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The farm family economy in the American North, 1775–1875: an exploration of sibling differences


On retrouve des différences entre les descendants mâles des fermiers en matière de migration, fertilité et richesse dans la tranche agricole du Nord des Etats-Unis entre 1775 et 1875. Elles varient d'après les dimensions des families. Dans les families nombreuses les parents récoltent les bénéfices de leur déplacement avec les enfants, vers des terres nouvelles. Les enfants nés dans des families extrêmement mobiles connurent la réussite d'après le rang à la naissance, les derniers-nés étant les moins lotis. Mais au gré de l'occupation des terres, l'investissement des parents devient l'élément le plus important pour déterminer la fortune des enfants. Dans les petites families on aperçoit un début du modèle moderne qui est le désavantage de l'enfant du rang intermédiare où il connaît moins de réussite que les aînés, les cadets et les enfants uniques.

On retrouve des différences entre les descendants mâles des fermiers en matière de migration, fertilité et richesse dans la tranche agricole du Nord des Etats-Unis entre 1775 et 1875. Elles varient d'après les dimensions des families. Dans les families nombreuses les parents récoltent les bénéfices de leur déplacement avec les enfants, vers des terres nouvelles. Les enfants nés dans des families extrêmement mobiles connurent la réussite d'après le rang à la naissance, les derniers-nés étant les moins lotis. Mais au gré de l'occupation des terres, l'investissement des parents devient l'élément le plus important pour déterminer la fortune des enfants. Dans les petites families on aperçoit un début du modèle moderne qui est le désavantage de l'enfant du rang intermédiare où il connaît moins de réussite que les aînés, les cadets et les enfants uniques.

Auf den Farmen des nördliohen Landwirtschaftsgürtels der Vereinigten Staaten gab es zwischen den erst-, mittel- und letztgeborenen Geschwistern beträchtliche Unterschiede im Hinblick auf Wanderungsverhalten, Fruchtbarkeit und Einkommen, die alle von der Familiengröße abhingen. In großen Familien zogen die Eltern zunächst daraus Nutzen, mit ihren Kindern in neue Gebiete zu ziehen. Der Erfolg der Kinder, die aus solchen hochmobilen Familien stammten, hing von ihrem Geburtsrang ab: die letzten schnitten am schlechtesten ab. Als jedoch die räumlichen Möglichkeiten enger wurden, gab es einen Umschwung zu einem eher Malthusianischen Szenario, in dem Investitionen der Eltern für das Fortkommen ihrer Kinder zunehmend wichtiger wurden. In den kleineren Familien sehen wir bereits das Muster des ‘Nachteils der mittleren Position’ im Entstehen, wonach die mittleren Geschwister weniger erfolgreich als die ältesten und jüngsten oder als Einzelkinder waren.

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1 We had very few problems with surname linkage because we selected families whose names were unique in the United States until the 1850 census, according to dictionaries of people present in America early on. At that date, newcomers with the same surname in the census could be distinguished from our families by the fact that their birthplaces were in Europe. Our major problem was linking by Christian name in families where there were several Johns or Henrys or Williams in each generation. When such young men lived away from home as boarders, it was sometimes impossible to tell the cousins apart from each other. Later, when they had married and begun families of their own, easy linkage was once again possible. For a fuller discussion of linkage with the census, see Adams John W. and Kasakoff Alice Bee, ‘Estimates of census under-enumeration based on genealogies’, Social Science History 15 (Winter 1991), 527–43.

2 Adams John W. and Kasakoff Alice Bee, Transplanting the family tree, forthcoming.

3 There was a great deal of under-enumeration in the 1850 Federal Census (see Adams and Kasakoff , ‘Estimates’), but note, however, that we are not relying only on men found on the census to determine sibling order or the size of their families. We use the full sibling sets which are listed in the genealogies.

