Robert Kennedy's  United States History Class


Learning Objective II:

Show how the interrelationship between a successful cash crop, cheap land, and cheap labor led to the plantation system and to the gradual acceptance of slavery.



In order for Virginia's plantation system to develop, three things were necessary : (1) a successful cash crop, (2) free land, and (3) cheap labor.  The successful cash crop was tobacco. Virginia's tobacco at first brought about sixty pence or five shillings a pound, a price that was so profitable that farmers rushed madly to plant it at the expense of grain crops

Tobacco did not become the chief staple simple because of the successful attempts by Rolfe and others to produce a satisfactory smoking leaf. There was a ready market for tobacco all over Europe, and, per pound, it brought more income than wheat or timber.

Another reason was the fact that tobacco was indigenous to the soil and climate of Virginia. However, the tobacco grown by the Native Americans in Virginia was too harsh for European tastes . Rolfe's tobacco was a different species that was produced in Latin America. Plus, tobacco
had a greater advantage over all other staples because it could be produced in larger quantities per acre. This was important, considering the labor required to clear the trees and prepare the land for cultivation.

It was soon discovered that the amount of tobacco produced by one man's labor earned as much as the work of six men in a wheat field. A tobacco planter did not have to clear much land; on the average one man could farm between 1 112 to 2 acres of tobacco, plus provisions . A good yield on tobacco production was 1,000 pounds per acre.  Moreover , tobacco could be shipped more economically than any other crop; thus the profit margin for tobacco was greater than for any other crop that could be produced in the colony.

With the above mentioned economic benefits, it's no wonder that Virginia became a one-crop society producing close to 400 pounds of tobacco for every man, woman, and child in the colony by the late 1600s.  The free land came about under the "headright" system which was first introduced in Virginia in 1618. The headright system was the principal means of acquiring land in Virginia as well as the other Southern colonies during the seventeenth century.

 A headright was originally 50 acres and was developed from the idea that anyone who paid his own way to Virginia should have a share in the Virginia Company; in this instance, a share represented by land. The colonist would also receive 50 acres for every member of his family over 15 and 50 acres for each servant he brought over.

But the system was soon tainted by graft and corruption.  Colonial officials failed to check closely, and even names from tombstones were known to have been presented for head rights.  As a result, many large holdings developed in Virginia. From 1628 to 1632 the headright patents averaged from 100 to 300 acres, but between  1650 to 1670 they averaged 674 acres.  To "seat" a claim and receive title to the property, the holder of the headright had to mark out its boundaries, plant a crop, and construct some sort of habitation.

 Generally the grantor of a headright demanded a small annual payment called a quitrent. A quitrent was not a rent at all, for the person who paid it was not a tenant. It was a tax paid in recognition to the grantor and was a practice that had been used in medieval Europe. In Virginia the quitrent was one shilling for every 50 acres, and provided a way for the grantor of the headright to derive income from his colony. The amount of the
quitrent varied from colony to colony and was greatly resented and hard to collect.

The cheap labor was first introduced with the development of indentured servants. Indentured servants were men and women who performed any sort of labor for the master for a period of four to seven years.  The headright system encouraged landless Europeans to migrate to the colonies. More often than not those wanting to come could not afford passage across the Atlantic.  In order to solve this problem the indentured servant system was developed.

After a servant completed their years of labor in exchange for their transportation to the New World, they became free.

Usually the ex-servant was entitled to an "outfit" (a suit of clothes, some farm tools, seed, and perhaps a gun). At the same time, the former servant received farmland in the usual way--50 acres for himself or herself and 50 acres each for a spouse or a grown child . Custom varied from colony to colony and according to the bargain struck by the two parties when the indenture was signed.

The first blacks (20 in number) came to Virginia in 1619 as indentured servants. They were brought over by a Dutch sea captain.  They were an insignificant element in society at the time but would become very important as a solution to the future labor problems of Virginia within the next 50 years.  The first statutes to deal with slavery were LOCAL and did not appear until the 1660s.

The medieval serfdom that had tied English peasants to the land or a master had long since died out.

English common law acknowledged various degrees of "unfree" status, such as indentured servitude, but it made no provision for lifetime or hereditary bondage. The concept of chattel slavery--that is, the ownership of one human being by another--was alien to English law.   However, it is certain that by about 1640 some blacks were slaves and it appears that the practice grew and finally became legalized locally by the 1660s and colonial wide by 1670.
The reason for gradual acceptance for slavery was due to two factors: economics and class tension.  Beginning in the 1630s the price of tobacco plummeted making in necessary for plantation owners to cut costs.  Those saved costs would be associated with beginning to consider contracting African Slaves.   Also, as indentured servants who completed their labor contracts of 5-7 years, the land they received was usually  suitable for agriculture making it difficult for them to sustain themselves financially.  Details of this predicament will be examined in the next Learning Objective.