Family Life

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Editors: Peggy Saari and Julie L. Carnagie
Date: 2000
Colonial America Reference Library
From: Colonial America Reference Library(Vol. 2: Almanac: Volume 2. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview; Personal account; Excerpt; Letter
Pages: 21
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1180L

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Page 237

Family Life

European colonists in North America had varying family patterns, especially during the 1600s. In the New England colonies, the early settlers immigrated in whole family units (now called nuclear families) composed of a father, mother, and children. They formed communities based on these nuclear families, which provided valuable stability for British colonial society. The climate of New England proved to be remarkably healthful, and the land supported numerous crops that made a relatively nutritious diet possible. As a result, family members in these colonies were on average healthier than people back home in England and in other colonies. The number of infant deaths was relatively low, and people lived longer lives.

The situation was quite different in other colonies. For instance, family life in New Netherland was unstable until Peter Stuyvesant (1610–1672) became leader of the colony in 1647 (see Chapter 4). He established policies to promote the immigration of nuclear families, which brought new stability to the colony. In early Virginia and Maryland, deadly diseases and different social conditions produced less stable communities. In the early seventeenth century, far more men than Page 238  |  Top of Article women came to the region, most of them unmarried indentured servants (people bound by signed documents to work as laborers for a specified time) who worked in tobacco fields. The few young women who did arrive during this period often found prospective husbands who paid off their terms of service so they could marry sooner. Plantation owners sometimes brought wives with them, but the overall ratio of men to women remained unbalanced, and there were not enough families to sustain the population until the 1680s (see Chapter 7).

The unhealthy climate also took a heavy toll on families in these colonies. Many people died of diseases such as malaria (a disease transmitted by mosquitoes), typhus (a disease transmitted by lice), and dysentery (a disease characterized by severe diarrhea). Few seventeenth-century families in the Chesapeake region survived intact until the children reached adulthood. For this reason, households and kinship extended beyond the nuclear family to include children from multiple marriages, children from households of relatives, and other relations.

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"I am myself both king and priest"

A letter published in the Spectator, an English magazine, in 1712 illustrates the patriarchal beliefs common in the colonial period. The writer stated: "Nothing is more gratifying to the mind of man than power or dominion: and this I think myself amply possessed of, as I am the father of a family. I am perpetually taken up giving out orders, in prescribing duties, in hearing parties [disputes], in administering justice, and in distributing rewards and punishments.... In short, Sir, I look upon my family as a patriarchal sovereign, in which I am myself both king and priest."

Reprinted in: Middleton, Richard, ed. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776, second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, p. 252.

Men's work, women's work

Family life in colonial America was based on the division of labor between men and women. Most English colonists lived and worked on farms, where men and women shared the responsibility of managing the household and making a living. Both might have participated in plowing and planting a field, harvesting and processing the crops, and caring for farm animals and livestock. Englishmen, however, tended to avoid domestic tasks such as food preparation and the care of young children. As their farms became established, husbands and wives tended to divide their tasks more clearly into housework and farmwork. Men might have herded and sheared sheep, for example, while the women carded, spun, and wove or knitted the wool into fabric. Vegetable gardening was also done by women, assisted by older children, especially girls. From an early age all children had Page 239  |  Top of Article simple chores to do around the house or in the garden.

Relations between men and women differed by region, according to their ethnic background and particular circumstances. Men and women in effect led separate lives. In most colonial societies, however, women were expected to respect their husbands' authority. A man was considered the head of the household and the family, while women were seen as totally dependent on men. Men dominated the world outside the household as well, since only they could vote and hold public office.

Marriage customs

Like other social patterns in colonial America, marriage customs varied according to colony, ethnic background, and social rank. Love was only one reason for colonists to get married, and often it was not the most important factor. New England Puritans thought a happy marriage depended on love between prospective partners. Other colonists, however, did not think love was a necessity before marriage, although they expected it to follow the taking of vows. Throughout all of the European colonies, marriage served to create bonds between important families. For instance, Spanish American aristocrats (ruling class or nobility) worked hard to limit their children's marriages to persons of the same rank. In the English colonies marriage could sometimes provide a way for young men or women to climb the social ladder. It could even strengthen the position of young gentlemen, as in the case of future U.S. president George Washington (1732–1799). By marrying the widow Martha Dandridge Curtis, he acquired the additional lands and wealth needed to make him one of the leading political figures in Virginia.

Different customs among English

For most English colonists marriage meant establishing a separate home and having children. Large families ensured that the family name would carry on, that the church and community would have a strong future, and that the household would have sufficient workers. Young colonists who wanted to marry could usually choose their partners themselves, although parents watched closely to make sure they made a suitable match. English colonists tended to marry later than people in other regions because fathers controlled the distribution of land to their sons and used this power to keep them at home until they were in their early to midtwenties. Daughters generally waited until their twenties to marry as well. Marriage between teenagers was rare. In New England marriages were generally stable and long-lasting. Newlyweds usually formed a separate household and began to have children within the first nine to fifteen months of marriage.

