Middlesex County, Virginia
in the 1600s
In 1663, when young John Bristow appeared in the colony of Virginia, he joined a handful of Europeans clustered on the edge of a great and unknown continent. Although the Jamestown settlement had survived for half a century, the south shore of the Rappahannock had been settled by the English for less than half that time. In fact, Richard Perrott, Jr., "the first Man-Child that was gott and borne in Rappahannock River of English parents" was born only twelve years previously, in February, 1651.1 At the time of John's arrival, the population of Europeans on the Rappahannock probably numbered only around 500. By the late 1660's some 90 families were reported.2 The Census Bureau estimates that the total population of Virginia was 27,000 in 1660, increasing to 35,000 by 1670, when John was released from servitude.3 That the colony was able to show a net population growth of about 8,000 per decade from 1640 to the end of the century was the result of a much larger number of immigrants reaching Virginia. Many of the new arrivals from Britain succumbed to disease and privation in clearing the unhealthy lands of the Tidewater. John was fortunate to have survived.4
A report on the state of the militia in 1687 (24 years after John's arrival) counted 142 families in Middlesex County and estimated the population at 1,225.5 (John and his first wife Michal had contributed four children to that total.)6 By 1724, thanks to the procreative industry of John and his neighbors, the population of Middlesex had grown to 260 white families, with an estimated total of 1,560 persons, not counting an additional 820 blacks.7
The settlers of the Chesapeake Tidewater, who were mostly engaged in raising tobacco, which was almost the only cash crop of the region, had a continuing need for more labor. Those who had a skill, such as carpentry or smithing, were in particular demand, as were trainable youths. The headright system was devised to reward those who paid the passage of others with grants of land. Those transported were then indentured as servants to work off the debt. The harsh conditions confronting these settlers led to an appalling mortality rate. By the time John Bristow was indentured in 1663, things had improved from the early years of the colony, when most of the newcomers had died within a year or two.8
Whether John came directly from England (a John Briton is listed as a passenger from Bristol in this period), or by way of Bermuda, is unclear.9
Indeed, whether he left his home in Restoration England of his own volition or not is unknown. He may have run away to seek his fortune, impelled by a spirit of adventure; he may have fled an intolerable family situation or a cruel master. He may even have been kidnapped. The colonists' insatiable demand for labor, exemplified by the headright system by which settlers were awarded additional land for importing new persons, led some enterprising but unscrupulous people, known as "spirits," to supply new bodies to the colony by trickery or force. A young lad out on an errand would fail to come home, gone without a trace. Perhaps, like the later abductees "shanghaied" to work as seamen on merchant ships trading with the Orient, the hapless recruit was drugged or rendered helpless by a blow to the head, bound, and hurriedly taken through the night to a waiting vessel moored in a nearby estuary. He was said to have been "spirited away." Another possibility is that John jumped ship, a sailor who deserted from the crew of a merchant trading to the colony, preferring life on terra firma to life at sea.10
Whatever the circumstances of his arrival, an unattached teenager who could "offer no good reason" for his presence would have been regarded as a possible threat to the good order of society. He would have been put to work, either to pay for his passage, or because it was the accepted way to learn a useful occupation. Although a few African slaves had been imported to Virginia before 1620, they remained a small percentage of the labor force until after 1680, when the supply of British workers declined, due to increasing prosperity in England which absorbed the surplus population at home. Unlike John, the unwilling imports from Africa had no possiblilty of gaining freedom by completing a fixed term of labor.11
We do not know what type of work John Bristow did as a servant indentured to John Hughes. He could read and write (as demonstrated by his later selection as a Lay Reader at the Upper Chapel of Christ Church), talents which placed him in a select minority of his contemporaries. Hughes (or any master) would have been foolish to not make use of such valuable skills. Therefore it is less likely that John was primarily a field hand, though he may have joined in at tobacco harvest time.
In any event, our ancestor beat the odds, not only surviving the period of his indenture, but going on to become a valuable and respected member of the community, acquiring not only land of his own on Dragon Swamp, but also an estate that included seven African slaves.12
[Click on the footnote number to return to the text.]
1 Darret B. and Anita H. Rutman, "Parental Mortality" in The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century, Thad W. Tate and David L. Ammerman, eds. (New York: Norton, 1979), 154.
3 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington: GPO. 1975). Series Z.
4 Ibid. and Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America - An Introduction (New York: Knopf, 1986), 99-101.
5 Rutman, Ibid.
6 John Walton, "Politicians and Statesmen" in Genealogies of Kentucky Families from the Filson Club Historical Magazine (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981), 70.
7 Rutman, Ibid.
8 Bailyn, 60-61. Cf. Louis B. Wright, The Atlantic Frontier (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980 ), 64-65. A more recent study, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), emphasizes the brutality of the system.
9 Walton, Ibid.
10 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, 57-58.
11 Bailyn, 101-102. See also Historical Statistics, Series Z.
12 Gordon Byron Woolley, John Bristow of Middlesex County, and His Descendants through Ten Generations (New York: Vantage Press, 1969), 13-17, traces John's activities in Middlesex and includes a transcript of his will, dated 20 February 1716, from Middlesex Wills B: 51.
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This page updated 21 February 2004.