John Witt, Headright in Three Patents

When and how John Witt arrived in Virginia is impossible to determine with precision, but we have several clues which permit us plausibly conclude that he arrived about 1672 as an unindentured free man.

The same John Witt was claimed as a headright in three Virginia land patents:

  • 20 October 1682 to Wm. Randolph & Robert Bolling for 623 acres in Charles City County.  (Virginia Patent Book 7, page 199)
  • 20 October 1689 to Thomas Cocke Senr. for 1816 acres in Henrico County.  (Virginia Patent Book 8, page 1)1
  • 25 October 1695 to Capt. William Randolph for 2,926 acres in Charles City County (Virginia Patent Book 9, page 2)2

How do we know it was the same person? Because, in each patent, the same three headright names appear in the same sequence: “Jane Borar, Jno. Witt, Robt. Beasley”. In two of these three patents, the names of headrights “Job, Thomas Lyborne, Peter Prout” immediately follow the above three names. This second set of names is claimed yet again in two additional patents.3

There is also another set of six headrights which appear in three separate patents: in the Randolph & Bolling patent above, in Cocke’s second patent above, and in a patent by William and Thomas Puckett.4   Finally, there is still another set of ten names claimed both by Randolph in 1685 and by Cocke in 1689. Each set of names represented a different importation event, although names appearing together within a set were not necessarily imported together.

Explaining the multiple uses of these lists of imported persons requires a brief digression.

The Headright Process

The first step in obtaining a headright patent was to obtain a certificate of importation from either the local county court or the Secretary’s office.  One merely swore or otherwise proved that one had paid transportation for one or more immigrants.   The court then delivered a certificate bearing the names of the imported persons.    Each set of names referred to above therefore appears to represent a unique certificate of importation.

The certificates were exchanged for patents, with one name required for each 50 acres.  The patent clerks copied the names from the certificates into the patent record itself, explaining why the names appear in the same sequence and with the same spelling in each patent. These certificates were, more often than not, sold or traded like any other valuable, so that we can draw no conclusion as to which of the patentees was the actual importer.5  It seems obvious that each of the above patents used multiple certificates (except for Cocke in 1688, who claimed only the three mentioned) and that John Witt, Jane Borar, and Robert Beasley were names on a single certificate which was used three times.  Abuse of the system in this way — claiming the same headrights more than once — was not at all unusual.  [See the separate paper on headrights for more detail.]

Knowing that these three may have arrived together — or at least were claimed by someone as a group of three immigrants — doesn’t help us much, as there is no further record of Jane Borar, and no record for a Robert Beasley until several years later.

One of the most striking aspects of these patents is that the patentees were quite young (except Cocke), wealthy, and all lived within a few miles of one another.   All were in the same tithable district in Henrico County’s 1679 tax list except Bolling, who was just across the line in Charles City County.  William Randolph, who used John Witt’s headright first, might seem to be the most likely candidate to have imported him.   But Randolph had not arrived in Virginia until 1672, the same year he turned 21.

Estimating John Witt’s Arrival in Virginia

All of these patentees amassed large quantities of land, thus were quite unlikely to have stockpiled unused (or illegally duplicated)  headright certificates.   It seems most likely they would have used their certificates relatively quickly after obtaining them.   All had patented land before the patents mentioned above, and it may be significant that none of them used the John Witt certificate for any earlier patents.  Cocke had used 40 headrights in a 1675 patent and Randolph had used 12 in a 1674 patent.  We might infer that the certificate containing John Witt’s name was not available for those earlier patents.   Importation certificates, in theory, could not be obtained until the imported persons had lived in the colony for three years, suggesting that John Witt’s importation took place after 1671.  Indeed, if William Randolph were the importer and brought in John Witt when Randolph himself arrived in 1672, the certificate could not have been claimed until 1675, a year after Randolph’s first patent.  (By the same token, the 12 headrights claimed by Randolph in 1674 could not have been imported by him, showing that he had purchased the certificate for that patent. In fact, Randolph did not use his own headright. A neighbor named Thomas Wells used it in 1676.)  The bottom line is that, whoever imported him, it is highly probable that John Witt was imported within a year or so of 1672.

If this is the case, John Witt could not have been imported as a servant, since he was married and petitioning the court by October 1673.  Servants were rarely permitted to marry, and certainly not to marry free women.  Further, the right to bring suit was reserved for free citizens.  I should note that headrights were not limited to persons imported from England or Europe, but required merely that persons enter the colony from outside Virginia. Like the great majority of colonists of the period, John Witt probably came directly from England, but it is possible that he was imported from Maryland, Bermuda, or some other colony.6 The probability, though, is that, like nearly 90% of the residents of Virginia in the 1670s, he came from southwestern England or the London area.

English Citizenship

It is worth noting that John Witt was clearly an English citizen. Only citizens were allowed to own land or file suit, both of which he did.  Prior to 1680, non-English settlers required an act of the House of Burgesses to bestow citizenship.  These acts are well preserved, and no name remotely like “Witt” appears in them. Unless he was made a citizen in England itself, he must have been born in England or one of its colonies.

Finally, there is some evidence that he was of the middle class. We cannot underestimate the degree of class stratification in English and Virginia society in the mid-17th century. Robert Plaine, Walter Daux, and John Flower all appear to have been solidly middle-class. It seems likely that the Daux sisters would have married within their class, particularly since women were scarce enough to essentially have their choice of mates.

  1. This patent is undated, but is filed between two patents which are both dated 20 October 1689. []
  2. This patent was surrendered, then renewed 15 October 1696 (Virginia Patent Book 9, p71) and modified on 6 June 1699 (Virginia Patent Book 9, p220). []
  3. 20 October 1688 to Thomas Cocke Senr. for 1,650a Charles City County, and 20 April 1685 to (Phil)lemon Childers for 4,506 acres in Henrico County. []
  4. Virginia Patent Book 7, p200. []
  5. It’s possible that John Witt himself was the importer.  It was not uncommon for people to sell their own certificates to raise money for their settlement. []
  6. I suppose it is possible, though quite unlikely, that John Witt was imported as a servant from some other colony with just a few months remaining on his contract. []