In the Chesapeake region, in contrast, many young women were Page 240  |  Top of Article married before their sixteenth birthday, seven to ten years sooner than women in New England or England. In these colonies, the high death rate meant that only one in three early marriages lasted as long as ten years. Because of the scarcity of women, remarriage was common for widows. This pattern produced complex extended families with many stepchildren and gave women unusual control over their families and property. Husbands often willed their estates to their wives, so wealthy widows enjoyed a wide range of potential husbands.

New France and Spanish borderlands

New France (present-day Canada) achieved an even balance in the ratio of men to women only after 1710, but the healthful climate contributed to stable nuclear families. Beginning in the early years of colonization, French trappers or traders often married or formed partnerships with Native American women, who could serve as interpreters and guides. The wilderness survival skills of these women were valuable to immigrant men. Relationships between native women and Europeans in New France remained common throughout the colonial period.

Similarly, the small number of Spanish women in the borderlands settled by Spain prompted the earliest soldier-settlers in that region to marry Native American women. (The Spanish borderlands were the Southeast, Southwest, and parts of present-day South Carolina and Alabama.) The Spanish government worked hard to promote the immigration of Spanish women, whose marriages helped create an upper class of mostly Spanish descent. In a society composed of both Spanish and mixed-race families, there was significant diversity in customs, and extended families became quite common in the Spanish borderlands.

Weddings as celebrations

Weddings in colonial North America were not universally considered religious occasions, but they were often celebrated with community festivities. Anglicans in Virginia and elsewhere considered weddings sacred rites. Anglican weddings were conducted by a minister, either in a church or in the bride's home, and were sealed with an exchange of rings and elaborate vows. Virginians commonly celebrated a wedding with feasting, dancing, and gift giving that involved the whole community and could last for days. Puritans, in contrast, considered weddings to be civil rather than religious occasions. They were usually conducted at home by a local justice of the peace. No rings were exchanged; the Puritans regarded this custom as superstition. A Puritan wedding often consisted of both partners answering a single question concerning their commitment and fidelity (faithfulness) to each other. Seventeenth-century New Englanders celebrated weddings with modest dinners (sometimes with large feasts by the eighteenth century), and wedding guests often completed the Page 241  |  Top of Article
A newly married couple dance at their wedding. Colonial weddings were festive events . A newly married couple dance at their wedding. Colonial weddings were festive events . festivities with a noisy celebration called a "charivari," in which they banged on pots, rang bells, and cheered outside the couple's honeymoon bedroom. Pennsylvania Quakers observed an elaborate, sixteen-stage process to complete a wedding, mixing celebration with religious ritual.

Children's lives

The way children were brought up in colonial America depended in part on where they lived. In regions where nuclear families were the norm, children commonly grew up in large families with seven or more siblings, though family size declined in the eighteenth-century coastal settlements. Typically the carefree childhood was short: children were expected to help the family with daily work at an early age. Ninety percent of colonial Americans lived on family farms, where children's labor was needed. Boys over the age of six worked as field hands and were trained to perform various farm chores as soon as they could handle them. Girls learned to help with domestic tasks. In many regions children also learned to Page 242  |  Top of Article read and write, although boys usually received more education than girls (see Chapter 12). As boys grew into teenagers, they assumed more responsibility at home or became apprentices in order to learn a trade. Teenage girls often served their own sort of apprenticeships by working as domestic servants in other households.

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A Wedding in the Spanish Borderlands

Couples in areas controlled by the Spanish had very different weddings from those held in New England. In Spanish colonies a wedding was both a community celebration and a solemn religious ceremony. The celebration began with a great procession in which the veiled bride, with her father at her side, walked from her home to the church and up the aisle to the altar, preceded by her bridesmaids, family, and friends. At the altar the father literally gave the bridegroom his daughter's hand. The priest read a passage from the Bible and then stepped down in front of the couple, where he explained to them and the community the meaning of marriage. He concluded his remarks with the Latin statement "ergo vos in matrimonium conjugo" ("Therefore I unite you in marriage"). The groom then gave a ring to the bride, slipping it on her thumb first with the words "In the name of the Father," then on her index finger while saying "and of the Son," next on the middle finger with "and of the Holy Spirit," and finally on the fourth finger with "Amen." Wealthy grooms gave their brides gold rings, while commoners gave bands of wood or leather. After the ring was given, the couple was often wound with a large rosary or rope to symbolize their union. If he had not already done so, the groom then gave the bride an arras, a symbolic gift of thirteen coins in a pouch. The priest often rented this item to grooms who might not otherwise be able to afford the custom. The wedding concluded with a mass, and then the priest gave the kiss of peace to the groom, who then gave it to the bride. Afterward the couple left the church amid music, gun salutes, and loud celebration, which served both to congratulate the couple and to ward off evil spirits.

