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.
1. COURTSHIP PRACTICES INCLUDED BED-SHARING
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.”
2. BLENDED FAMILIES WERE COMMON
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.
3. PARENTS EXPECTED SOME CHILDREN TO DIE
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.
4. JOBS WERE EXTREMELY LIMITED
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?
5. CURRENCY WASN’T JUST CASH AND COIN
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.”
6. IMPORTED GOODS WERE SOMETIMES WAY EXPENSIVE
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.
—Sandie Angulo Chen