4 Because women change their name at marriage, they are very difficult for the genealogist to follow, so much so that the information on them was too scattered for us to use. Thus our ‘Firsts’ are the first-born among the males in a sibship who survived to age 20. ‘Middles’ have both older and younger male siblings who survived to age 20, and so on. These orders were determined on the basis of all the males born into the family, not just those found on the census. The number of Firsts, as one would expect in expanding populations like this one, is greater than the number of Lasts. We are not always comparing siblings in the same family, but there is an advantage in this kind of study that comes from having Firsts, Middles, and Lasts born at different times. When the entire sibling set is studied, the Lasts are born later than the Firsts and thus there is a danger of mistaking trends over time for effects resulting from their sibship rank. This cannot happen in our materials.

5 62 per cent of these men had fathers who, our materials indicate, were farmers only. 28 per cent of the men had fathers who had combined farming with a non-farm occupation during their lives. Only 10 per cent of the men had fathers who had not done any farming at all. In this article we use only men who were listed as farmers in the census so that we can compare their wealth as it was listed there. Non-farmers had very little real estate, the only property enumerated in the census, so including them would have biased our wealth figures quite a bit. Overall, the Firsts, Onlies and Last-born siblings were more likely than the Middles to remain in farming, the Last-born a little less likely to do so than the Firsts. The children of fathers who combined farming with a non-farm occupation during their lives had the most interesting differences according to sibship rank. The number of children in the family affected their choice of occupation more than in the families where the father did not combine farming with other work. The children born into large families where the father combined farming with other work were more apt to remain in fanning themselves (53 per cent stayed in farming) than those born into the small ones (46 per cent stayed in farming). In both the large and small families of this sort the Last-born sons were more apt to stay in farming than the Firsts or Middles. Fathers who combined farming with a trade and had only a small number of children may have been only marginally successful in farming for almost all of the Onlies born into these families left farming (only 12 per cent of the Onlies remained in fanning), and the eldest sons were more likely to leave farming than were the eldest sons born into the large families where the father combined farming with non-farm work.

6 Lebergott Stanley, ‘The demand for land: the United States, 1820–1860’, Journal of Economic History 45 (1985), 181212.

7 Easterlin Richard A., ‘Factors in the decline of farm family fertility in the United States: some preliminary research results’, Journal of American History 63 (1976), 600–14; Easterlin Richard A., Alter George and Condran Gretchen A., ‘Farms and farm families in old and new areas: the northern states in 1860’, in Hareven Tamara K. and Vinvoskis Maris A. eds., Family and population in nineteenth-century America (Princeton, 1978); Yasuba Yasukichi, Birth rales of the white population in the United States, 1800–1860 (Baltimore, 1961).

8 This number is the number of children ever born to their fathers and includes female children. The families we are studying were highly fertile. In any population, the number who are born into large families will exceed those born into the small ones making this sort of measure much greater than median fertility itself. Still, our small families are far from small in any absolute sense.

9 Distances are in miles, as the crow flies. The sample of men includes only those who survived to age 20 and, so we can clearly establish the distance they travelled in a full lifetime, we include only those who can be followed in our dataset either to death or to age 60, the age by which most migration had been accomplished. To report the mean distance moved would be misleading because of the concentration at small distances, as well as a few enormous distances. Instead, we report overall median distances, as well as the percentage who travelled less than 4 miles, whom we call ‘stayers’ (since most moved only within the same or immediately neighbouring towns); and we also report the median distance travelled for those movers who travelled more than 4 miles. We include the age variable to show that these were not siblings from the same family; our Firsts are the same age as Lasts and Middles. Onlies are a little younger, being to some extent products of the fertility decline which was occurring when these men were being born.

10 Were small families that way by choice or were they created by the premature death of the father? Indeed, fathers of Lasts in small families died at an average age of 69 while fathers of Lasts in large families lived six years longer. Dividing the ages when fathers died into quartiles reveals that one-quarter of the fathers of Lasts in small families died before age 59 (compared with age 65 in large families). But even in large families the Lasts were born when their fathers were an average of 45 years of age. So we conclude that only a small proportion, no more than 25 per cent and probably considerably fewer, of the small farm families were small due to the father's early death. Most were small by choice. And while one might think that fathers of the Onlies in small families had died young, only 4 of the 31 Onlies' fathers had died before age 50, the age by which most men would have ceased to father children. We should ask also whether their mothers had died early; but sibling order here is coded on the basis of all of the father's children; if he had remarried, the children of the second marriage are counted as siblings.

