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A Journey to the Eastern Shore

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During the 1600's, many people felt a great urge to leave England. Much of the populace wanted to go to the New World. The motivations were many. Some people felt compelled by their need to practice their religion in freedom from those who were opposed to it. Others were adverse to the political system and its taxes and other uncertainties. Still other adventurers dreamed of unlimited land and riches beyond their imagination. Some were criminals who were ordered to the New World or face long jail times or even execution.

The law of primogeniture said that only eldest sons could inherit property. The unfortunate second and third sons were left out . So they emigrated. Still others just wanted to become landowners and to make a decent living for themselves and their families. Whatever the reason people left England by the thousands.

There was still one other way of getting to Virginia. The streets of London was home to many children. They were homeless waifs who were constantly dodging the authorities who threatened them with work houses. The children preferred the streets by begging, scrounging and stealing for sustenance rather than life in the work houses. Periodically they were rounded up and put into the Bridewell Hospital. This was really a house of correction used to hold the children (male and female) until they could be shipped off to the New World.

The authorities in England had chartered the Virginia Company (named after Elizabeth the Virgin Queen). The idea was to make landowners and thus taxpayers of the immigrants. They were allowed to patent fifty acres of land for each person whose passage was paid to Virginia. It made no difference whose passage was paid for or who paid it. It could be for himself, his family, his friends or relatives, his slaves or his contracted servants. The latter were most prevalent. They were people who contracted themselves out for some period (usually three to seven years) in exchange for their passage. They were obligated to serve their master for wages for that time thus allowing him to acquire more riches and to import still more headrights.

Upon completion of their contract or indenture they were free to join the ranks of the landowners by importing their own servants. And many did. They had saved their wages and maybe had inherited money or earned more on the side. Immigration continued for many years. There were many adventurous young single women among the headrights who later became wives of the masters or the other immigrants.

And then others came as part of a family group. A man could pay for his own passage, and that of his wife and two children and become eligible for 200 acres immediately. A very good investment indeed! Still others brought over his entire household including servants and thus claimed many hundreds of acres as a brand new estate or manor.

These people were known as headrights. The master received the right to claim (patent) fifty acres of land for each "head" whose passage he paid. Often a prosperous person could import hundreds of people and receive thousands of acres.

The fare across the ocean was usually six pounds of English money (or 120 lbs.of tobacco) and three more for administrative expenses in England. The master did not have to accompany or escort his headrights across the ocean. It was only necessary for him to pay the expenses to an agent who made all the arrangements. And the master could save up his headrights until he had enough to patent a large chunk of adjacent land. To accomplish this he registered them with the local courts until he was ready to make his claim. And it was these indentured servants who provided the labor to make improvements on the home and or cultivate the crops of tobacco on the land of their master thus allowing him to continue the sequence.

Most of the vessels the emigrants traveled in were ships of 150 to 250 tons. A few went up to 500 tons. They usually had three masts- the main mast located amidships with two smaller ones fore and aft of the main. The top speed was about eight knots. The smaller ships could carry about 50 passengers plus crew. The larger ones were capable of transporting up to 150 or more passengers. They departed the various ports of England to gather at the last point of land until hundreds of them were ready to set out. The ships were bound for all over the New World. They traveled in fleets.

Those bound for Virginia sailed southwest to the Azores and then turned nearly due west to the Capes of Virginia. But it was not unusual for the ships to get separated. The stragglers sometimes arrived in Virginia to find others in their starting fleet had been riding at anchor for many weeks. The trip usually lasted from 47 to 138 days, sometimes longer. The return trip was usually two weeks less.

On the trip over, the passengers were treated the same as the crew. Each received a half pound of bread per day. On five days per week they also received a half pound of salt pork and "pease". The other two days were special with each person getting a half pound of beef and some pudding with their peas and bread. Children under six received a half share. These were types of food which could be stored easily without spoiling. On days when the "kettle could not be boiled" each person received one pound of cheese.

Upon discharge of their passengers and the settling of accounts, the ship's masters looked for cargo to take back to England. The usual cargo was hogsheads of tobacco some of which was for more headrights and some to sell in the markets of England. They also found animal skins to be a desirable cargo. The local merchants and residents needed to pay for products imported from the factories of England with the proceeds of their trade.

The return trip was also made in fleets. For instance, on July 31, 1702 there were 140 ships gathered in the mouth of the Chesapeake for the trip back to England. They were escorted by four men-of-war for the first leg of the journey. Coastal pirates were a plague upon such ships. But the pirates rarely ventured far from shore. Once the ships were well out to sea, pirates usually were no longer a problem.

By 1700 all the land on the Eastern Shore of Virginia had been claimed. The once friendly Indians had either been driven away or had died of English diseases. Colonists of early Virginia had a hard life but things improved in time. Within a few decades many had become landed gentry and were generally as well off as their English cousins. Maybe even better. The climate was milder, the land was rich and bountiful, the seas were full of life and laws were tolerable.

For the next seventy five years, the people prospered according to their own talents and techniques. Tranquility settled over the Eastern Shore. The troubles of the world were far away. The Chesapeake Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other side provided buffers which made the residents somewhat of a closed society. The geographic boundaries coupled with an intense self-sufficiency made them a people who could get along with what they had.

And that was the way it more or less stayed until well into the 1700's when some people in the English government got greedy for more taxes without representation by the taxed.

Robert L. Mears, Author

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