Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Chesapeake Headright System Increases Numbers of Indentured Servants

Both Virginia and Maryland employed the “headright” system to encourage the importation of the servant workers, that they so desperately needed. Under its terms, whoever paid the passage of a laborer received the right to acquire fifty acres of land, thus reaping the benefits of landownership from the headright system. Some elites soon parlayed their investments and servants into huge fortunes in real estate, and became land-rich merchant planters. Some amassed of vast riverfront plantations that came to dominate the agriculture and commerce of the southern colonies. 

The idea of indentured servitude was born of a need for cheap labor. With passage to the Colonies expensive for all but the wealthy, the Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to attract workers. Indentured servants became vital to the Chesapeake economy.  The timing was ideal. The Thirty Year's War had left Europe's economy depressed, and many skilled and unskilled laborers were without work. A new life in the New World offered a glimmer of hope. Hungry for both labor and land and community power, Chesapeake planters brought some 100,000 indentured servants to the region by 1700. These workers, “white slaves,” represented more than 75% of all European immigrants to Virginia and Maryland in the seventeenth century.

Servants typically worked 4 to 7 years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it wasn't slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights. But their lives were not easy, and the punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant's contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant.

Franz Feyerabend (1755-1800) Female Wearing a Neck Stock

Misbehaving servants might be punished with an extended term of service even after formal freedom was granted. Penniless recently freed workers often had little choice but to hire themselves to their masters or to neighboring landowners in need of hands. Because women were scarce in the Chesapeake, some of the women might become the wives of planters, especially widowers with a family of young children.

Indentured servants led a hard but hopeful life in the early days of the Chesapeake settlements. They looked forward to becoming free and acquiring land of their own after completing their term of servitude. But as prime land became scarcer, grand landowners became increasingly resistant to including small land grants in “freedom dues” doled out to each indentured servant, when the contract was completed.