11 Adams John W. and Kasakoff Alice Bee, ‘Migration and the family in Colonial New England: the view from genealogies’, Journal of Family History 9 (Spring 1984), 2443.

12 We know that they moved before age 20 by comparing their birthplace with their last known address as of age 20. Boys are presumed to have accompanied their father on his move until age 18 unless there is evidence from the genealogy or other sources to the contrary. If we have definite evidence a child accompanied his father, as for example from a census, we of course use it. But if the youth is listed after age 18 in the town the father is known to have left before the boy turned 18, we assume he stayed behind.

13 The distances travelled before age 20 shrink by order of birth, suggesting that the smaller the family (at the time of a move) the farther it went.

14 This is a form of ultimogeniture that is not acknowledged in the inheritance laws, which favoured the first-born. But primogeniture could often be managed without the eldest staying behind. The other siblings would buy him out.

15 The fertility figures we cite are for males who have married, and the fertility measure we use is all the children ever born, as taken from the genealogy together with a few additions from the census not known to the genealogist. Why only male fertility? We would like to have discussed the wives of the men we are studying but the genealogist did not always provide the birth dates of the women who married family members making it difficult to calculate the standard measures of fertility by age of woman.

16 There are too few only sons in large families (otherwise comprised of daughters) to merit discussion here.

17 Fertility differences between siblings in small families were not related to age at marriage. These men probably stopped fathering children after reaching a target number. The Middles in small families married later than their siblings but had nearly as many children as the Lasts. Middles from small families were more likely to move than others from small families but this occurred after age 20. Thus they remained in the older areas before marriage and married late; then they were able to move rather far and presumably stopped later than their brothers who stayed nearer home. The Lasts had about the same number of children but appear to have done so by marrying earlier than Middles. Perhaps the parental investment included in this case the provision of living space in exchange for care in old age.

18 There is a loose fit between region of birth and the sizes of families these men came from: 63 per cent of the men born in the newest region, including states west of New York, came from large families; in the area that had been settled longest, southern New England, only 43 per cent did. In the other two regions, northern New England and New York, men were evenly divided between large and small families. Within regions some towns were founded before others, but also at any point in time some parents had reduced their fertility while other had not.

19 We have sought evidence for this from information on child mortality. Were Onlies in small families from families with higher child mortality than the other sibling types? There is a slight difference, but not enough, we think, to account for the greater disadvantage. We used a variable we call ‘sibmort’, the proportion of one's siblings who died before age 20: a single death in a family of eight results in a higher proportion than when it occurs in a family of 9. The findings, however, go contrary to these expectations: children born into large farm families have higher ‘sibmort’ than those born into small ones (0.11 vs 0.13 per cent of children dying). The close birth spacing in the large families, we believe, was an important contributor to this. The extent to which the close birth spacing is caused by or is a cause of child mortality is a complex issue we cannot discuss here. But child mortality was very low in any case, as these figures indicate, and we think the higher child mortality in the large families was caused by the close birth spacing rather than the reverse. This is what Temkin-Greiner H. and H and Swedlund A. C. report in ‘A test of the child replacement hypothesis: nineteenth-century Massachusetts’ (Social Biology 30 (1983), 218–27). In the large families there is a big difference in the proportion of siblings dying between Onlies and the rest (0.31 Only; 0.17 First; 0.11 Middle; 0.14 Last). This is to be expected because more than eight children had been born and only one male survived, and there are only three cases. But in the small families where we sought evidence of disadvantage through higher child mortality, ‘sibmort’ is only slightly higher for the Onlies than for the other siblings. (0.13 Only vs 0.11 for all the others).

