ICYMI: The disappearing Leveretts

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 15 January 2014.]

Alicia Crane WilliamsI cannot imagine the faith that John Leverett and his wives, Hannah Hudson and Sarah Sedgwick, must have had to cope with deaths of so many of their children. By his two wives, John was the father of eighteen children, eleven of whom died as infants or young children. Six of these children were given the name Sarah after their mother, and five of them died before the sixth survived. Three sons were named John, none of whom lived to grow up.

John Leverett kept meticulous records of the births and deaths of his children in his Bible, noting the time of day and sometimes the tide. The record of his seventeenth child, one of the Sarahs, states that she was born at “10 clock in the evening at Low water” on 30 June 1670, baptized on 3 July, and “departed 16 day july at 2 a clock afternoon, halfe flood.”

John, Hannah, and Sarah knew nothing, of course, about chromosomes or DNA. To them each pregnancy and each death was the will of God, but clearly there was a genetic problem in the Leverett family that can be traced at least one more generation back to John’s parents. Thomas and Ann (Fitch) Leverett had fifteen children, nine of them boys, but only John and his sister Ann lived to marry. Of John’s children, only one boy out of five survived. Sarah, John’s second wife (who was fourteen years younger than he), had fourteen pregnancies that resulted in the birth of a child. In a world where the leading cause of death for women was childbirth, she survived her husband by 26 years and died at age 74.

It is the extreme number of children John fathered that allows us to see the genetic problem. If he had had only a few children, even a death rate of 60 percent could be considered possible, since child mortality was high because of disease and other environmental factors. The Leverett problem appears to have been Y-chromosome related. A study of the next generations of Leveretts would definitely be interesting.

John’s son Hudson (named for his mother’s family) was the only surviving male of his generation. He had two sons to survive, of which the elder was President John Leverett of Harvard, who had nine children but was only survived by two daughters. Thus the Leverett surname continued only through Hudson’s younger son, Thomas.

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.

10 thoughts on “ICYMI: The disappearing Leveretts

  1. This was thought provoking, Alicia… And fascinating. Who did John’s daughter Ann marry? You know genealogy is truly in your blood when these OLD names start ringing bells.

  2. These stories are so heartbreaking. The hope and faith must have been tremendous that allowed the couple to continue naming a child Sarah after both the mother and the daughters by that name who’d already died. I know that was the naming convention, but I think it must have been difficult to be the sixth daughter named Sarah.

    A hundred and fifty years after this Leverett tragedy, my gg grandfather, N.S. Bastion married a Sarah Miller in central Illinois in 1835. We know nothing about her except that she was b. in Davidson County, Tennessee and came to Illinois “with family.” He uses his Bible to keep careful track of all family events, and doesn’t record a child for them until the fall of 1848. There may have been miscarriages, but there weren’t even stillbirths, as he recorded one in his second marriage. Surely they would have thought this lack of children was the will of God, as he was a Methodist circuit riding preacher. They must also have rejoiced when God finally gave them a child. In the fall of 1849, the little family was sent to Monrovia, Liberia, where Bastion was to be a missionary. The child died there of “African fever” six weeks after they landed, and so did Sarah, six months later.

    Back in Dubuque, Iowa, Bastion met a school teacher twenty years his junior–at least they appear in the same ward there in the census in October 1850. Of six children, whose births he records to the minute (no tides in the upper Midwest) over the next ten years, four survive to marry. One of these was my great grandmother.

    For some reason, even in families back to Rev. War days, I don’t find the kind of infant mortality the Leveretts suffered. I have two families of 12 children, with 11 living into their 70s or 80s. I think you are right that in the Leverett’s case, it must have been genetic. Is there some way, at this remove, of testing this hypothesis?

    1. Doris, It is amazing how resilient human beings can be when they have to be. I don’t know if any DNA work can be done. I think the male line of the Leveretts died out after a few more generations, but I haven’t researched any more.

  3. Genetic tests may SOMEDAY tell us more. Imagine finding out that the generic problem is gender-linked (either X or Y Chromosome dependent AND whether dominant or recessive…)

    I’m noting some remarkable repeats of twinning in my own Cape Cod family lines and looking forward to more DNA information about that.

    1. Jane, I think this one can clearly be Y-chromosome since it affected children by both wives. It will be interesting when DNA progresses to that point where they can tell us everything we want to know!

  4. I hate to put a damper on the thinking here, but it seems much more likely that any genetic condition that may have killed all these Leverett children was an X linked condition. Girls inherit an X chromosome from each parent, giving them a total of two. Boys inherit an X from their mother and a Y from their father, so any Y linked condition can only affect male offspring and never the females. The children seemed to be dying in high percentages in both sexes and the only way this could happen, assuming that the same condition killed them all, would be if it was X linked. Of course, it could have been a condition that was not sex linked at all and therefore was just randomly inherited and was apparently lethal at a young age. At least one parent, in either case, would have to be a carrier to pass it on and if there was any kind of familial relationship between the two perhaps they both were, allowing for the possibility of even more offspring inheriting whatever was being passed on.

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