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The Demographic History of Colonial New England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 May 2010

Daniel Scott Smith
University of Connecticut


The central fact of the demographic history of early North America is rapid growth. Both Canada and the white population of the English colonies experienced increases of 2½ percent per year during the eighteenth century. Seventeenth-century rates, beginning from a low base and more influenced by immigration, were even higher. In contrast, the expansion of population in early modern Europe rarely exceeded 1 percent per annum over an extended period. Since Franklin and Malthus, interpretations of early American demography have centered on the high fertility associated with near universal marriage for women at a low average age. The extremely youthful population, high dependency ratio, and one of the largest mean census family sizes ever recorded all follow from the high level of fertility.

Papers Presented at the Thirty-first Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association
Copyright © The Economic History Association 1972

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1 For data on colonial and contemporary European population growth rates, see Potter, J., “The Growth of Population in America, 1700–1860,” in Glass, D. V. and and Eversley, D. E. C., eds., Population in History (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), pp. 639–43Google Scholar; and Krause, J. T., “Some Implications of Recent Work in Historical Demography,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, I, No. 2 (June 1959), 173.Google Scholar

2 Forty-nine percent of the American population was under age sixteen in 1790 and the mean white family size was 5.7. In New York in 1771 there were 105 males under sixteen and over sixty per 100 males sixteen to fifty-nine. Data are taken from Rossiter, W. S., A Century of Population Growth (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1966; orig. pub. 1909), pp. 94, 96, 183.Google Scholar Only three of sixty-four nations over 100,000 population in censuses from 1955 to 1963 had mean family sizes above 5.7. See Burch, Thomas K., “The Size and Structure of Families: A Comparative Analysis of Census Data,” American Sociological Review, 32, No. 3 (June 1967), p. 353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Mean English family size was nearly one person less than the 1790 American figure over three centuries of stability from 1574 to 1911. See Laslett, Peter, “Size and Structure of the Household in England over Three Centuries, Part I, Mean Household Size in England since the Sixteenth Century,” Population Studies, XXIII, No. 2 (July 1969), 199223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Two series of colonial population totals at decadal intervals have been constructed: by Rossiter, A Century …. pp. 9–10 and by Sutherland, Stella H. in U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of United States, Colonial Times to 1957 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1960), Series Zl-19, p. 756.Google Scholar Potter, “The Growth of Population …” uses the Rossiter estimates.

4 Gille, H., “The Demographic History of the Northern European Countries in the Eighteenth Century,” Population Studies, III, No. 1 (June 1949), 365, was the source for the Swedish data.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 Yasuba, Yasukichi, Birth Rates of the White Population of the United States, 1800–1860 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1960), p. 114. With heavy male outmigration in Hingham, nearly 15 percent of all women born to reconstituted marriages of 1721 to 1760 survived to age forty-five as spinsters.Google Scholar

6 The stable population and ratios of deaths by age are from Coale, Ansley J. and Demeny, Paul, Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 92–3, 188–89 and 102–03, 198–99.Google Scholar Edward Wigglesworth, “A Table Showing the Probability of the Duration, the Decrement, and the Expectation of Life, in the States of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, formed from sixty-two Bills of Mortality on the files of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in the year 1789,” Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, II, pt. I (1793), 132. Reverend McKean, Joseph, “Synopsis of Several Bills of Mortality,” Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, II, pt. II (1804), 65.Google Scholar For the deficiencies of the Wigglesworth material, see Vinovskis, Maris A., “The 1789 Life Table of Edward Wigglesworth,” The Journal Of Economic History, XXXI, No. 3 (Sept. 1971), 570–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Some, 1,113 of the 4,893 deaths in the Wigglesworth sample were taken from the records of Ebenezer Gay, minister of the first parish in Hingham.

7 Calculated from the census data for Connecticut counties in Rossiter, A Century.., pp. 166–69. For state variations in child-woman ratios within New England in 1800, see Yasuba, Birth Rates …, p. 61.

8 Gille, “The Demographic History …”, p. 31. For a summary of age-specific fertility data from reconstitutions of French parishes and French-Canadian genealogies, see Chamoux, A. and Douphin, C., “La contraception avant la Revolution française: L'exemple de Châtillon-sur Seine,” Annales, Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, 24, No. 3 (May-June 1969), 668–69. Yasuba, Birth Rates …, p. 115, calculated that marital fertility was 26 percent higher in Connecticut in 1774 and New Hampshire in 1773 than in Sweden from 1776 to 1800.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Generalizing from European censuses from 1850 to 1910 Hajnal concluded that, “On the European pattern, the percentage of women over 15 who were married in a country as a whole was below 55 and usually below 50 in the nineteenth century.” J. Hajnal, “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective,” in Population in History, p. 119. Only 50.3 percent in 1750 and 50.1 percent in 1800 of. the female population over 15 in Sweden was married. Gille, “The Demographic History …”, p. 25.

