Posted by Ancestry Team on October 15, 2015 in Family History Month

Colonial Life
[Photo credit: Atalou via Flickr]
For Americans living today, the Colonial era is a time of myth and legend. Because the days when the Founding Fathers lived are so central to our country’s history, we sometimes forget what life was like for ordinary colonists.

Today we might find it hard to believe that like modern generations, the colonists dealt with premarital sex, pregnancy, and blended families, along with some hardships (short lifespans, dying children) that we might have a hard time understanding. By searching your family’s history, you might be able to uncover how many of these startling issues your own ancestors encountered and survived.


Although modern Americans imagine Colonial-era sexual morals to be, well, Puritanical, in the mid to late 1700s, more than one in three girls was pregnant when she walked down the aisle. So don’t be surprised if the birth or baptismal record of a progenitor that you discover on Ancestry is dated fewer than nine months after the parents’ wedding certificate. One unusual northern Colonial tradition may have encouraged this premarital fecundity. Bundling, or bed courting, involved young, unmarried couples testing their compatibility by sharing a bed for the night. More common among lower classes and along the frontier — perhaps due to the shortage of fuel for warmth and light — chastity was supposedly ensured by setting a “bundling board” (a long, upright plank) between the couple or by having them sleep in separate compartments of a large “bundling sack.” As Washington Irving later observed in 1809, no one was too surprised when hormones defeated these measures: “To this sagacious custom, therefore, do I chiefly attribute the unparalleled increase of the … Yankee tribe.”


During the Colonial era, marriages lasted, on average, less than 12 years because of high mortality rates. In Colonial America, death visited earlier and often: In 1700, the average age of death for English men in Virginia was 48. One-third to one-half of all children lost at least one parent before the age of 21; in the South, more than half of children 13 and under had lost at least one parent. As a result, remarriages were frequent in Colonial America — a fact you can discover for yourself using databases of marriage records on Ancestry. Marriages during the Colonial era, however, were not always legally formalized. For many colonists, the cost of a formal, legal marriage was more an aspiration than a reality. In colonial North Carolina, for example, a marriage certificate cost £50 — a year’s salary for a teacher, or six months’ salary for a minister. As a result, many people formalized their relationships simply by posting “banns,” announcements read weekly to the community for several weeks.


While death was not uncommon for marriage-age adults, it was almost expected for children. With most Colonial women marrying around the age of 20, they would often have about seven to 10 children. Many children, however, did not survive until adulthood — or even to toddlerhood. One in 10 infants died before they were a year old, and four in 10 children died before the age of six. For slave children, not surprisingly, the outlook was even grimmer. Up to half of all black children in the 1700s died before their first birthday. But even the wealthiest parents had to endure their children’s deaths. First Lady Martha Washington, for example, had four children, all of whom she outlived. Two died before turning five; one died at age 17; the last died of an illness at age 26. Accidents also claimed older children, not a surprising fact considering the size of families and the risks of life on a farm. Colonial court records available to historians and genealogists show children drowning in tanning pits or millponds, falling into hearth fires, and down barn ladders. Because of this, don’t be surprised if the death records available on Ancestry for your extended ancestral family include many children.


In between birth and death in Colonial life, there was also work. During the Colonial era, nearly all men fell into one of just seven occupational categories: family farmer, Southern planter, indentured servant, slave, unskilled laborer, artisan, or merchant. Women worked in complementary occupations: domestic service, child care, gardening, and household production, either for home use or for trade. For whites early in the Colonial period, the vast continent promised substantial social mobility: even an indentured servant, after working practically as a slave for four to seven years, could find a plot to work as a tenant farmer and save enough to buy his own land. As the Colonial period progressed and towns grew larger, the number of artisans grew. In 1700, only four to five percent of the labor force worked as traders, shopkeepers, or merchants, but by 1770, that fraction had grown to seven percent. Do you know what jobs your ancestors held during the Colonial era?