Reprinted in: Gutierrez, Ramon A. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Loss, hardship, and faith

Early colonists led hard lives, and the lives of their children were equally difficult. Although the birth-rate in colonial families was higher than the European norm, only a fraction of the children who were born survived to adulthood. Many died at a young age, most from illness and disease. Page 243  |  Top of Article
A colonial family harvesting wheat. As this illustration shows, children were expected to help with chores at an early age. Reproduced by permission of Corbis. A colonial family harvesting wheat. As this illustration shows, children were expected to help with chores at an early age. Reproduced by permission of Corbis. Their parents mourned their deaths but probably viewed these losses as inevitable. Parents needed large families in order to protect themselves from poverty, and they had many children in order to ensure that some survived to work on their farms and to take care of them when they became too old to provide for themselves.

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Puritan notions of children

The early colonists of New England did not conceive of childhood as a carefree time of play. Nor did they think of children as generally innocent. Beliefs about the nature of childhood varied according to the religious backgrounds of the colonists, but many believed that children were born with potentially evil qualities. Their natures had to be changed before they could become good. Among the northern colonists, only the Quakers believed that children were inherently good and could be taught by example. Others felt that strict discipline was necessary to civilize children. In Child Life in Colonial Days, historian Alice Morse Earle quoted John Robinson, a Pilgrim minister, who expressed the general view of childhood when he wrote, "Surely there is in all children (though not alike) a stubbernes and stoutnes of minde arising from naturall pride which must in the first place be broken and beaten down that so the foundation of their education being layd in humilitie and tractablenes other virtues may in their time be built thereon." So the first step in bringing up a child was to "break and beat down" his or her stubborn and rebellious nature. Idleness and play were viewed as foolishness.

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Faith, Patience, Tremble

The names many early English colonists gave to their children seem to reflect the parents' perceptions of the danger and hardship of their lives—and their hopes and fears. One infant whose father died was named Fathergone; another fatherless child was named Abiel ("God is my father"). Many names were taken from the Bible: Joseph, Abigail, Sarah, Hannah, Zurishaddai ("the Almighty is my rock"), and Gershom ("I have been in a strange land"). Others reflected virtues or hopes: Comfort, Deliverance, Hope, Patience, Faith, Endurance, Submit, Silence, Joy, Hoped For, Temperance, Preserved, Waitstill, Hopestill, Wait, Thanks, Experience, More Mercy, Return, Believe, Tremble. Most of these names sound strange to modern ears, but they convey some of the values the early colonists hoped to instill in their children.

Early childhood

Most infants were baptized soon after birth to protect their souls if they should die. Even during the coldest days of winter, newborns were taken to the church to be baptized. The water in the christening bowl might be covered with ice, which had to be broken. Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), a Boston, Massachusetts, judge described such baptisms of his children in chilly water. On January 22, 1694, he wrote in his diary, "A very extraordinary storm [today] by reason of the falling and driving of Snow. Few women could get to Meeting. A Child named Alexander was baptized in the afternoon."

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Beginning in infancy, children were molded, physically and emotionally. Many infants wore swaddling clothes, long cloths wrapped snugly around the baby's body in an effort to make it grow straight. Crawling and sleeping in the fetal position (the position of an unborn child in the womb) were considered signs of children's tendency to behave like animals, so parents tried to discourage these habits. Colonial parents encouraged babies to skip over the crawling stage by placing them at an early age in "go-carts," or walkers, which held the baby in an upright position with its feet on the ground. A similar device was the "standing stool," a frame with a toy tray, which supported the baby in an upright position but did not roll.

In their first few years of life, colonial children probably did not receive much attention from their families. Every able-bodied person was busy with work, and children were not thought to need much beyond the necessities of food and warmth. Besides, it was believed that a child who received too much affection would be spoiled. Usually, older children or servants kept an eye on the youngest ones.

Most colonial children had few if any toys; instead they probably invented ways to play with whatever they could find. Older children could play games like leapfrog, hide-and-seek, blindman's buff, marbles, or similar games that did not require much equipment. Some children had a simple doll or other toys, usually homemade. Young children of both sexes wore the same gowns of homespun fabric during their early years, especially if they lived on a farm. Boys graduated to wearing pants at about age six. The children of the gentry had much more elaborate and fine-textured clothing, at least for special occasions.