10 For details of Yasuba's method, see Birth Rates …, pp. 111–15.

11 The average annual net reproduction rate from 1751 to 1800 in Sweden was 1.172; however, there was considerable variation from year to year with a standard deviation of 0.1719 and thus a coefficient of variation of 14.7 percent. Calculated from Hannes Hyrennius, “Reproduction and Replacement: A Methodological Study of Swedish Population Changes during 200 Years,” Population Studies, IV, No. 4 (March 1951), Table 2, 424.

12 Potter notes that the decades of most rapid growth in all the colonies (the 1720's, 1740's and 1780's) were also periods or heavier immigration. “The Growth of Population …,” pp. 638–39.

13 For recent suggestive approaches using generational hypotheses in colonial studies, see Lockridge, Kenneth A., “The Population of Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636–1736,” Economic History Review, 2d ser., XIX (Aug. 1966), 328, 341–42Google Scholar; Greven, Philip J. Jr, Four Generations: Population, Land and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), esp. pp. 1718, 180–81, 205–06Google Scholar; and Harris, P.M.G., “The Social Origins of American Leaders: The Demographic Foundations,” Perspectives in American History, III (1989), pp. 220–34, 311–33.Google Scholar

14 There were 157 males per 100 females among the passengers to New England from 1620 to 1640. See Moller, Herbert, “Sex Composition and Correlated Culture Patterns of Colonial America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., II (1945), 115–17.Google Scholar In a sample of Plymouth Colony couples the age at marriage converged from 27.0 and 20.6 for men and women respectively born 1600–25 to 24.6 and 22.3 for those born 1675–1700 (sample size of 650 persons in five birth cohorts). Demos, John, A Little Commonwealth, Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 193.Google Scholar In Andover, the male age at first marriage did not decline until after 1730; averages for the second, third, and fourth generation male descendants of the original settlers are 26.7 (104), 27.1 (224) and 25.3 (294). For Andover women the corresponding generational averages are 22.3 (81), 24.5 (210) and 23.2 (282), with the increase coming after 1704. Greven, Four Generations, pp. 188–90, 206–10. In Ipswich, a larger, more commercial town near Andover, marriage ages were 27.2 (34), 26.5 (73) and 24.0 (88) for men and 21.7 (17), 23.6 (70) and, 23.3 (98) for women marrying in the periods 1652–1700, 1701–1725 and 1726–1750. Norton, Susan L., “Population Growth in Colonial America: A Study of Ipswich, Massachusetts,” Population Studies, XXV, 3 (Nov. 1971), p. 445.Google Scholar2 Older studies based on family genealogies confirm these trends. In Jones' sample, male age dropped from 27.0 to 24.8 while female age at marriage increased from 21.4 to 22.2 between 1651–1700 and 1701–50 (27 and 176 marriages respectively). Jones, Carl E., “A Genealogical Study of Population,” Publications of the American Statistical Association, XVI (1918), p. 208.Google Scholar In the genealogical study by Crum, Frederick S., “The Decadence of the Native American Stock: A Statistical Study,” Publications of the American Statistical Association, XIV (1914), 220Google Scholar, the age at first marriage increased from 21.4 (30) before 1700 to 21.7 (147) for women married from 1700 to 1749.

15 Using pre-1691 marital fertility rates for women aged 20–24, the increase of 2.76 years in the average age at first marriage for women can account for only 1.29 of the total decline of 2.98 children (43.3 percent) per complete family in the 1691–1715 cohort compared to the women married before 1691.