For all their work, many Colonial Americans took payment not in cash, but in leaf. Due to a chronic shortage of official English coin, colonists often bought and sold items with tobacco or other “rated commodities,” to which colonial authorities assigned a certain value in pounds, shillings, and pence (the official English units of money at the time and used until 1971). Besides pressing tobacco into service to facilitate commerce, each colony also printed its own paper money. Each colony also acted as a currency trader, assigning a value to foreign money, often Spanish dollars, circulating alongside English pounds. Because the value of that paper money and foreign coin depended on each colony’s proclamation, it was known as “proclamation money.”


In Colonial America, a set of bed sheets cost more than the bed itself. According to one North Carolina probate inventory — a list of an individual’s assets at his death, and some of the richest sources of genealogical records available on Ancestry and elsewhere — a set of “fine Holland sheets” in 1680 cost 50 shillings (written as £2:10:00 — 20 shillings equaled a pound). The bed itself cost only eight shillings (written as £0:08:00). In addition to Dutch textiles, French silks for dresses and Indian tea were prohibitively expensive because imported goods from anywhere other than England were limited by the Crown, even for wealthy families. The surprising disparity reflects the reality of the times: wood was abundant in 17th century North Carolina, but finely spun and woven fabric was unavailable in the colonies and had to be imported at great expense.




  1. Monika

    “True facts”??? Are there also “untrue facts”? Oh, yes, they exist in the facts that New Ancestry creates!

  2. Teressa

    Excellent blog post, thank you. The writeup for items 5 and 6 were each very instructive for my personal research — item 5 for the description of rated commodities, plus now I finally understand “proclamation money” and item 6 for the information related to reading money notation for shillings/pounds. The shillings/pounds thing is still fuzzy for me, though. I need to find out more about value relative to modern value, worth of currencies to each other and modern value, and when we shifted to dollars. That said, perhaps the author can write another blog to expand on those two items, or perhaps point folks to references to find more information.

    PS — No, I still don’t like the “New Ancestry” and have been vocal in both my dislike and dismay … but the author has written a good, useful piece and acknowledgement for something helpful and worthwhile should be made when one finds it!

  3. Gerald Brickwood

    Cash and Coin? Sure how do you think the dollar became known as a “buck”. A deer hide was valued at one dollar. And specie (coined money) was also often cut into 8 pieces so a dollar cut into eighths would have 8 bits each worth 12 1/2 cents so a “quarter” was two bits.
    Fabrics? Ever hear of linsey-woolsey? Nearly every farmstead grew some flax to make linen for their use. Home spinning and weaving was common.

  4. Janice

    Interesting info. It would be nice to have more information (now that we are finding old wills and such on Ancestry) about some of the other items that may be on an inventory of possessions, old terminology, etc. I’ve even seen descriptions of clothing and it would be interesting to know more about what they wore. As a side note, I wish some folks would just stop using every blog post as an excuse to complain about the new Ancestry.

  5. Dale and Debra Thomas

    I don’t know if this is a good place to put am invitation but we are having an 80th birthday for my mother n law Betty June Thomas (Taylor)November 21st 2015. Anyone who is relative by DNA please you are invited to Yuma arizona. Bring you travel trailer stay at a motel or in a couple rooms we, have. Please email or call 928 210 8356. Thank you. We are sure to have fun. Thank you Debra T#omas

  6. Jane Gramlich

    Just recently, I visited 18th c. house museums in New Jersey whose interpreters stated that 1) the bed was often the most expensive item in the house and 2) imported fabrics were actually cheaper than homemade. But that’s 18th c. NJ, and your examples are 17th c. NC. This contrast just goes to show that what we often think of as historical “truth” is highly generalized, when it’s really much more complicated and nuanced than we realize.

  7. bill

    Very intersting. I agree with a previous poster, I very much detest the “new ancestry”, but this was interestting.

  8. Don

    I like this information. The contrast in historical interpretation is one of the most interesting things about history. I liked this posting. I am getting used to the new Ancestry as well. Change is a process not an event! History is fluid and so is

  9. Jan

    I’m never dramatic, but I cried when I tried the “new ancestry”. I detest it and cringe when a think that soon that will be the “only ancestry”.

