Wednesday, July 14, 2021

52 Ancestors - TRANSPORTATION: John Jollitt Comes to Virginia

Who was John Jollitt? He might be my first Jollett ancestor to settle in Virginia, but I do not know for sure.

One thing I know for sure is that he was not a wealthy man. Had he been a gentleman, a man of means, he could have paid his own way from England to the colonies, about 6 pounds for a one-way ticket, which equates in buying power to about $1423.16 today. Instead, he signed a contract, an indenture, to work up to seven years for a Virginia planter in exchange for his passage.


from wikimedia commons

Indentured servitude had been a common practice in England for many years. In fact, children were often indentured to a craftsman to learn a trade as a cooper, a shoemaker, a blacksmith, a printer, a shipbuilder, a tailor, etc. For the master, it meant cheap labor in exchange for food, lodging, a few clothes, and maybe something more substantial once the contract was satisfied.

In many ways, timing was everything for John Jollitt. England’s economy was depressed leaving both skilled and unskilled workers unable to find jobs. Virginia, then only 30 years old, had already developed a thriving tobacco business. There was lots of land and a need for lots of workers. Tobacco farming was hard work that wore many people down long before “retirement age,” not that there was such a thing then.

At first the Virginia Company paid the passage for indentured servants to come and work company land or to rent out to planters. Then they asked themselves why pay at all? Why not let the planters themselves pay for their own indentured servants? The result was the Headright System. Tracts of land called “headrights” were offered to planters and other citizens willing to pay the transportation costs of an indentured laborer. In Virginia, anyone who had been in the colony since May 1616 was offered 100 acres of land (two headrights of 50 acres each); all others willing to pay the passage were granted one headright of 50 acres.

Anyone with enough money could accumulate headrights by providing the funds for the poor to travel to Virginia. Even if the indentured servant did not survive the trip, the landowner could still receive a headright.

Merchants and mariners also benefited from the headright system. They started recruiting prospective indentured servants, bargained their indenture terms with them, and then sold the contracts to Virginia planters. Merchants accumulated headrights that could be used to acquire land. Some even offered small tracts of land to skilled workers willing to work as an indentured servant. 


So in late summer or early fall of 1636, John Jollitt boarded the Tristram and Jane, a merchant ship headed for Virginia to take on tobacco that was ready for market.

What a merchant ship in the 17th century
would have looked like

The Tristram and Jane probably was typical of merchant ships of the 17th century. They were broad and high, rather top-heavy making them unsafe and difficult to maneuver. Most of the space was dedicated to cargo both coming and going, so comfort for crew and passengers was not part of the plan.

Food consisted of salted beef that had sat curing in brine for 2 months (!), ship biscuits (“hard tack”), peas, and beer. Historians have concluded that much of the sea-sickness was due not to the waves but to the food.


from wikimedia commons


Daniel Hopkinson was the merchant who chartered the Tristram and Jane commanded by shipmaster Joseph Blowe. Hopkinson put together a joint venture with 6 other men who contributed funds and/or goods which included Sack – a kind of strong light-colored Spanish wine, candy oyle – a syrup, strong waters – in other words alcoholic beverages, stockings, waistcoats, quince marmalade, powdered sugar and loaf sugar, raisins, fish, cheese, and more. What wasn’t consumed during the voyage was sold to the colonists. The partners were paid at the end of the voyage with a proportionate share of the profit in tobacco. Hopkinson’s account of this particular trip shows that the ship returned to England carrying 99 hogshead of tobacco, roughly 31,800 pounds.


English measurements from wikimedia commons


John Jollitt was passenger #46 of 74 men AND women who, looking for a better life in the New World, likewise had signed up to be an indentured servant.

Jollitt was turned over to Nathaniel Floyd who paid for 2 passengers, Jollitt and Richard Carter. He paid with 1100 pounds of tobacco. If Jollitt was 23 years of age or older, he probably was required to serve only 4 years. If he were younger – and chances are he was – he would have been required to serve all 7 years.

Somewhat surprisingly Nathaniel Floyd himself had arrived in Virginia in 1623 at the age of 24 as an indentured servant. Not many poor immigrants were able to rise above the lowest rung of society to become a gentleman farmer with the means to pay someone’s transportation fees. By November 1637, Floyd had patented 850 acres in Isle of Wight County including the headrights of Jollitt and Carter.



Once Jollitt satisfied his contract, Floyd was required to pay Jollitt’s “freedom dues,” which might have included 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, some clothes, a cow, a few tools and a musket or other arms.

What became of John Jollitt once he was freed is still a mystery. I have hopes that he found land along the Northern Neck of Virginia and that descendants worked their way up into Orange County where my confirmed Jolletts lived, but I have found no such connection.

It is possible that John Jollitt stayed in Isle of Wight County where soon there were multiple families carrying the surname Jolliff and Jolly. They may very well be his descendants. 


Hiden, Martha W., ed. Accompts of the Tristram and Jane. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 62, No. 4 (Oct., 1954), pp. 424-447. VA Historical Society.

“Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia 

“Isle of Wight County Deeds and Other Records.” Abstracts of Virginia Land Records. Ancestry.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.


© 2021, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. Good post! I’m certain one day you’ll find the connection.

  2. I laugh at the thought at being paid a year's worth of corn.