American Slavery, American Freedom – The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia
Edmund S. Morgan
Tobacco became the cash crop for Virginia, yielding profits to planters large and small. These planters, referred to as “big men” by Morgan, invested all they had in tobacco production. In order to maintain this production planters needed laborers, which they found in indentured servants. These servants mostly young men who could not afford to come to Virginia on their own, so a plantation owner would pay their travels to Virginia in return of work by the servant for a number of years agreed to by the plantation owner. The problem was the fact that the master would worked them to death, and often applied extensions of service for rules infractions, making it difficult for these men to go out and plant tobacco on their own. Morgan wrote, “One approach to the problem of increasing freedmen was to impose as long a servitude as possible before allowing men to become free. During the extra years of service they would create profits rather than competition for their masters, who would also be able to keep them out of mischief” (157). The plantation owners did not want the competition for land or tobacco sales from the servants when they became freemen.
As a matter of fact, the life expectancy of a servant was short therefore, many of them did not live to finish their servitude. According to Morgan, “Headrights were valid whether the person in whose name they were claimed was alive or dead. The years of heavy mortality, when land was scarcely worth patenting, had left Virginians with a large reservoir of unused headrights. In the 1650s they could be bought for 40 or 50 pounds of tobacco apiece, each headright entitling the owner to fifty acres land” (159). More than 100,000 acres of land were purchased in this manner. This reduced the amount of land available for freedmen to forcing many of them to find land in counties near displaced Indians. Premature death combined with a skewed sex ratio disrupted family formation and traditional lines of inheritance. In a colony with a perennial shortage of white women, wealthy widows played an important role in early class formation, creating what Morgan described as a ‘widowarchy’, by transmitting wealth from the hands of one planter-husband after another” (166). A Freemen’s chances of marrying was rather slim. This is reminiscent of the French colonies in the north who kidnaped women from the English settlers due to a lack of French women who travelled to the New World. Adding to the discontent of the freemen was the corruption of the colony's elite men, who squeezed profits from their government offices.
In 1676, the discontent came to head with Bacon’s Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy kinsman of then-governor William Berkeley, was able to take the hate that the freemen had for the colony’s government and governor and turn the anger against the Indians. This war was fought...