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Warning to a Child

A verse in a child's schoolbook makes clear the consequences for misconduct:

My child and scholar take good heed
unto the words that here are set,
And see thou do accordingly
or else be sure thou shalt be beat.

Reprinted in: Earle, Alice Morse. Child Life in Colonial Days. New York: Macmillan, 1899; reprinted Stockbridge, Mass.: Berkshire House Publishers, 1993, p. 191.

Beginning responsibilities

At about age six most children moved to a new stage of childhood, in which they were expected to assume more responsibility. They were given chores to do around the farm or in the home. In many regions they might also begin to receive some education. Whether they were studying or doing chores, children were expected to work diligently. Often they were busy for most of their waking hours, for many colonial parents believed that "the devil finds work for idle hands." In the early eighteenth century, the Page 246  |  Top of Article
A child's doll from the colonial period. Dolls like this were probably one of the few toys that colonial children might have. Reproduced by permission of Corbis. A child's doll from the colonial period. Dolls like this were probably one of the few toys that colonial children might have. Reproduced by permission of Corbis. Brainerds, a Puritan family in Connecticut, kept their sons constantly busy as this excerpt from Child Life in Colonial Days shows:

The boy was taught that laziness was the worst form of original sin. Hence he must rise early and make himself useful before he went to school, must be diligent there to study, and promptly come home to do "chores" at evening. His whole time out of school must be filled up with some service, such as bringing in fuel for the day, cutting potatoes for the sheep, feeding the swine, watering the horses, picking the berries, gathering the vegetables, spooling the yarn. He was expected never to be reluctant and not often tired.

Even before they reached their teen years, children knew that life meant hard work and responsibility. And although parents recognized that adolescents could not handle all the responsibilities of the adult world, society hurried them toward maturity as quickly as possible. They believed that an individual's spiritual salvation, as well as their success in the adult world, depended upon avoiding the pitfalls of childishness and reaching a sober maturity.

In order to learn a trade, some boys were sent to work for a master at about the age of ten in an arrangement called an apprenticeship (see "Apprentices" in Chapter 7). Usually they lived with and worked for their masters for about nine years. The master took over the shaping of the young man and had a relationship with him much like that of a father—strict but kind. Sometimes boys were sent to live with a master because they had been orphaned or their own families were too poor to feed them. Some of these boys were abused or exploited, but most were probably treated much as they had been at home. If a family was poor, girls Page 247  |  Top of Article might be sent to work as servants in the homes of wealthier colonists.

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A Typical Day

Maria Carter was the young daughter of Landon Carter, owner of the Stuart Hall plantation in Virginia. She wrote the following letter to her cousin—also named Maria Carter—who lived at Cleve plantation. The writer described a typical day in her life as a girl in an aristocratic family.

March 25th 1756

My Dear Cousin

You have really imposed a Task upon me which I can [by] no means perform, viz [namely] that of writing a merry & comical letter; how shou'd [I] . . . my dear that I am ever confined either at School or with my Grand-mama[.] [You?] know how the World goes on. Now . . . I will give you the history of one Day, the Repetition of which without variation carries me through the Three hundred & sixty five Days which you know compleats the year. Well then first to begin, I am awakened out of a sound Sleep with some croaking voice either Patty's, Milly's, or some other of our Domestics with Miss Polly Miss Polly get up, tis time to rise, Mr. Price [her tutor?] is downstairs, & tho' I hear them I lie quite snug till my Grand-mamma raises her Voice, then up I get, huddle on my Cloathes & down to the Book [lessons], and then to Breakfast, then to School again & may be I have an hour to my self before Diner & then the same Story over again till twi-Light, & then a small portion of time before I go to rest, and so you must expect nothing from me but that I am

Dear Cousin

Most Affectionately Your's

Maria Carter

Source: Manuscript. The College of William and Mary, Earl Gregg Swem Library, Manuscript and Rare Books Department.

Children as miniature adults

It has often been noted that portraits from the colonial period depict children as miniature adults—in their dress, their poses, and their expressions. Sometimes even the proportions of their bodies are more like those of adults than of children. Such distortions reflect the conceptions of children of those times. While colonial portraits of children of the gentry may have reflected the artist's idealized version of these subjects, it is also true that at an early age, colonial children were expected to behave in a mature and sober fashion, to take work and studies seriously, and above all, to honor and obey their parents, teachers, and ministers.

The serious minds of New England children can be found reflected in their journals. Some made entries about daily activities, but most of the surviving books are devoted to religious subjects. Children's journals display Page 248  |  Top of Article
A depiction of a child being punished with a beating by his teacher. This form of punishment was not uncommon during the colonial period. Reproduced by permission of The Granger Collection. A depiction of a child being punished with a beating by his teacher. This form of punishment was not uncommon during the colonial period. Reproduced by permission of The Granger Collection. a preoccupation with Puritan ideas of the importance of self-improvement, as well as with topics like sin, punishment, and hell. These diaries give us some idea of the things parents, ministers, and teachers discussed with children.