20 Our emphasis so far on total distance travelled in a lifetime may be misleading: Lasts had completed less of their lifetime distance by the time of the evaluation of their real property on the census. They stayed near home until the father died, and only then did they begin their principal travelling. This implies that there is probably a critical moment in the life-cycle for sons to leave home if they are to do well in life. (Unfortunately, we do not have real property evaluations at time of death, nor is it feasible to get them.) However, among older men on the 1850 census (those aged 40 to 60) who had reached the peak of their wealth, Lasts in small families were poorer by $550 than the Middles (and Onlies were even poorer than the Lasts); Lasts in large families were $225 poorer. They did not catch up with their brothers.

21 Since both the father being alive and sibling order were significant in this regression, the wealth differences we reported in Table 4 could not be caused by the eldest sons being more likely to have fathers who were dead at the time of the census. We have also controlled for age in this regression. Our design includes eldest sons who were various ages at the time of the census; indeed, as Table 4 shows, they were about the same age, on average, as the other siblings at the time of the census, yet they were wealthier.

22 Sundstrom William A. and David Paul A., ‘Old-age security motives, labor markets, and farm family fertility in antebellum America’, Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988), 164–97.

23 In regimes where old-age security depends on children, this duty seems to fall upon the first- and last-born, who are more apt to stay (or be kept) close to home. This general pattern of parental investment is nowadays sometimes referred to as the ‘deprived Middle’ in the psychological literature. The issues of old-age care are very complex in this setting where migration and leaving fanning were both occurring. If the children left farming, as might happen in the older areas, the care of parents would, however, have been more expensive than if the caretakers continued to farm, even if the children remained nearby. As long as they did some farming, they would not have to purchase as much food on the market. Also relevant in this connection are the differences in the life expectancy of adults between southern and northern New England. In northern New England, life expectancy was very high and older people could contribute more and were probably healthier, but in southern New England life expectancy was lower. Furthermore, in newer areas, because of the larger families there were more potential caretakers.

24 Adams and Kasakoff , ‘Migration and the family’.

25 Sjaastad Larry, ‘The costs and returns of human migration,’ Journal of Political Economy 70 (1962), 8093.

26 Blake Judith, ‘Number of siblings and educational attainment’, Science 245 (1989), 32–6, and Family size and achievement (Berkeley, 1989).

27 Angst Jules and Ernst Cecile, Birth order: its influence on personality (Berlin and New York, 1983).

28 Here we are employing a theory known as r and K selection to conceptualize these materials. It is a theory which has been developing in biology since the 1950s to explain differences between species in their life histories. The r species (r stands for rate of growth) have large numbers of offspring and breed often. Individuals are small. The K species (K stands for carrying capacity) tend to have only one or two offspring at a time, and breed rarely. Individuals are larger than in r species. K species have more intensive parenting of fewer offspring. The ideas can also be applied to a single species as it fills a new niche, r & K theory postulates that a population expands rapidly to fill a given niche until it reaches a limit to its carrying capacity (K). In our data, we can see the r to K trajectory at several levels: total population, as well as regional subsets, and occupations, all are ‘niches’ to be filled, at different levels of aggregation, and all show the same basic pattern. The population had a very high rate of growth - Malthus, in fact, used it as an example of how population would expand when resources were not limited. The population effectively replaced the Native Americans in the region. And as it grew, right from the beginning, that is in the 1630s, there was migration and westward expansion. The existence of the trajectory of r and K suggests that social groups, and by implication cultures, will have brief periods of expansion, and relatively long periods of stabilization, or K.

29 Significantly, of the conference participants, only Gérard Bouchard, whose data originate in Quebec, found our conclusions unproblematical. Bouchard's paper, ‘Transmission des avoirs familiaux et inégalités entre enfants au Saguenay’, likewise pointed to a system of relative abundance. He has noted similarities between our findings and those he describes in his working paper ‘Les migrations de réallocation comme stratégie de reproduction familiale en terroir neuf’ (Chicoutimi, PQ, 1991), Université de Québec à Chicoutimi, Centre interuniversitaire SOREP.

* Both of the Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina.

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