Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement in North America (1607), paved the way for the establishment of what later became the United States of America. The Virtual Jamestown Project, funded by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and others, is designed to illustrate and celebrate life in Colonial Virginia in anticipation of Jamestown's upcoming 400th anniversary in 2007. The Web site maintains a database titled "Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations," which contains indenture contracts of "over 15,000 indentured servants from . . . London, Middlesex, and Bristol." These contracts are invaluable to genealogists seeking to trace immigrant origins.
During the Colonial Period, indentured servitude was the most common method used to emigrate from Britain to America. Under this system, Britons signed contracts with merchants and sea captains to work for a specified number of years, usually four or five, in the colonies, in exchange for free passage to the New World. Social historians estimate that over 75% of Virginia's pre-Revolutionary War settlers financed their voyage in this manner.
A limited number of the labor contracts have survived. Some of them list specific English, Welsh, and Scottish parishes of origin. The "Place of Origin Names in Bristol Registers (1654-1686)" page on this site identifies the distribution of birthplaces listed in this old record. Researchers also get a glimpse of common occupations during this time on the page "Occupations in Bristol Registers (1654-1686)." There are also first-hand accounts of life in the New World and examples of many types of sources that can greatly aid genealogical research, such as colonial newspapers, public records, court records, and old maps.
Virtual Jamestown also has a very effective search engine. It permits queries in 12 separate fields. The author recently discovered that one of his 17th-century Virginia immigrant ancestors originated in Somersetshire, just south of Bristol. Just for fun, he did a search to see all of the immigrants who came to Virginia, Maryland, and the West Indies, from Somersetshire. The Web site shows that many other immigrants came from areas in close geographical proximity to his own ancestral roots.
One of the interesting conclusions resulting from analysis of these surviving records is the fact that the majority of the colonists who left from two of England's three largest ports, London and Bristol, originated within a 60-mile radius of the thriving cities. The indentured servants had not traveled far to get to the ships that took them to America in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Social historians have projected that these results can be extended to immigrants as a whole that migrated during this time (i.e. including those for whom no labor contract survives), and they point out that research into Colonial Chesapeake immigrant origins should always begin in parishes close to the English ports of departure.
Visit the Virtual Jamestown web site .