College of Humanities and Social Sciences
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Northern Virginia, A Land Apart: Bound Labor in Virginia’s Upper Northern Neck, 1645-1710

Steven Harris-Scott

Major Professor: Randolph Scully, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Rosemarie Zagarri, Cynthia Kierner

Merten Hall (formerly University Hall), #1202
July 14, 2016, 10:00 AM to 08:00 AM


Bound laborers such as indentured servants and African slaves were essential in early English Virginia, supplying the necessary labor to produce profit from tobacco for the colony’s landowners. This was even more important in Virginia’s “upper” Northern Neck region – specifically, Northumberland and Westmoreland counties along the Potomac River – given that a less desirable strain of tobacco, oronoco, was grown there. This had significant implications for the types of bound laborers employed and exploited in that region. In particular, those northern Virginia counties continued to rely heavily on indentured servants into the first decade of the eighteenth century, unlike most of the counties to the south that had transitioned mostly or fully to slavery by the late-seventeenth century. In fact, the years around 1700 saw an unprecedented number of young uncontracted laborers – several hundreds of them who had not signed indentures prior to leaving England – immigrate to the entire Northern Neck region, even to areas like Lancaster County that had already transitioned to slavery. For those few years, as peace descended upon the Atlantic World, servants poured into the Northern Neck. The era of indentured servitude was not over yet, it had been interrupted by the first of several imperial wars England would fight in the many decades after its Glorious Revolution.

Furthermore, tobacco growers in northernmost Virginia also used apprentices in ways that were unrecognizable to its English predecessor in their unending quest for more labor. While this subgroup of unfree laborers has been overlooked in most of the prevailing historiography, apprentices actually toiled in significant numbers and for much longer than the average indentured laborer with little to no extra benefits. And while some apprentices did receive training in a trade, most did not and likely could not avoid working in the tobacco fields. As such, the bound labor picture in the upper Northern Neck was exceedingly more complex than it was elsewhere in colonial Virginia. These landowners found labor wherever and from whomever they could, which likely had significant implications for the formation of racial ideas in early Virginia.

This dissertation aims to be part local history and part Atlantic history, part comparative work and part analytical study. To do so, all extant court records from Northumberland and Westmoreland counties were reviewed for any instance where bound laborers appeared. This data was then collected and analyzed to formulate the conclusions presented in this study. In particular, apprenticeship contracts, inventories, wills, and age judgments were examined for the purpose of charting indentured servants, slaves, and apprentices in the upper Northern Neck. Only by bringing that region and its more diverse and whiter unfree labor force into the discussion can the bound labor picture of the Old Dominion be fully completed.

The full transition to African slave labor did, of course, finally occur in Northumberland and Westmoreland counties around 1710, albeit decades after historians have generally claimed. From there, successive generations of Lees, Carters, Masons, and Washingtons would amass huge enslaved labor forces to work their sprawling plantations in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. Three-quarters of a century earlier, no one would have predicted such a development in Virginia’s upper Northern Neck.

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