Many hands, many cradles

Detail of The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass. Dec. 22nd 1620, lithograph by Currier & Ives. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Detail of The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass. Dec. 22nd 1620, lithograph by Currier & Ives. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I’m in the middle of doing some research for a lecture that I’ll be giving in April at NEHGS entitled “The Hand that Rocked the Cradle.” It will use an informal statistical sampling of the women who have been included in the Early New England Families Study Project so far to see if we can form any general pictures about these ladies and their families. Preliminary statistics are interesting.

The gross totals: 88 women who had 116 husbands, 608 children (an average of about 7 each) and 174 step-children. I think that is what they call “populating a wilderness!”

On average these women were born about 1620, came to New England about 1636 (about age 16), were married for the first time about 1640 (age 20), and lived to about 1682 (age 62). Those who had multiple marriages averaged age 41 for the second marriage (22 women), 46 for the third (4 women), and 42 for the fourth (1 woman).

The youngest at first marriage was 15, oldest at first marriage, 32. The woman who lived to the greatest age was 97, and the one who died the youngest was 21.

These women were wives, mostly, of the second generation Great Migration sons who came to New England with their parents, and, themselves, came to New England during the Great Migration with their own families, or as servants to extended family or to families who were often neighbors in their society or church at home.

An example of an “average” woman in this group is Elizabeth (Baker) (Watkins) Hudson. She was younger than average when she came to New England, only 3 when her parents Alexander and Elizabeth Baker came to Boston, but she married first to Thomas Watkins at about age 20 and had seven children before being widowed at age 57. She was 63 when she married her second husband, Francis Hudson (who was 77), as his second wife (his first having died the year before), and became step-mother to his four grown children. Elizabeth died two years later at age 65.

For me the most interesting statistic is the average birth year of these women, 1620. They were born, almost literally, as the Pilgrims were stepping on Plymouth Rock, and their entire childhoods would have been spent among families talking about, planning, and executing their removal from the old world to the new. They would have had no choice about coming to New England, but did they see it as a great adventure or were they sulking teenagers? I know that I would have been one of the sulking teenagers. I get seasick and I hate sleeping on any mattress but my own.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

37 thoughts on “Many hands, many cradles

    1. This is a fascinating analysis of these early New England women. I wonder how much of their lives in the new world were shaped by their immigrant experience (multiple marriages because husbands died more frequently? more frequent childbearing due to better environmental factors?) compared to the lives of their peers still in Old England during those years. And yes, how interesting that the average birth year of the group thus far is about 1620.

      This makes me want to do some analysis of my own early New England ancestral women to see how they compare.

      Alicia, I hope you update this analysis as additional women are added to the study project. (And thanks for humanizing these young ladies with your musing on sulking teenagers! I think our ancestors were more relatable than we sometimes see them.)

      1. Candy, I hope to keep expanding the study as we go along, as time permits — as soon as I figure out how to do formulas in Excel.

        The ladies of the Great Migration years will, I think, be older and almost all married before they came, so that study will be interesting on its own. I think the women will keep me busy, so someone else can take up the men!

        1. I’d be happy to help with Excel formulas – I use/create them everyday. Feel free to email me.

          1. Thank you. I have been able to learn enough for the purposes of this sampling, but I’ll put you on the list if I need anything.

  1. It seems pretty clear that the iron cage of marriage closed early and firmly on the women in your study group. Of course marriage was a virtual necessity for survival in 17th century New England. But that makes it all the more important–albeit much more difficult–first, to identify, and second to come to some generalizations about the women who didn’t marry and have children.

    For better or worse, that cage was ordinarily double-occupancy, so I’d like to learn the results of a similar study of the 1620 generation men. And then of the men in that generation who didn’t marry or have recorded children. I would assume that their lives were less ” brutish and short” than those of their “sisters.” but is there any evidence to support such an assumption?

    And I certainlly hope that the text of you upcoming lecture will appear on line, say, at American Ancestors. Can’t wait to read it if it does.

    1. David, good questions, all. I think, though, that we have to remember that women of the time may have felt more like the cage was a safe room. Without their own money or a male protector, they had no way of earning a living and supporting themselves except in menial service. If you read Jane Austin or Georgette Heyer’s Regency’s Romance novels, you get a good feeling for what it was like to be an unprotected female. So, the variable was whether you found a good man and you both treated each other right!

      1. Paris, Making a home in the wilderness, they learned to provide everything they needed to survive. Women and children were “allowed” to do whatever was necessary and they did it very well.

        1. Yes, they did. And if you don’t think women had any say, look at Abigail Adams, Deborah Franklin, Dolley Madison–albeit a later generation, things don’t change that much! My pioneering women in the Rockies did everything the men did, but some of the heavy lifting, and they orgsnized schools and churches to boot, all with a whalebone corset and a baby on their hip!

