The Yeoman Planters of Colonial Virginia as recorded on
the 1704 Quit Rent Rolls
[ For listing of 1704 Quit Rent Roll listing click here]
The Planters of Colonial Virginia, By Thomas J Wertenbaker
The immigration to Virginia of free families of humble means began in the early years of the colony's existence, and continued throughout the 17th century. The lowness of wages and the unfavorable economic conditions that existed in England induced many poor men to seek their fortunes in the New World. The law which allotted to every settler fifty acres of land for each member of his family insured all that could pay for their transportation a plantation far larger than they could hope to secure at home.
[For those who could not pay their passage, many came to America as indentured servants. Entering into a contract to work for a specified period of time (often) after which his freedom would be granted]
It must be again emphasized that the indentured servants were not slaves, and that at the expiration of their terms there was no barrier, legal, racial, or social to their advancement.
The terms of indenture not only took for granted that the servant, upon completing his contract would establish himself as a proprietor, but usually made it obligatory for the master to furnish him with the equipment necessary for his new life.
[The servants upon completing their contact, were often given fifty acre plots and finally became owners of land ]
It will be remembered that in the Crown Colonies there was a perpetual obligation imposed upon all land when first granted known as the quit-rent. In Virginia this duty amounted to one shilling for every fifty acres, payable in tobacco at the rate of a penny per pound.
Nicholson persisted and in 1704 succeeded in obtaining the first really accurate rent roll of the colony. These lists have long been missing, and perhaps were destroyed in one of the several fires which have wrought so much havoc with the records of colonial Virginia, but a true copy was made by the clerk, William Robertson, and sent to the Board of Trade. Fortunately the British Government has been more careful of its priceless historical manuscripts than has Virginia, and this copy today reposes in the Public Record Office in London, a veritable treasure trove of information concerning economic and social conditions in the colony.
Even a cursory examination of the rent roll is sufficient to dispel the old belief that Virginia at this time was the land of the large proprietor. As one glances down the list of plantations he is struck by the number of little holdings, the complete absence of huge estates, the comparative scarcity even of those that for a newly settled country might be termed extensive. Here and there, especially in the frontier countries is listed a tract of four or five or even ten thousand acres, but such cases are rare.
On the other hand the rolls reveal the existence of thousands of little proprietors, whose holding of from 50 to 500 acres embraced the larger part of the cultivated soil of the colony.
But it still remains to prove that their owners were men of meager fortunes, men who tilled the soil with their own hands. After all a farm of two or three hundred acres might give scope for large activities, the employment of many servants and slaves, the acquisition of some degree of wealth. Might it not be possible that through the acres of the planter were limited, his estate after all corresponded somewhat with the popular conception?
This leads us to a study of the distribution of servants and slaves among the planters. At the outset we are faced with convincing evidence that to the end of the Seventeenth century the average number for each farm was very small. This is shown by a comparison of the number of plantations listed in the rent roll of 1704 with the estimated number of workers. In the counties for which the sheriffs made returns for Governor Nicholson there were some 5,500 landholders. When to these is added the proprietors of the Northern Neck the number must have approximated 6,500. If at this time the servants numbered 4,000, as seems probable, and the slaves 6,000, together they would have averaged but 1.5 workers for each plantation. A decade earlier, when the use of slaves was still comparatively infrequent, the figure must have been still lower.
Thus vanishes the fabled picture of the Seventeenth century Virginia. In its place we see a colony filled with little farms a few hundred acres in extant, owned and worked by a sturdy class of English farmers. Prior to the slave invasion which marked the close of the seventeenth century and the opening of the Eighteenth, the most important factor in the life of the Old Dominion was the white yeomanry."
The cheapness of the land made it easy for these men to secure little farms, and if they were sober and industrious they had an opportunity to rise. They might acquire in time large estates; they might even become leaders in the colony, but the task was a hard one, and those that were successful were worthy of the social position they obtained.
[ For listing of 1704 Quit Rent Roll listing click here]
DJY: [Charles Yancey is the only member of the Yancey family found on the 1704 Quit Rent Rolls and is listed in King William County and recorded as owning 100 acres. Although there are various family traditions that the Yanceys came over in 1642 with Sir William Berkeley, there is no evidence to support this. Had the Yanceys been any sort of close associate with Lord Berkeley they surely would have been better off economically by the end of the 17th century - and surely their names would have appeared on the extant colonial records of the 1600's - but such is not the case. The 1704 Quit Rent Roll contains the FIRST documented Yancey in America - Charles Yancey - with a humble 100 acres - there is NO indication that the Yanceys were part of the ruling Aristocracy of the colony. They appear to have been part of the Virginia yeomanry - probably arriving in America towards the end of the seventeenth century, and with time, labor, a modest amount of land, and with the acquisition of slave labor were able progress up the social/economic ladder.]