Conduct and manners

Children growing up in New England farming and artisan families were viewed as naturally inclined to being bad. If their wills could be broken, they could be prepared not only for religious salvation but also for functioning well in Puritan society. Some parents tried gentle methods to teach a child to obey, but whipping was commonplace, at home and at school. Other times children might be made to wear painful devices on their noses or in their mouths and to wear signs that announced their offense. Disobedient students might be yoked together with a device similar to an ox yoke, or labeled with signs such as "Tell-Tale," "Bite-Finger-Baby," "Lying Ananias," "Idle-Boy," or "Pert-Miss-Prat-a-Pace." Not learning one's lesson might be punished by beating or by having to stand on a stool wearing a dunce cap (a conical cap used as punishment for slow learners at school).

Colonial parents and schoolteachers did not always use harsh punishments. For example, it seems that Dutch schoolmasters were much less likely to beat their students. Some schoolmasters were quite progressive in their ideas about teaching and discipline.

Sewall's diary only occasionally referred to having punished his children. Once he whipped his son for lying; on another occasion, in 1692, he wrote that "Joseph threw a knob of Brass, and hit his sister Betty upon the forehead so as to make it bleed; upon which, and for his playing at Prayer-time, and eating when Return Thanks [during the blessing] I whipped him pretty smartly." But Sewall also described how sad he was when his son's behavior reminded him of Page 249  |  Top of Article Adam's disobedience in the Garden of Eden (according to the Christian Bible, Adam was the first man on Earth who committed the first sin): "When I first went in . . . he sought to shadow and hide himself from me behind the head of the Cradle, which gave me the sorrowful remembrance of Adam's carriage." This incident illustrates the way Puritans saw evidence of people's inescapable sinfulness everywhere. When they perceived it in children, they sought to destroy it for the good of the child.

Families outside New England may not have used the strict methods of the Puritans to correct their children, but they did resort to spankings, deprivation, and other means of punishment to make their children conform to the demands of the community. Children of Chesapeake and Carolina planters were instilled with the community's values of competitiveness and assertiveness, but they were also taught to observe the elaborate social rules that governed planter society. They learned to bow or curtsy, to address their parents and social superiors respectfully, to show courtesy to their equals, and to be kind to their social inferiors.

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The Advantages of the Rod

Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century English lexicographer (a person who studies vocabulary), held a view on whipping that was probably shared by many American colonists: he endorsed the beating of children even though he himself had suffered under the correction of an unusually severe schoolteacher. According to Johnson, his teacher would shout as he beat his students, "This I do to save you from the gallows [a structure used to hang criminals]." Johnson said that his beatings were probably the reason for his having learned Latin. He argued that the rod was a better motivator for children than the promise of parental approval for good behavior:

I would rather have the rod to be the general terror to all, to make them learn, than to tell a child, if you do this, or thus, you will be more esteemed than your brothers and sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there's an end on't. Whereas, by exciting emulation [imitation] and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other.

Reprinted in: Earle, Alice Morse. Child Life in Colonial Days. New York: Macmillan, 1899; reprinted Stockbridge, Mass.: Berkshire House Publishers, 1993, p. 194.

Behavior at the table

Expectations for the table manners of children in the colonies were apparently intended to reinforce their subordinate position in the family. In some colonial homes, children never ate sitting at the table with adults—they either stood at the table throughout the meal or stood behind the adults, who passed food to them. Some ate at a side table. In Child Life in Colonial Days, historian Alice Morse Earle quoted from a Page 250  |  Top of Article widely circulated book on manners for colonial children, which sternly spelled out rules for behavior at mealtimes:

Never sit down at the table till asked, and [only] after the blessing. Ask for nothing; tarry [wait] till it be offered thee. Speak not. Bite not thy bread but break it. Take salt only with a clean knife. Dip not the meat in the same. Hold not thy knife upright but sloping, and lay it down at right hand of plate with blade on plate. Look not earnestly at any other that is eating. When moderately satisfied leave the table. Sing not, hum not, wriggle not. Spit no where in the room but in the corner. . .

Other bad habits of the day are brought vividly to light in the following instructions: "Eat not too fast nor with Greedy Behavior. Eat not vastly but moderately. Make not a noise with thy Tongue, Mouth, Lips, or Breath in Thy Eating and Drinking. Smell not of thy Meat; nor put it to Thy Nose. . ."

