Headright Records- Shedding light on these often misunderstood and misused early colonial records.

headright recordsHeadright records are one of the least understood and most abused records in the historical and genealogical studies of Colonial Virginia. Traditionally, headright records are associated with patents or grants issued by the colonial government of Virginia to early settlers of the colony between 1623 and the early to mid 1700′s. The practice was based on an incentive program conducted by the colonial government encouraging people to come to Virginia to clear and settle the land. Each person who immigrated to this colony, paying his own way, or having his way paid by another, was entitled, or given right to fifty acres of land; hence the term head-right.

Each person was issued a certificate consequent to their arrival. Private citizens could use their certificates to obtain land, or trade or sell it for goods and commodities. Indentured servants, whose way was paid by their indentures gave up their individual headrights to their masters; but at the end of their servitude they were entitled to receive property and provisions from those owners. Individuals possessing more than one headright certificate, could apply for land grants totaling acreage equivalent to the number of headright certificates they possessed. Thus a person presenting 25 headright names (or certificates) to the colonial land office, was entitled to 1250 acres of land. Some grantees submitted over 100 headright names, for which they received five thousand acres or more in patents.

Evidence of these “headright patents” was popularized by Nell Marion Nugent’s ground breaking publication, “Cavaliers and Pioneers, abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants 1623-1800, Volume One,” published in 1934. This initial volume covered the time period of 1623 to 1666. Six additional volumes covering 1666 to 1775, were published between 1977 and 2000. Misunderstandings developed regarding the headright lists attached to each land patent, and as a result of repetition over many years, those incorrect ideas have become regarded as accepted facts for many genealogists and historians alike. Some of these misconceptions are:

1. The persons named on a headright list were actually transported by the person applying for the land grant.
2. The people in each given list all traveled to Virginia together.
3. The individual who received the grant may have been the captain of the ship that brought these people to Virginia.
4. The people on each list knew each other.
5. The people on each list were indentured servants.
6. Those who were indentured, served the person claiming their headrights.
7. The persons named in a headright list lived in the county where the land was granted.
8. All headrights were used to obtain land.
9. The date of the headright grant is close to the date of arrival in America, or might be regarded as the earliest record for that person.

All of these are false assumptions. In some circumstances a few of these ideas may be true, but in terms of general rule and application they are entirely wrong. Some people did transport others and claimed their headrights. Some people did travel to Virginia together. Some people listed together actually knew each other. And some of the people listed as headrights were indentured servants, and maybe even belonged to the person holding their headright. But in most instances, none of these concepts are correct, and some are incorrect to the extreme. County headright certificates were issued prior to land patent headright lists and therefore, were earlier headright records. Studies show that up to sixty percent of the headright grants were not redeemed by the persons who held the original certificates; and that eighty percent of land office headright lists differed in some way from original county headright certificates. Individual headright certificates were bought, sold, and traded as currency on the open market from the earliest times in Virginia; and a large percentage of the certificates were never used to obtain land.

An example in colonial records that helps define how headright certificates were used, and misconstrued, is found in the records of Thomas Savage, a headright of William Gany. The following land patent abstract appears in Cavaliers and Pioneers, Vol. 1, pg. 31:

WILLIAM GANY, 1250 acres. Accomack County, 17 Sept. 1635, p. 286 (Patent Book No.1, Part 1). On Northward side of the mouth of Hungar Creek, adjoining land of William Andrewes, West upon the Bay, East with the breadth of the maine Creek, etc. 200 acres for the personal adventure of his wife Ann Gany, his two children: William & Ann; his brother Henry Gany & 1050 acres for transport of 21 servants: Edward Stockden, Roger Fearebrace, Jon. Collins, Tho. Collins, Samll. Wools, Jon. Hedlen, Jon. Pullapin, Robt. Browne, Thomasin Lux, Anthony a Negroe, Jon. Wright, Nicho. Clarke, Jon. Hether, THO. SAVAGE, Eliza. Browne, Wm. Baldwin, Jon. Sparkes, Jon. Evans, Nich. Jordan, Wm. Cole, Tymothy Joane; the name of Wm. Gany is also included. Renewed by Sir John Harvey in the name of Thomas Burbage. Test: Tho. Cooke.

