Archive for February, 2010

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.

17th Century Virginia County Court Headright Certificates – Part 2


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.

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