Courtesy, respect, and obedience

Children in the colonies had to display respect toward adults at all times. For instance, Earle mentioned this: "When any speak to thee, stand up. Say not I have heard it before. Never endeavor to help him out if he tell it not right. Snigger not; never question the Truth of it." Standing and bowing was expected when any adult entered the room. Etiquette books even addressed the issue of how to walk to school:

Run not Hastily in the Street, nor go too Slowly. Wag not to and fro, nor use any Antick Postures either of thy Head, Hands, Feet or Body. Throw not aught on the street, as Dirt or Stones. If thou meetest the scholars of any other School jeer not nor affront them, but show them love and respect and quietly let them pass along.

Standards for children's public behavior seem designed to suppress all playful, silly, or rebellious urges.

The missionaries (people who do religious work in foreign lands) David and John Brainerd were brothers who were born in Connecticut in the early 1700s and grew up in a Puritan family of humble means. Earle quoted from their biography, which gave a description of the upbringing of boys at the time:

A boy was early taught a profound respect for his parents, teachers, and guardians, and implicit prompt obedience. If he undertook to rebel his will was broken by persistent and adequate punishment. He was taught that it was a sin to find fault with his meals, his apparel, his tasks or his lot in life. Courtesy was enjoined as a duty. He must be silent among his superiors. If addressed by older persons he must respond with a bow. He was to bow as he entered and left the school, and to every man and woman, old or young, rich or poor, black or white, whom he met on the road. Special punishment was visited on him if he failed to show respect for the aged, the poor, the colored, or to any persons whatever whom God had visited with infirmities.

The care of children

During the colonial period people had no understanding of the role that bacteria and germs play in spreading disease or infection. Many of their daily habits created opportunities Page 251  |  Top of Article for illness. Washing the body, or even the hands, was not considered necessary. In most early households, all family members ate from shared dishes or even out of the same large pot set in the middle of the table. Often one large drinking vessel was passed around the table and each person drank from it in turn. Toilet facilities were primitive, usually consisting of an outhouse or "privy" in the yard.

Colonists did realize that some diseases could be spread from one person to another, but they did not always know how. Some used vinegar as a disinfectant. Sometimes a sick person was isolated, but many communicable (contagious) diseases were not thought to be spread by contact. At any rate, the everyday habits of the colonists meant that these efforts were probably useless. It is fortunate that in North America they did not encounter many new diseases, at least in the northern colonies. (Native Americans had the opposite experience: contact with Europeans brought them many fatal epidemics; see Chapter 1.) However, harsh environments—bitterly cold in the North, hot and humid in the South—combined with the unsanitary practices of the colonists meant that many people died of illness and infection.

Colonists who fell ill often had to endure strange medical practices and unpleasant medicines. Seventeenth-century colonists still believed that the position of the planets and even weather conditions could affect health, one's fate, and the effectiveness of medicines, which gives us some idea of how limited their medical knowledge was. Throughout the colonial period, useless or even harmful practices such as bloodletting (draining "bad" blood from the body), sweating, dipping in cold water, and purging (giving laxatives) were used.

Colonial home cures Today the cures and medicines used in colonial times seem worse than the diseases themselves. One popular medicine was a liquid called "Venice treacle." This tonic contained white wine, "vipers" (venomous snakes), opium, "spices from both the Indies," licorice, red roses, juice from the sour black fruit of the blackthorn shrub, honey, and many herbs, including germander and Saint-John's-Wort. Recipes for medicines were circulated among the colonies. Another potion commonly used was "snail water," which was believed to cure rickets (a disease that affects the young during the period of skeletal growth), which many children suffered from in the colonies. The Servants Directory (1682), a book instructing nursemaids in the care of children, gave the following cure for rickets:

First give the child three doses of gentle physic [medicine]; then get a peck of garden snails, bruise them in a marble mortar, then throw them into a flannel bag, and let [the liquid] drop into a bason, which liquor you are to save. Then take the child, the first thing in the morning and the last at night, before the fire whether in summer or winter, and with a piece of new flannel in your hand rub the child all over the back and joints; then dip it in the snail liquor, and rub the child well with it on every joint and the back bone . . . after Page 252  |  Top of Article this practice, give it one dip with the head foremost into water every morning, then put on it a flannel shift immediately, and let it run about and play for an hour to exercise it, and stir its blood; then dress it, and by God's Blessing, this will cure any ricketty child.

Unpleasant as this sounds, it could not have been as bad as having to drink it: snail water was also recommended as a tonic!

