IGHR (Samford) — Day 1

It’s a truism of genealogy that the laws determine what records might be available. One also hears an echo of Hal Holbrook in All the President’s Men: “Follow the money!” And, as Carl von Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means.

Put these together, and you see that aside from vital records, most records are generated by laws, money, and militaries. In my week at Samford, I am studying the effect of land and wars on the records of Virginia. (Last year, we covered the impact of law more generally.)

When one looks at Virginia history, it is striking how haphazard the legal structure of the early colony was. According to the 1911 edition of the Encylopedia Britannica:

“it was [Sir Thomas Dale] who, about 1614, took the first step toward abolishing the communal system by the introduction of private holdings.”

“Sir Thomas Dale, Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., 1911. Online database: http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Sir_Thomas_Dale : Accessed 14 Jun 2010

Dale created the legal concept of the “ancient planter,” or plantation owners who were in place prior to his arrival, who would receive more land than recent arrivals:

“Perhaps Dale’s most lasting reform was economic. In 1613, without stockholder consent, Dale abandoned the communal agriculture which had proved unsatisfactory and assigned 3-acre (12,000 m2) plots to its ‘ancient planters’ and smaller plots to the settlement’s later arrivals. Measurable economic progress was made, and the settlers began expanding their planting to land belonging to local native tribes. Not only did food production increase markedly, but the following year John Rolfe succeeded on his plot in raising the first hybrid tobacco: the key to the colony’s future.”

“Thomas Dale,” Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Dale : Accessed 14 Jun 2010

So, primacy had its rewards, as did the creation of a European market for an enticing New World product.

In 1619, the Virginia Company increased the allotment for “ancient planters” to 100 acres, and that for those arriving later to 50 acres. By 1697, these headrights had become a form of currency in the colony. There were numerous cases where persons seemed to have claimed headrights for immigrants more than once, and the desired effect of enticing immigration was probably diluted.

The records that all this activity leads to are patent, or original land grants. These documents can place our ancestors in time and location, though somewhat vaguely. Since the headrights were traded as a kind of currency, the use of a headright to acquire land in a particular county does not indicate that the person named in the headright lived in that county, or even had ever been there. It only served as proof that the person had come to Virginia prior to that time.

Without knowing the context of the headright, it would be easy to over interpret the meaning of the appearance of an ancestor in a headright claim for a patent. One might think that the ancestor was brought over the ocean by the auspices of the receiver of the patent, or that the ancestor lived in the county of the patent at the time it was granted. These are possibilities, but by no means settled matters.

I agree: It’s complicated! And we haven’t even gotten to the subject of English common law inheritance…. That’s tomorrow’s first lesson, at 8:15 a.m.

Leave a Comment