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Probate Records, Life Expectancy, and Life in Colonial New England

About the Project

Probate records have been kept since the 1600s and contain information that can be valuable in finding historic trends. We used Gloria and Jackson Main’s compilation of 18,509 death records as our source of data for investigating life in Colonial New England. To investigate the reliability of the Main data set for our purposes, we compared specific trends within the data to life-expectancy trends found by three professional historians. Although our data size differed from the data entries of the other historians, when our sample size wasn't overly small parallels could still be made. We therefore concluded that the probate records could be used as a possible source for our historical research.

Testing the Reliability and Usefulness of Probate Records

In our first investigation of the data's usefulness for life expectancy claims, we looked at death by age group within the Plymouth colony. The intent was to see to how closely the sample probate data matched a study found within James Axtell’s 1973 book, The American People in Colonial New England, a study originally conducted in 1970 by historian John Demos. When compared to the Demos findings, our data revealed significant differences. Although our data showed similar trends in that the percentages of deaths rose over time and dropped off quickly after age 90, Demos discovered that the age at which most men died was between 70-79, instead of 60-69 as the probate records showed. Further, between the ages of 20 and 39, our death percentages were more than three times greater than Demos’ findings. Because the original study was based on a sample of 645 persons while our investigation was based on 73 persons, it could be assumed that the value of our findings have been diminished by minimal sample size.

Yet, when another test was run using data from two towns within Massachusetts, our results largely corresponded to the findings of another historian. According to a study by Maris Vinoski, appearing in his 1979 book Studies in American Historical Demography: Studies in Population, in the 1600s there were significant rural-urban differences in life expectancies, where small agricultural communities such as Dedham had much higher life expectancies than larger coastal towns such as Boston. These differences were clearly seen in the probate records from Dedham and Boston. Despite a small number of useable records from Dedham, a considerable difference in life expectancy between the two environments aligned with Vinoski’s claim. We found that the average age of death in Boston was approximately six years lower than in Dedham.

The possible usefulness of probate records was even more encouraging when we recreated historian Richard Archer’s work. In a 1990 article in The William and Mary Quarterly, Archer used James Savage's Genealogical Dictionary of New England to find the average age of death for men over twenty in the New England colonies between 1630 and 1679. Averages based on our probate records closely resembled Archer’s up until 1669. Although the mean ages throughout these decades were not exactly the same, the data followed a very similar trend, climbing in every succeeding decade. 1670-79, however, showed a difference between the research. Archer found 1670-79 to have the highest average age of death at 55 years, while our highest average age was in the decade 1660-69 at 52.4 years, dropping in 1670-79 to 50.5 years. However, the data which Archer utilized for the five decades included 680 persons while our sample consisted of 1,223 usable individuals. This larger quantity of applicable persons may actually make our findings more accurate than Archer’s.

Our Individual Research

Colonial New England Occupations — To better understand the makeup of colonial New England occupations, I used the data to create data visualizations that could be useful when researching workers during this time. Using the probate records, I created a graph that shows the percent of the population that worked within various occupation. I went on to further explore work habits by region, comparing the occupations in coastal population centers and inland population centers. And, by extending this research even more, I was able to show the differences between populated urban centers and rural areas, where settlement was less concentrated. In my view, none of the graphs are surprising in their numbers. Here are some additional graphics: graph 1, graph 2, graph 3, graph 4, graph 5, graph 6. — by Will

Life Expectancy in New Hampshire Towns — By using probate records sorted by town codes, I created a chloropleth graph to see how life expectancy varied in different NH towns in the 1700s, only choosing to use towns with sufficient entries (over 20). The chloropleth shows that life expectancy slightly increases as one moves inland. This could be linked back to Maris Vinovski’s claim (see above) that urban, seacoast communities had lower life expectancies than rural towns, which was backed by our data finding a six year difference between urban Boston and rural Dedham. The data from inland NH can be considered more reliable, because there are more entries, but this brings into question if those towns had more entries because they had higher populations, or if they had more entries because those cities kept more records. — by Aubrey

Death in the 1720s — Within the 1720s, an unusual dip was found in the average age at death. Investigating possible causes, it was found that Dummer's War occurred during this time. However, because military personnel make up only 1.6% of the probate data, it's unlikey the war was responsible for the decline. In addition to Dummer’s War, a smallpox epidemic took place in Boston in 1721. This also likely had little effect on the trend, though, because the sample data set holds no records from Boston during this time period. And it's unlikely that the epidemic spread into the isolated rural areas of Massachusetts. Thus, although Dummer's War is one possibility, it's more likely that many small and perhaps unexplained events caused the decline. Or, the decline could also simply be the result of an anomaly within a deficient data set. — by Carson

Wealth and Age at Death Among Farmers — Apart from slight variations, the results confirmed assumptions about the correlation between average wealth and age at death of farmers. From 1630 to 1775, average wealth increased by about 351 pounds. Despite a few decades where the average decreased, the majority of the data followed a linear progression. Likewise, the average age had a few deviations with an overall increase of about 10.6 years. In comparison to the bar graph, the line graph seems to follow the same path. The findings are based on 6,489 individuals. The early recorded data had fewer numbers of entries, the lowest being eight individuals from 1630-1639. The later recorded data had more entries with the largest collection of individuals at 1,058 from 1760-1769. — by Uzma

Age at Death for Women — By running death averages for women in the 1600s and 1700s, it was discovered that the average death for the 1600s was 59.3 and 57.1 for 1700s. Both of these calculations were significantly higher than the average for men in those time periods. For the 1600s the men’s average was 48.3, about two years difference from women. And for the 1700s, the men’s average was 49.1, about an eight year difference from women. The data used, Gloria and Jackson Main’s probate records, stretched from 1631-1776. Though the number of overall female entries was limited, the absence of entries from 1631-1650 could perhaps be linked to a high percentage of women who died due to childbirth between 1630-1670, often leaving no probate records. The graph is based on ages at death above 20 years. — by Suzanne

Age at Death in the Military — The probate records show that, on average per decade, the age at death of individuals in the military generally increased. The lack of large-scale war and military conflicts from 1630-1776, aside from battles with Native Americans and the French and Indian War, probably influenced the trend. While one would perhaps expect to see the general trend in the data that is represented, there appears to be no explanation for variations. While the average age at death during the 1770’s (50) is much higher than the initial age of death during the 1630’s (32), the average age at death fluctuates greatly in between the two data points. Also, it can be seen that the majority of military deaths came from the colony of Connecticut. — by Bethie

Death by Occupation — By sorting entries into categories by decade and occupation, it can be determined that farming was the largest group of people throughout the period 1630s-1770s. (Four entries were removed from the 19,000+ probate records due to a lack of any occupation notes.) The visual shows this by hilighting the relationship between occupation and frequency of death. It can be noted that throughout the 150 years shown, the frequency within an occupation stayed relatively constant. Some occupations, such as sailors and military personnel, fluctuated a few times. For sailors, the peak of their frequency is during the 1660s. The 1760s experienced the most entries out of all the decades. Reaching 3,056 entries, it beats the runner up decade (the 1750s) by almost 500 entries. — by Jackie

About Us

"Probate Records, Life Expectancy, and Life in Colonial New England" is the product of the 2016-17 AP U.S. History class. We are:

Jackie Balch
Kayleigh Bean
Bethie Coverdale
Carson Garland
Naomi Gonzalez
Uzma Malik
Will Palin
Aubrey Porter (editor)
Suzanne Rickard