Another cure for rickets appeared in a 1769 letter written to Joseph Perry, a Connecticut minister reprinted in Alice Earle's book. The author asserted that a syrup made of black cherries and molasses, given several times a day, would cure rickets. He also advised:

If you Dip your Child, Do it in this manner: viz [namely]: naked, in ye morning, head foremost in Cold Water, don't dress it Immediately, but let it be made warm in ye Cradle & sweat at least half an Hour moderately. Do this 3 mornings going & if one or both feet are Cold while other Parts sweat (which is sometimes ye Case) Let a little blood be taken out of ye feet ye 2nd Morning and yt [it] will cause them to sweat afterwards. Before ye dips of ye Child give it some Snakeroot and Saffern Steep'd in Rum & Water, give this Immediately before Diping and after you have dipt ye Child 3 Mornings Give it several times a Day ye following Syrup made of Comfry, Hartshorn, Red Roses, Hog-brake roots, knot-grass, petty-moral roots, sweeten ye Syrup with Melosses. . . . I have found in a multitude of Instances of diping is most effectual means to break a Rickety Fever. These Directions are agreable to what I have practiced for many years.

Dipping children's heads or feet into cold water was often recommended to cure illness or sustain health. Three-year-old Josiah Quincy, who lived in Massachusetts, was taken every morning from bed and dipped three times in a tub of freshly drawn cold water. English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), whose ideas on child rearing were widely respected in the colonies, recommended that children's feet be washed daily in cold water. He also thought that having shoes that leaked enough to keep children's feet wet was healthy. Josiah recalled having cold, damp feet much of the time as a child but said it apparently did him no harm. Locke's idea of using cold water on the body was strange to colonists at first, but it may have been beneficial—at least some type of bathing was now considered healthy.

Changing attitudes about children

The belief that children were wayward gradually began to change during the eighteenth century, at least among the wealthier classes. There were several reasons for this new understanding. As families became more prosperous, they stopped having to worry about day-to-day survival and had more time to spend with their children. People were living longer, and this meant grandparents could become involved in the lives of their grandchildren. Life was less of a struggle for every member of the family. Parents could step back and look at their lives and think about their children's future. As life became easier, there may also have been more reason to see God as a benevolent [good natured] protector Page 253  |  Top of Article rather than a harsh judge, which must in turn have softened parents' ideas of their role in their children's lives.

Another reason for the change was Locke's influence. Many of Locke's ideas about children sound quite modern. He believed that it was better to teach children by setting a good example than by using harsh discipline. He also thought that the environment influenced children more than the character they were born with. These ideas caused people to see children as more innocent. They also persuaded many parents to discipline their children with more affection and guidance than punishment. By the end of the colonial period, many parents were more likely to show affection to their children, to see play as an innocent pastime, and to give them more toys. In fact, attitudes toward childhood by the middle of the eighteenth century were starting to resemble the modern understanding of children.

Approaching modern family patterns

By the end of the colonial period, family patterns and concepts had changed in several ways. Attitudes toward childhood had moved in a modern direction, with children seen as more innocent beings in need of guidance instead of breaking and remolding. There was more emphasis on the importance of the individual and the uniqueness of each person. For children, there was more affection and more time for play, and for adults, the pursuit of personal fulfillment began to be valued. The nuclear family and the home
John Locke's ideas on raising children were widely respected in the colonies. Reproduced by permission of The Library of Congress John Locke's ideas on raising children were widely respected in the colonies. Reproduced by permission of The Library of Congress became the focal point of people's lives, rather than the wider community. Colonists also developed a need for privacy in family life that had previously been unknown. There may even have been a new questioning of patriarchy and the authority of fathers in the home, reflecting the trend toward freedom from autocratic (single-person government with total power) authority that was preparing the way for the American Revolution (1775–83). Women and children may not have had equal rights under the law, but the Page 254  |  Top of Article emphasis on individual happiness meant that relations within the family probably changed in their favor. Colonial society was beginning to resemble our own.

African American families

Slaves in the American colonies adapted traditional African family arrangements to the constraints of slavery as best they could, but attaining any kind of stable family life was difficult. The first Africans who came to the colonies faced so many physical and psychological challenges that few formed relationships that led to the birth of children. Besides deprivation and disease, slaves were impeded by an imbalanced ratio between men and women, since far more African men were brought to the colonies than women. In addition, groups of slaves were isolated from one another and individuals had few, if any, choices for partners. It is believed that in South Carolina some African men formed relationships with Native American women, who were also kept as slaves.

Slave owners initially believed that importing new slaves was the best way to supply their needs, rather than encouraging their own slaves to reproduce. Some slave owners supported the formation of nuclear families among their slaves, but as slavery became a profitable business, more families were broken up.

Gradually, as slaves managed to find partners, the first generations of African Americans were born. Since girls and boys were born in roughly equal numbers, a better balance of sexes was gradually achieved, and the African population began to grow. A number of factors contributed to the fertility of later generations: the more balanced numbers of men and women, the natural immunity to American diseases, and the fact that the new generations had been born into slavery.