The relationship of Thomas Savage to William Gany is further evidenced by the Virginia Census of 1624/1625, published in Hotten’s, The Original Lists of Persons of Quality…1600-1700. (Note: These lists served as a census of the colony, with each household termed a “muster”, showing the names of the inhabitants, their age at the time of the census, and the ship they arrived on, with the year or date of arrival):

Musters of the Inhabitants in Virginia 1624/5. Elizabeth Cittie:
M= William Gany his Muster:
William Gany aged 33 in the George 1616
Anna Gany aged 24 in the Bona Nova 1620
Anna Gany born in Virginia
Thomasin Eester aged 26 in the Falcon 1617
Elizabeth Pope aged 8 in the Abbigail 1621
John Wright aged 20 in the Ambrose 1623
William Clark aged 20 in the Ambrose 1623
Hather Thompson aged 18 in the Ambrose 1623
THOMAS SAVAGE aged 18 in the Ambrose 1623.

Based on these two documents, it appears that Thomas Savage, age 16, arrived in Virginia on the Ship Ambrose in 1623, as an indentured servant of William Gany, along with other servants. And that Gany claimed the headright of Savage and twenty other servants, along with the head rights of his wife, two children, and a brother, to obtain his grant for 1250 acres of land in Accomack County in 1635. This has been the interpretation of other Savage family researchers, and it appears to have been generally accepted as the origin of Thomas Savage, of Accomack County, Virginia, “Carpenter.” Lundie W. Barlow, promoted this theory in an article entitled “Thomas Savage, Carpenter, of the Virginia Eastern Shore.” The Virginia Genealogist, (Vol. 7, July-September, 1964, p. 99). This version was supported in Savage is My Name – A History of Thirteen Generations of a Savage Family in America, by R. Blair Savage. Both of these accounts present the assumption that Thomas Savage completed his indenture to William Gany, purchased land in Accomack County in 1632, and became a prosperous citizen of Virginia until his death in 1655.

This evaluation of Thomas Savage is incorrect. The volume Minutes of the Council and General court of Colonial Virginia, by H.R. McIlwaine (editor), pp. 122, 131-132, show the following information about Thomas Savage, servant to William Gany:

p. 122: A court at James-Citty the 14th day of October 1626,
Sr. George Yeardley, Knt. Governor & c, Capt. Rogr. Smyth, Mr. Claybourne, & Capt: Tucker.

Steven Dixon sworn & examined sayeth that uppon the 9th day of July last past, being at Mr. English his house, Anthonye Atson (or Asson) & Mrs Gainye came running upp from the waterside into the house, & the said Anthonye prayed this deponent to goe downe suddenly to the waterside, for that Mr. Gainyes boy named Thomas Savadge was stucke in the mudd & was like to be drowned, soe when this deponent came downe hee could not see any part of the boy above water : then presently Mrs. Gainey said to this deponent that the said Anthony did not borrow the said boy of her, neither did shee lend him unto him, “what answer can he make unto my husband@,& this deponent sayed, AI know not.” Then the next day about ten of clock in the morning this deponent it being lowe water went thither & found the boy uppon the mudd, where the water had ebbed away from the body about fowre strides, then this deponent went & told Mrs. Gainy, who intreated this deponent to goe to Mr. English his house & take one of his men to helpe to make a grave & soe to bury him, which this deponent did performe. And further this deponent sayth that when he tooke upp the bodye it laye uppon the mudd lyeing on one side & his leggs a little crooked; Moreover this deponent saith that were (where) he found the body hee thinketh that the water is about as deepe as his middle, but hee thinketh by Mrs. Gainyes her words unto him, that the body was removed about ten foote from the place were (where) the boy was drowned: And further this deponent sayth that he could not perceive that the said Anthony Atson (Asson) had waded or gone into the water to save the boy.