16 Marital fertility over age thirty was tested by the same analysis of variance method used by Wrigley, E. A., “Family Limitation in Pre-Industrial England,” Economic History Review, 2d ser. XIX, No. 1 (April 1966), pp. 9091. The test yielded a F of 20.38 with 1 and 430 degrees of freedom.Google Scholar

17 The average number of births per Harvard or Yale alumnus declined from 5.96 (186) for graduates aged 34 in 1656 to 1698 to 5.21 (289) for graduates aged 34 in 1699–1722, before rebounding to 5.98 (1,153) for alumni aged 34 in 1723–1758. Harris, “The Social Origins …”, Table 14, p. 317. In Andover there was a drop from 8.7 (37) children per complete family, 1685–1704, to 7.4 (67) for families formed from 1705 to 1724; a very small sample of those married from 1725 to 1744 averaged 7.5 (17) children per complete family. Greven, Four Generations, Table 21, p. 202. The increase in marriage age in Andover between 1685–1704 and 1705– 24 explains between 69 percent and 83 percent of the total decrease in mean family size. The number of children per complete family among the descendants of the original settlers of Watertown, was 8.85 (20), 7.48 (105), 8.63 (150) and 7.84 (168) respectively for marriages formed before 1670, 1671–1720, 1721–1760 and 1761–1800. Calculated from Bond, Henry, Genealogies of the Families and Descendants of the early Settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts (Boston: N.E. Historic Genealogical Society, 2d ed., 1860). Internal evidence suggests a substantial upward bias in these figures with the author concentrating on the ancestors of his mid-nineteenth century generation.Google Scholar

18 On the halt to New England expansion from 1675 to 1713, see Matthews, Lois Kimball, The Expansion of New England (New York: Russell and Russell, Inc., 1962), pp. 4375Google Scholar, and Leach, Douglas Edward, The Northern Colonial Frontier (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), pp. 109–25.Google Scholar Both Matthews and Leach emphasize the direct security impediments to frontier expansion.

19 The complex socio-demographic evolution uncovered in post-1715 Hingham can only be hinted at here. Premarital pregnancy, outmigration, daughters not marrying in order of birth, and primogeniture are among the indicators which show increases in frequency as the eighteenth century progresses. Tension between generations probably increased as fathers were unable to maintain their dominance on the old seventeenth century basis; however, it is not until after the Revolution that marriage was established as a “free” act of the couple being wed.

20 It may appear highly speculative to conclude that the effect of husband's age on the fertility of the wife operates through coital frequency. Between the ages of 20 and 45 at least, the fecundity of the male does not decline. See MacLeod, John and Gold, Ruth Z., “The Male Factor in Fertility and Infertility. VII. Semen Quality in Relation to Age and Sexual Activity,” Fertility and Sterility, 4, No. 3 (1953), 194209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Furthermore, modern studies indicate a marked decrease with age in rates of sexual intercourse. MacLeod, John and Gold, Ruth Z., “The Male Factors in Fertility and Infertility. VI. Semen Quality and Certain Other Factors in Relation to Ease of Conception,” Fertility and Sterility, 4, No. 1 (1953), 1033CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kinsey, Alfred C., Pomeroy, Wardell B., Martin, Clyde V. and Gebhard, Paul H., Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (New York: Pocket Books ed., 1965), pp 392–94.Google Scholar Finally empirical data confirm a strong relationship between frequency of intercourse and the probability of conception. MacLeod and Gold, “Semen Quality and Certain other Factors …, ” Table 19, p. 29; Barrett, John C. and Marshall, John, “The Risk of Conception on Different Days of the Menstrual Cycle,” Population Studies, XXIII, 3 (Nov. 1969), 455–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Barrett and Marshall calculate, for example, that the probability of conception during a given menstrual cycle increases from 0.24 to 0.68 for coital patterns of every fourth day and every day respectively.

21 Stettler, H. Louis, “The New England Throat Distemper and Family Size,” in Klarman, H., ed., Empirical Studies in Health Economics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), pp 1727.Google Scholar Stettler's conclusions may be questioned since he failed to compare the post-epidemic record of families of the same size or women of the same age at the time of the outbreak. His data (Table 2, p. 23) merely confirm the probabilistic point that the chance a family will lose a child increases with the number of children already born.

22 For emphasis on spacing as an important means in the control of marital fertility and a critique of the classic tests for the existence of family limitation, see Dupaquier, J. J. and Lechiver, M., “Sur les débuts de la contraception en France ou les deus malthusianismes,” Annales, E. S. C., XXIV, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1969), 1391–406.Google Scholar

23 For the complexity of the map of pre-demographic transition European fertility, see Coale, Ansley J., “The Decline in Fertility in Europe from the French Revolution to World War II,” in Behrman, S. J., Corsa, Leslie Jr, and Freedman, Ronald, eds., Fertility and Family Planning. A World View(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), pp. 319.Google Scholar

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