What is a Headright?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A headright is a grant of land from the government provided to someone acting as a settler. This concept has its origins in the term “head” as a reference to a whole human being; for every head, or person, who settled, a corresponding right to land is provided under a headright system. Historically, only certain people were allowed to own land, and consequently, people could claim headrights on behalf of members of their families, indentured servants, and slaves. One of the most famous uses of this system occurred in the colonies established in North America in the 1600s.

Historically, people could claim headrights on behalf of slaves.
Historically, people could claim headrights on behalf of slaves.

In a headright system, every person who settles is entitled to a set amount of land. This is designed to encourage settlement and also to resolve labor shortages, as people have an incentive for importing labor. In the colonies, the system was instituted retroactively when the government realized there was a need to address shortages of labor. Every citizen living in the colonies was granted two headrights, and people were also encouraged to move to the colonies with a headright as an incentive to promote immigration, with a single land grant being settled on every immigrant.

Women and children could not claim their own headrights, relying on husbands, fathers, and brothers to do so on their behalf. This encouraged families to immigrate together, as leaving family members at home resulted in fewer headrights. In addition, people with independent sources of wealth could also import labor, receiving a headright for every indenture and slave. Some colonies later barred this practice, limiting headrights only to free citizens.

One interesting consequence of the headright system was disputes over who had the right to claim specific settlers. In the case of indentured servants, for example, the person who bought the indenture might have to compete with a contractor and a ship's captain, and sometimes conflicting claims were filed. Likewise with slaves, where slavers interested in amassing property in the colonies might claim headright for their imports. In some cases, people researching family history have found several headright claims for the same ancestor.

For indentured servants, once the term of service was over, people had the option of pursuing a land grant on the frontier, entering another indenture, or entering regular service as a free household servant. Slaves did not enjoy these privileges; even in the case of free blacks with clearly documented manumission paperwork, property rights were not offered, and free slaves usually entered service in lieu of the option of being able to own and work their own land.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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