p. 131-132: 10th day of January 1626 (1626/7)
A Court at James Citty 10th day of January 1626, being present
Sr. George Yeardley Knt. Governor & c, Capt. Smyth, Capt. Mathewes, Mr. Persey, Mr. Claybourne, Capt. Tucker, Mr. Ferrar, …

It is the opinion of the major part of the Table (court) that Anthony Atson (Asson) shall pay for his offence committed in sending a boy named Tho: Savadge over a Creeke at Kecoughtan uppon Mr. Gainyes land to fetch his Canoe on the other side, whereby the said boy was drowned, viz, one hundred waight of Tobacco to Mr. Wm. Gainy who had hyred the boy for that yeare, & two hundred waight more to Mr. Humphry Rastall whose servant he was, for that it appeareth by oath that he the said Anthony might without doubt have saved the boy by wading a little into the water, & for that he did not aske leave of any one to have the said boy to fetch his Canoe.

This Thomas Savage clearly wasn’t Thomas Savage, “the Carpenter”. It is evident from these accounts that Thomas Savage, “Mr. Gainyes boy”, was the servant of William Gany. He was described in the 1624/5 census as “Thomas Savage aged 18 on the Ambrose.” He was termed a “boy” by Steven Dixon, who was listed as age 25 in the same 1624/5 census. A year and a half later, at the time his death 9 July 1626, Thomas Savage would have been 19 or 20 years old. The record of 9 Jan 1626/7 also noted that Thomas Savage had been hired by William Gany “for that year”, and that he actually belonged to, or was the servant of, Mr. Humphrey Rastall.

Who was Humphrey Rastall? It appears that Humphrey Rastall was not residing in Virginia, because he didn’t appear in the lists of inhabitants in Virginia in either the List of Living and Dead in 1623/4, or the Musters of 1624/5, but he was the person from whom William Gany hired Thomas Savage in 1625 and 1626, and he was living in at the time of the court settlement in 1627.

Upon closer examination of the minutes of the General Court we gain a better understanding of who William Gany and Humphrey Rastall were, and their relationship was. Between 10 Oct 1624 and 8 Feb 1624/5, a dispute was heard in General Court at Jamestown, regarding the voyage of the ship Unity, under lease by Mr. Humphrey Rastall, merchant of London, who was associated with the Virginia Company. Rastall was shipping a load of indentured servants, and other goods to Virginia, with the assistance of Capt. John Martin. Once the ship was away from England, a leak developed in the ship, and they changed course for Canada and New England, before eventually returning to Virginia. Dissensions arose on the ship because of limited and poor food rations, and Rastall apparently plotted with Captain Martin, according to testimony, to “make and end of” or “make away with” some of the passenger, while in Canada, including William Gany and a man named Dictoris Christmas. The matter was settled, and Gany and Rastall continued to do business.

This lawsuit does not apply to the issue of this article, but it does reveal details relating to how servants and other headrights were introduced into Colonial Virginia. Humphry Rastall, a London based merchant, received requests for servants from clients in Virginia; contracted or indentured servants in England, and then supplied them to his customers in the Colony. Humphrey Rastall may have been in partnership with Thomas Rastall (no known relationship), also a London merchant who was dealing with indentured servants in the same area of Virginia during that time period. William Gany worked with Humphrey Rastall, by receiving and managing Mr. Rastall’s servants, as shown in the following court statements:

A Court held the 3rd of January 1625/6

…Wm. English gent sworne and examined sayeth that Mr. Rastell before his departure, left order with this deponent and Capt. Tucker for to allow of such Charges as Mr. Geny should approve to have laude owt for apparell for Mr. Rastells servants which then were remayninge with Mr. Geny, and that they in theire discresione should finde Mr. Genys accompts to be reasonable.

Capt. Tucker doth acknowledge, that there are Certen accompts dew from Mr. Rastell to Mr. Geney, But Mr. Rastell told Capt. Tucker that he would nott allow of those accompts which Mr. Geny chalenged from him.

