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Themes and Variations in Family Patterns

Digital History TOPIC ID 76

There were profound differences in the family patterns in New England, the Middle colonies, and the Chesapeake and southern-most colonies. In New England, a patriarchal conception of family life began to breakdown as early as the 1670s. In the Chesapeake and the Carolinas, a more stable patriarchal structure of relationships did not truly emerge until the mid-eighteenth century.

Demography partly explains these regional differences. After an initial period of high mortality, life expectancy in New England rose to levels comparable to our own. A healthful environment contributed to a very high birthrate (over half of New England children had nine or more siblings) and the first society in history in which grandparents were common. In the Chesapeake, in contrast, a high death rate and an unbalanced sex ratio made it impossible to establish the kind of stable, patriarchal families found in New England. During the seventeenth century, half of all marriages were broken within eight years, and most families consisted of a complicated assortment of step-parents, step-children, wards, and half-brothers and half-sisters. Not until the late-eighteenth century could a father be confident about his ability to pass property directly to his sons.

Religious differences also contributed to divergent family patterns. Not nearly as anxious as the Puritans about infant depravity, Quaker families in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey placed a far greater stress on maternal nurture than did Puritan families. Quakers also emphasized early autonomy for children. They provided daughters with an early dowry and sons with sufficient land to provide a basis for early independence.

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