land records or Headright Certificates.