17th Century Virginia County Court Headright Certificates – Part 3
Part 3 of 5 part series
by James W. Petty
We can only speculate why County Courts began issuing Headright Certificates, but most likely it would have been to serve as a method of notarizing the names of headrights owned by individuals, especially if the owners lived away from the Land Office in Jamestown. Settlers in outlying parts of York County, or in Northampton County, or across the James River in Isle of Wight, or Norfolk Counties may have been concerned about maintaining their title to the headrights that they held, knowing that they couldn’t easily travel to Jamestown to start the patent process. On the other hand, Headright Certificates used as a form of currency, may have been seen as a necessity, and local governments may have allowed headright owners to obtain these as certificates of value, issued by a governmental entity, without have to travel to Jamestown to do so.
In June 1642, the Colonial Assembly enacted a law concerning the headright system:
A…that if any person or persons whatsoever claiming land as due by importation of servants they or each of them shall prove their title and just right either before the Governor and Counsell, or produce certificate from the countie courts to the Secretary’s office before any grant be admitted, And that no patents be made without exact survey produced in the Secretary’s office as aforesaid …
In March, 1658/9, a law was passed concerning the abuse of surveys in the patent
process: AWhereas many contentious suites do arise about titles to land, occasioned much th(r)ough the fraudulent and underhand dealing of surveighors who frequently make sale of the surveighs by them made, in the behalfe of one person or another, whereby often times he that had the first and justest right is unjustly deprived of his due…
This legislation provided instructions how to make a legal survey that would be acceptable to the Land Office. Of importance here, was the requirement that any survey made by any surveyor could not be issued for a period of six months after the survey was drawn. This tells us that no headright patent was granted sooner than seven months to a year, or longer, after an immigrant’s arrival. This also means that the lists of headrights on the county certificates were always recorded much earlier than the patent record lists.
In the March 1661/2 Assembly the law was amended, stating that surveys were being used as though they were a record of title, and blocking the efforts of certificate holders from selecting property sites for the patent:
ABEE it hereby enacted that any person or persons clayming land as due by importation of servants shall first prove their title or just right before the Governor and Councell, or produce certificate from the county court to the secretarys office before any survey be made or grant admitted it being unreasonable that others furnisht with rights, should be debarred, by pretence of survey which in itselfe is not title.
This new law required the survey to be taken after the Headright Certificate was submitted to the Land Office, and thereby reinforced the importance and authority of the Headright Certificate as a legal warrant, and as the initial document in the headright process.
Headright Certificates as Currency
The concept of using certificates for currency or cash is natural. An early law in 1619 stated the need for Virginia to replace cash with commodities:
A…the impossibility of paying them [rents] in England, according to the letter of the charter to exact money that is (whereof we have none at all as we have no mint) but the value of the rent in commodity.
Having Ano mint, commodities that served as currency included Tobacco, Corn, Furs, and Land. Value was placed on Tobacco, according to its grade and weight. AIn the matter of Tobacco the value is three shillings (per pound) for the best, and 18 pence for that of second quality. (Nugent, Vol. 1, p. xxii). Land patentees were granted, according to the number of headrights that they redeemed, 50 acres of land per headright. A headright at the beginning of the land patent system in 1619, was equal to 1 share in the London Company, which was equivalent to 12 Pounds, 10 Shillings.
Edmund S. Morgan, in his article Headrights and Headcounts (The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 80, number 3), cites two references pertaining to the practical value of headrights. In Norfolk, he identified Atwo rights valued in an estate at 80 pounds of tobacco (Norfolk Wills and Deeds, Book C (1651-1656); and in Westmoreland in 1655, A200 pounds owed to Howell Pryse for four rights. (Westmoreland Deeds, Wills, Patents, etc. 1653-1659, p. 51). This valuation suggests that a headright of fifty acres at that time was worth between 40 and 50 pounds of tobacco, or about 7 Pounds 10 Shillings (English) in cash. This represents nearly a 50% drop in value from 1619, and demonstrates that such certificates were being used as commodities of value.. By 1699, a headright of land was officially valued at 5 Shillings, indicating that either the value of land had plummeted, or that inflation may have resulted from a flood of unused Headright Certificates.
It is evident here that a value could be established for these certificates. They could be used to purchase, trade, barter, or transfer, in whatever way a person wanted to use it. Numerous times in the records of the Land Office, we find that headrights being redeemed by an owner, had been Aassigned by a previous owner. Assignments were such a common and accepted practice that most assignments or transfers were accepted by the Land Office without identifying them as such.
The idea that Headright certificates were commonly regarded as currency is indicated by the number of certificates issued by the county courts, which either never made it into the records of the Land Office; or made it, but not with the same names or content in which they were issued. This can be illustrated with three examples from county court orders (chosen at random), issued at different time periods and places.
In Accomack County Court Orders, from 1635 to 1640, thirty-seven certificates were issued. Of these, sixteen certificates, representing 78 headrights, were never recorded in the Land Office in Jamestown. Of the remaining 21 certificates, which were recorded at the Land Office, nine pertained to the persons to whom the certificates were assigned. And only five of these had the same content as the original certificate, meaning that they gave the same number of headrights, and the same names listed on the certificate.
York County Court Orders for the period of 1645 to 1657 issued 20 headright certificates. None of these certificates appear in the records of the Land Office with the same content as issued in the county court. Twelve certificates, representing 91 headrights, do not appear in Nugent at all. The remaining eight appear in Nugent, but with different content. Of the eight certificates that appear in Nugent’s record, only three were redeemed for land by the original certificate holders. This means that the other five certificates were acquired from previous owners and then redeemed for land.
Westmoreland County from 1662 to 1664 revealed 30 headright certificates. Of these, Nineteen certificates, representing 224 headrights did not appear in Nugent. Of the remaining eleven, none had the same content as the certificates, and only six pertained to the persons for whom the original certificates were issued.
From these examples we see that out of 87 headright certificates, only nine appear in Nugent with the same content given in the original certificates. Only 18 of the 87 certificates (20 %) were redeemed for land by the initial certificate holder, And of the 87 certificates issued by the county courts, 47 of them, or about 54%, representing 393 headrights, were never recorded in the Land Office records! Studies by the author in the surviving Court Order Books of other Virginia counties suggest that these statistics may be consistent throughout Virginia in the 17th Century. If this is so, and if all of the Court Order Books for the various counties in Virginia had survived, these records would possibly have shown upwards of eighty to ninety thousand additional names of headrights, beyond the 82,000 names represented in Nugent!
These examples also suggest that the large number of headrights not used for obtaining land grew as the years progressed, further supporting the proposition that certificates were recognized as accepted currency in the colony. These numbers also show that the various counties were active in issuing headright certificates over a long period of time, and that, not only was it acceptable to use these certificates as currency, but the Land Office was willing to accept whatever headrights an applicant submitted, without requiring proof of assignation from the previous owners.