The Headright System: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

The headright system was an important component in the settlement of the American colonies. Headright system APUSH questions will focus on the purpose and effects of this land incentive program.

What is the headright system?

The headright system was a land grant program designed to attract settlers. Tracts of land called “headrights” were offered to settlers who would come and work the land. A typical headright was 50 acres. This system was used throughout the colonies, but was most popular in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

The first headright system was used in Virginia. The new settlement at Jamestown was desperate for more tobacco farmers. In 1618, the Virginia Company offered free land to settlers. Most of the settlers to arrive were indentured servants—individuals who were required to labor for another for a period of time, typically 5-7 years, in order to repay a debt.

In most cases, a wealthy individual would secure a headright and pay the passage for an indentured servant to travel to the colony and work the land on his behalf. That way, the Englishman would acquire wealth and lands in the New World without actually having to make a risky journey across the ocean, or perform any labor himself. These sponsors sent many indentured servants, thus acquiring many tracts of land. Many of the early settlers in the colonies were indentured servants.

Important year to note for the headright system:

1618: The Virginia Company began to offer headrights to settlers.

Why is the headright system so important?

The headright system allowed for poorer people to come to the New World who otherwise would not have been able to afford it. The system was incredibly important to the growth of the colonies, especially in the South. Tobacco farming, especially, required large tracts of land and many workers. The headright system allowed this to develop relatively quickly.

What is a historical group related to the headright system?

Virginia Company: Joint stock company that founded the Virginia Colony, and first implemented the headright system

What is an example headright system APUSH question?

Headright System APUSH-Magoosh
Tobacco cultivation at Jamestown circa 1615 (Source)

The growth of the tobacco industry in colonial Virginia was most directly impacted by
A) the use of Native Americans as laborers on large tobacco farms.
B) the direct sale of colonial tobacco to new markets throughout Europe.
C) indentured servants brought to the colony under the headright system.
D) the decline of cotton as a cash crop, which allowed tobacco to rise to prominence.


The correct answer to this example headright system APUSH question is (C). Tobacco farming requires large tracts of land and many workers. In order to attract additional settlers, the Virginia Company started the headright system, which offered land grants. Many of these settlers ended up being indentured servants who worked the land for wealthy sponsors in exchange for their passage across the Atlantic.

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  • Sarah Bradstreet

    Sarah is an educator and writer with a Master’s degree in education from Syracuse University who has helped students succeed on standardized tests since 2008. She loves reading, theater, and chasing around her two kids.

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