          I think the original intent was that the man of the house voted for the household, which worked out pretty much the same. Couples may not always have agreed, but that happened on both sides of an issue, so it evened out in the end. The landless were the ones without any voice, not the women. (My opinion, not a researched fact there).

          Thanks for the recommendation on Nick Bunkers book; having 13 ancestors on the Mayflower, some up to five times, I know it will be a great read!

  2. My ancestors came to the USA in 1630 so I hope possibly they are included. I think it’s great to hear about those who breached the unknown and survived. We have much to be proud of and thankful for….

    1. Sandra, your 1630 immigrants came before the Early New England Families I’m studying, but if I have time, I may be able to make a smaller sampling of the Great Migration ladies for comparison

  3. It would seem that the Mayflower pilgrims would not have become visible to the average upper class British citizen until it actually showed that “a profit ” could be made for its investors…. turning a profit was hit and miss and doubtful until 1628. Even then on the edge of illegality and having a shadow governance, the colony certainly would not have advertised itself to the masses. Not only had it settled on ground that it held no legal right to be on but furthermore faced with mutiny a Compact had to hastily implemented. Before you posit that the women and girls of the Great Migration were influence at all by the earlier Plymouth Colony, you may wish to review Nick Bunkers stellar research in his, “Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and their world. A new history”. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2010. The great Migration was an event into itself with multiple immigration “pulls and pushes”. The greater push was that the investor/ merchant class had learned from the Mayflower pilgrims that “a profit” could be made by such adventures.

    1. Viola, thanks I have not yet had time to read Nick’s book, but will try to do that soon. The Pilgrim settlement, small as it was, was still important to those who were already thinking about leaving England, which was a growing population. Plymouth proved it could be done, but it also proved you should have better planning! Winthrop benefited from everything Plymouth did wrong, and I am sure he started talking about taking the plunge as soon as word reached England that the entire colony didn’t die outright.

  4. A couple of things I recall reading: the only women with any power were widows. If they inherited land, they could vote. Also, early on, it was considered an aberration to live alone, so single men were housed with families.

    I wonder if there was any significant difference between the “Pilgrim” Separatist women and the later Puritans. They had quite different attitudes about many things. For example, Separatists wore bright colors and thought bawdy sex was great (as long as it was in the marriage bed).

    The people of this time had a similar World View to us, but until Victorian times, children were considered small adults. Note their dress and expectations to work with the rest of the family.

    Oh, how I wish I could attend this lecture. Sounds to me like an important and often-overlooked subject, and of great help to the rest of us. Thank you!!!

  5. My ancestors Lelands or Lealands, came Through Weymouth in mid 1600’s and eventually settled the town of Sherborn Ma. When reasearching the town records, only the men were listed as Selectmen, Surveyors, and Tax collectors, etc. It is so unfortunate, that women were not included in any decision making, as they were responsible for so much in family life but had no say. I have to wonder what would things be like today if women had been more allowed to have a say!!

  6. May I respectfully suggest that any future statistical analysis that you do work with medians instead of averages. In a really large sample, the difference is minimal, but in relatively small ones, a relative handful of really large or small numbers can seriously skew what might be seen as typical. With a median, you’d know that half the women had more, half had less of a quantity being measured.

    If you have an odd number in the data set, the median is the figure that represents a least one real datum and in an even number, two data bracket it. An average/mean can possibly be a number that belongs to no one, or even be quite distant from any real data set member.

    This is why for many quantities, like incomes, median is preferred to mean.

    You might also consider calculating standard deviations. That would define normal as a range about the average.

    As a slightly more complicated real-life example, the average height for adult men in the United States is about 70 inches, with a standard deviation of around 3 inches. This means that most men (about 68 percent, assuming a normal distribution) have a height within 3 inches of the mean (67–73 inches) – one standard deviation – and almost all men (about 95%) have a height within 6 inches of the mean (64–76 inches) – two standard deviations. If the standard deviation were zero, then all men would be exactly 70 inches tall. If the standard deviation were 20 inches, then men would have much more variable heights, with a typical range of about 50–90 inches. Three standard deviations account for 99.7 percent of the sample population being studied, assuming the distribution is normal (bell-shaped).

    With computers, it’s not really a complicated calculation, but is actually more useful.

    Meteorologists drive me nuts when they call an average temperature “normal”. Normal is always a range, not a single figure. In the above example, the average is 70″, but normal varies from, narrowly, 67-73″, more broadly, 64-76″, and broadest, 61-79″.

    Just a thought.

    1. Jerry, You bring me back to the days of my thesis when I was calculating medians almost by hand! Fortunately, Excel does those calculations and interestingly the median year of birth is same as average, 1620, with a standard deviation of 9.5. I’ve added a few more records since the last total so average marriage age is 27, median 21, deviation 12; average death age 62.5, median 65, deviation 19.

      However, the stats are only for my use while compiling my lecture, which will tell the stories of some of these ladies.