…Whereas Mr. William Geny is by bond to pay Mr. Rastell five hundred waight of Tobacco & eight barrells of Corne of which there is to be abated for a man that died in Awgust fifty waight of Tobacco and a barrell of eares, And whereas Mr. Geny bringeth in an Accompt, to default of the saide dept, Capt. Tucker doth allow for the said Accompt 150 waight of Tobacco, provided that yf hereafter Mr. Rastell shall show Sufficyent cause to this Courte, why the said 150 waight of Tobacco shuld not be allowed to Mr. Geny, That then Mr. Geny Shalbe lyable to give him satisfaction.

Humphrey Rastall died prior to October, 1628, and his estate was administered by Thomas Rastall, merchant of London . Regarding the servants in Virginia, who belonged to Humphrey Rastall at the time of his death, the following proceeding was recorded in the General Court at Elizabeth City:
A Cort. at Eliz: Citty the 9th February 1628/29.

…At this Cort. the Governor signified to the table that whereas hee had taken into his hands the servants of Mr. Rastell deceased and is to make satisfaccion for them as farr as it shall be judged they are worth, and being now to take his voyage for England, hee Conditioneth and agreeth with the Cort. on the behalfe of Mr. Thomas Rastell of London Marchant, That if hee the said Thomas Rastell doe not consent and agree to the sale of the men to have them put of, that then they shall be surrendred againe the next yeare after the Cropp, and satisfaction made for their labors this yeare.

We can see from this information that Humphrey Rastall indentured servants, and then hired them out to other people, but kept and maintained their indenture contracts. In return for supplying servants, he received Tobacco, and perhaps other commodities that were of greater value in England. This way Rastall received a return on his investment of indenturing servants.

These sources tell us a good deal about Thomas Savage and his headright status. He was apparently indentured, or employed to Humphrey Rastall in England, about 1623, when he was about sixteen years old. Indenture agreements required the intended servant to work for, or on behalf of the Master, for a set period of time, usually four to seven years, during which he was promised food, lodging, clothing, and tools. At the end of his tenure, the individual was to be released from servitude and provided with property and tools with which to start his own life. It was a form of slavery in a prison with walls consisting of two thousand miles of ocean; in a land of wilderness and disease where less than one in four individuals were expected to survive. But in the England of 1623, the poor laboring classes of people had virtually no hope of a life other than poverty, illness, and death. The chance to become a land owner and be your own master, with an estate that could be passed on to future generations, was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Thomas Savage was one of four servants who were transported to Virginia on the Ship “Ambrose” in the year 1623. The others were John Wright, Hather Tomson, and William Clarke. They were not in the “List of the Living and Dead in Virginia” taken 16 Feb. 1623/4, and may have arrived in late Winter after this census was taken. They were listed in the Gany muster a year later in February 1624/5.

The fact that William Gany was not the owner of Savage’s indenture, but possessed the headright certificate in 1635, suggests that the certificate may have been transferred to him from Rastall as part of a business arrangement for Gany to manage the indentured servant. Gany would “hire” the servant on a yearly basis until the period of servitude was completed. He could use the certificate himself, to obtain fifty acres of land, clear and build on it, and then provide property to the servant; or he could turn the certificate over to the servant to use as he wished. But, when Thomas Savage died in 1626 and Humphry Rastall died in 1628, William Gany was left in possession of the certificate, and used the headright for his own land grant years later.

Gany’s headright list of twenty one servants in 1635, named only one other servant that was in his household at the time of Thomas Savage’s service in 1625, namely, John Wright. The simple fact that Thomas Savage and John Wright were listed as servants on the grant, but did not appear with these other servants on any other list, indicates that the headrights on this list were gathered at different times. We do not know what John Wright’s story was, but it is possible that he was the servant who died in August, 1625.

We now know that William Gany did not originally own the headright certificate for Thomas Savage. He wasn’t the person who indentured Savage, and he didn’t bring him to Virginia. To know more about the origins of this Thomas Savage, we need to locate where Humphrey Rastall, or his agents were in 1623 or earlier. Humphrey Rastall appears to be the key to this research problem, and may be the primary source for the origins of other indentured servants in pre-1628 Virginia.

By James W. Petty, AG, CG

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