  10. Terry

    Thank you Sandie, for a glimpse in the life of our Colonial ancestors. It allows me to imagine and understand more about them. It would have been even better with research sources. I add my utter exasperation with some of the changes in the ‘new’ Ancestry. As a researcher, I am interested in finding and recording accurate source documentation for my ancestors. Several aspects of the ‘new’ version make this endeavor more difficult, which baffles me that Ancestry would seem to choose pretty pages over accuracy and ease of research. Perhaps our communications with them will help Ancestry decision makers to consider our concerns. Perhaps they have waited to make the change complete because they are finding ways to implement our suggestions. I hope so, and want to believe that they are.

  11. Sharon Broglin

    Sometimes you really need to know historical facts when you are doing genealogy. A good knowledge of history makes stories that seem unbelievable easier to grasp. I love the history lessons that are being given to us. Strange but true, like it or not.

  12. Larry

    I enjoyed the history writings but it would be nice to perhaps have some footnotes and references noted at the end. Just a thought.

  13. nancy

    Interesting article, especially about the 1-3 pregnancies, perhaps my ancestor was one of those, so I need to look again at the probable ones I dismissed. I would love for ancestry to give us a lesson on reading wills, especially pertaining to legal terms and the mention of in law, nephew, son, etc. And at what point did a son in law mean son in law and nephew. That gets confusing.

  14. Would like to know how much a pound was worth in dollars back in the 1700s/1800s, especially in North Carolina. I do enjoy this very helpful and informative info ! Thank you !

  15. Linda Hendricks

    I do like the new family story summative and timeline format. I find this helpful in assimilating info for a family lineage line. But I do miss the aspect of the old format in that you could click to add if this was your 4th or 21st great. This is not on the new one that I can find. Help and Disappointed.

  16. Karin

    I also thought the information about Colonial life was interesting, but we all need to remember to add sources/references when we write a piece!!

  17. William

    I really like the new format as I can add more information by just going to your web site and add. As for as charts, do this on you private software.

  18. Betty

    This is good and interesting information.

    I, too, have been a subscriber almost from t he beginning. I, too, detest the new Ancestry format. It is hard to read and difficult in which to get around. Have a friend who stopped her subscription because of this NEW format. I am sure that MANY of the subscribers are like I am, elderly, and the text is hard and finding the information is equally difficult.

    Please, Ancestry, listen to your subscribers!

  19. Sonya

    Where is any reference to Native Americans/First Nations? Wampum isn’t even mentioned as a form of currency, nor is fur trading as an occupation.

  20. Sue B

    For Teresa and all those who are fuzzy over pounds shilling and pence: there use to be 12 pennies to one shilling and 20 shillings to one pound (so there were 240 pennies in a pound). We no longer have shillings and there are now 100 pennies to one pound since decimalisation in 1971. You may also come across the term guinea – a guinea was one pound and one shilling (21 shillings), a unit commonly used for expensive items. Due to inflation, there is now almost nothing that costs less than one pound, but even when I was a child, it took me all year to save 10 shillings from my pocket money.

  21. Joseph C

    It also was not unusual for those men who would be going west to have children by the intended wives prior to marriage to verify that the wife could bare children. Never, never change a birth date unless the date can be verified.

  22. Jeanette

    Ancestry needs proofreaders: the article states that English shillings, pence, etc. were in use in Colonial America until 1971.

  23. Mynda Holman McGuire

    The 18th Century word Woodwharfian had me stumped until I finally learned it was the owner of a wharf that only dealt in wood. (At least in Boston). Another I found often in wills made in Maryland and Virginia that had the phrase, “leaves his/her personality to…”
    at that time referred to misc. personal or household goods not already listed to go to someone.

  24. matt

    Could folks please stick to the subject: the informative blog post? The “I don’t like the new ancestry” crowd needs to find other ways to express their displeasure that junking up responses to fine articles. Personally, I think the new format is good and enjoy the changes.

  25. Walter

    I do not like the new Ancestry. I feel sorry fro the folks who are jst starting out and have to deal with it. Maybe you could just make both available?

  26. Paula

    I really enjoyed this article. I’m always interested in the life of the Colonists however, I have to agree with MANY MANY others on here when they say the New Ancestry IS HORRIBLE!!!!!….If Ancestry REALLY does appreciate our feedback they may want to listen to this

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