  7. Reading Nick Bunker’s book and Between Two Worlds: How the English became Americans by Malcolm Gaskill helped me to gain a (slightly) better understanding of our pilgrim ancestors. I found their world view to be vastly different. Bunkers book, particularly, helped me to understand the role religion played in their lives and also shed light on Bradford’s, Of Plymouth Plantation.

    Just a thought: I believe there is no solid evidence for the so-called Plymouth Rock; it being a story created in the 1800s by a man who said his father told him it was a rock that the pilgrims stepped onto when they first arrived.

    1. Elizabeth, I can assure you the rock was there. The questionable part is how it was used and who stepped on it first! Plymouth beach is flat and sandy and this stood out as a glacial deposit (before it got chopped to pieces) that could have been used in certain tides to hop out of the boat on one side and onto dry land on the other — but it has to be a shallow boat!

      1. Alicia – thank you. As far as I am concerned, the much younger second wife counts. Similar to much younger wife of Civil War soldiers getting pensions even today if I am not mistaken.

  8. Alicia – what is the earliest and latest year of birth for these women? You say that the average was 1620 but I would be interested in the range (i.e., the span). Alas it’s one of those formulas. If I can help, please ask; I can attach a expense and mileage spreadsheet with some formulas being used that would serve as examples.

    1. Howland, thanks. I’ve spent a day with the Excel tutorial and have the formulas mostly set up. The birth years range from1597 to 1645, but that last is a very much younger second wife. The next lower is 1638.

  9. Interesting data.
    My own ancestor, Sarah (Ingersoll) (Haines) Houlton was born in England during 1627 and arrived at Plymouth on 15 May 1629. The Ingersoll family then was transported on board the same vessel to Salem arriving there the 29th of June 1629. She married her first husband (my ancestor, William Hainse) about age 17. He died six years later. She then married Joseph Houlton. They first made their home in Newbury. She died at age 91 in Houlton, Essex, Massachusetts.

  10. Alicia,

    Fascinating story and conversation in the comments. I agree about using medians rather than averages, since your samples are still small.

    My New England ancestors arrived in 1638, settling Rowley, Mass. the next year. Will they be covered in your Great Migration series?

    Nick Bunker’s book is extremely helpful and interesting. He refers so often to Jeremy Bangs’ “Strangers and Pilgrims, Travelers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation” that I bought it as well. It’s even fatter, and I haven’t started it yet. The more foundational reading, the better I understand where these folks were coming from, in all senses of the word.

    However, Bunker had little to say about the women, so your project is doubly exciting. Since I live too far away to come to your lecture based on it, I also hope you’ll publish it, either online or in American Ancestors.

    Thanks for this article,

    1. Doris, Thank you. Your 1638 immigrants fall into the Great Migration “bucket” (through 1640) and will eventually be treated as part of that project.

    2. Doris — Thanks for another book recommendation. I had not heard of the Jeremy Bangs book. I have just finished Between Two Worlds by Malcolm Gaskill or “How the English became Americans.” I didn’t find it as accessible as Bunker’s book, but more foundational reading. We can’t erase our 21st century mind, but I we can come to a better understanding.

  11. There is a gaping hole when it comes to researching and publishing women’s history. I’m so glad you are doing this project. I also hope a transcript or video of your presentation will be made available online.

    Statistically analyzing certain facts in one’s family history data can be very much worth your time. I proved a pattern of above average age at first marriage in my 18th & 19th century New Hampshire Wilder/Sanger lineage.

    I had observed the age pattern while researching that line. But I was reluctant to add it to the commentary I’m writing b/c I had no substantiated evidence for my claim. While collecting the marriage age data I also noted that most of the Wilder sisters in one family had completed 2 or more years at Mt. Holyoke followed by teaching careers before their first marriages.

  12. An earlier comment was that an unmarried woman could only support herself by menial work. Wondered — was there any prostitution? Having it against religion tells me no, but knowing human nature…

    1. Ann, among the ladies in the present sample, no, unless one counts “That Winthrop Woman,” who lived with her third husband while the second was living, but prostitution was a reality if a girl could not find “proper” work. Religion never stopped anyone in that pursuit!

    2. I don’t know about New England, but in New Netherland a woman could have the occupation of midwife. One such was Tryntje Jonas (widowed mother of Anneke Jans) who was employed by the Dutch West India Company. [New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch; Volume II; Register of the Provincial Secretary 1642-1647; pp.471-472] They even built a house for her. [New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch; Volume I; Register of the Provincial Secretary 1638-1642; pp. 108-110]

      1. Howard, it was the same in New England, but that would apply to a married or widowed woman. Unmarried girls, of course, were not supposed to know anything about that subject!

        1. There is a wonderful book on midwifery, The Midwife’s Tale, about the midwife, Martha Ballard in 18th Century Maine. The book is by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich based on the diaries of Martha. PBS also made it into a documentary.

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