A broader concept of family

Although African Americans began to form relationships and have more children, the development of the nuclear family did not follow. Partners could be separated through death or sale; children could be taken from parents the same way. White colonists did not acknowledge the validity of African American marriages. Family members could be sold or separated if money was needed or when the owner died and his estate was broken up. Planters also might send slaves to new plantations they were establishing or give them to sons and daughters who operated other plantations.

For African American slaves, the extended family became the important social structure, providing vital support for adults and a safety net for children. The extended family was important even when individual families remained intact because mothers were often put back to work soon after childbirth. It was even more important when family members were separated through death or sale. Kinship provided slaves with a survival system: companionship, love, sympathy, and Page 255  |  Top of Article
Engraving showing a family being sold at a slave auction. This was rare since most families were broken up rather than being sold together. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc. Engraving showing a family being sold at a slave auction. This was rare since most families were broken up rather than being sold together. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc. understanding, as well as with lessons on how to avoid punishment, cooperate with other slaves, and maintain a sense of self-worth.

Matrilineal family emerges Families in West Africa were generally patrilineal (headed by a male), but this tradition did not survive under the conditions of slavery. The African American family moved toward a matrilineal (headed by a woman) form for several reasons. A young child was more likely to be kept with the mother if the family was separated. Fathers usually worked farther away, outside the domestic world where mothers cared for children. In addition, during her lifetime a woman might have several partners, from whom she could be separated by death or sale. Therefore a child's identity and sense of kinship was more likely to be associated with the mother.

In the North, where slaves did not usually live in groups but in the attics, sheds, and cellars of their owners, family life was even harder to Page 256  |  Top of Article maintain. Husbands and wives tended not to live with each other, and children were often sold at an early age because they absorbed time their mothers could spend working. Once children were nine or ten years old, they were given chores to do. At about sixteen they started doing regular agricultural or domestic work. As adolescents and young adults, they were often sold or sent to work on another plantation. Again, the extended family often eased this separation, since a half-brother might also be sent to the same plantation or a cousin might be rediscovered there after many years of separation.

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"very naughty children"

Europeans were alarmed by numerous Native American customs, such as their "heathen" worship of nature, their "lascivious" sexual behavior, and their "enslavement" of women (native women did most of the physical labor). Europeans were also shocked by the child-rearing practices they found in the New World. In 1632 Father Gabriel Sagard, a French Franciscan monk, lamented that Native American parents did not believe in discipline:

Nevertheless they love their children dearly, in spite of . . . the fact that they are very naughty children, paying them little respect, and hardly more obedience; for unhappily in these lands the young have no respect for the old, nor are children obedient to their parents, and moreover there is no punishment [such as spanking] for any fault. For this reason everybody lives in complete freedom and does what he thinks fit; and parents, for failure to punish their children, are often compelled to suffer wrongdoing at their hands, sometimes being beaten and flouted [disregarded] to their face. This is conduct too shocking and smacks of nothing less than the brute beast. Bad example, and bad bringing up, without punishment or correction, are the causes of all this lack of decency.

Source: Axtell, James, ed. The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Native American family patterns

Native American life changed dramatically after the arrival of Europeans (see Chapter 1). Some groups were more immediately affected than others, but as colonialism expanded, Native American groups displaced by or interacting with Europeans faced great upheavals in their ways of life. Family patterns were but one area where they had to adapt. Although each Native American group was unique, generalizations can be made about the structure of their society, both before and after the process of colonization. Generally a clan of Page 257  |  Top of Article related Native Americans lived together. The family network therefore included far more relatives than a nuclear family. The decision to marry was made by the individuals; divorce was acceptable and could be initiated by either partner. Marriage partners were usually chosen from outside the group, but fundamental loyalties and ties were to one's clan.

The Iroquois and Cherokee were two large tribes that functioned as matrilineal societies. This pattern was common among Native American groups. Property and sometimes family names were passed down through the females of the clan. In such tribes a married couple often lived with the wife's clan. This structure gave women a source of identity, support, and influence that women in the patrilineal societies of the colonists often lacked.

Transformation and destruction

As European settlers moved onto Native American land, the lives of the native peoples changed, often dramatically. Death from European diseases claimed many, destroying entire clans or reducing their numbers drastically. Wars against the Europeans also had a dramatic impact on clan and family life. Most of the men in a clan might be killed in battle, leaving a group of women, children, and elderly people. Other clans were displaced and had to restart their lives in new environments. Native Americans who interacted peacefully with the colonists found their ways of life transformed as they began to use imported goods and eventually rely on trade with Europeans. And some native women, especially in New France, formed relationships with white traders, leaving their clan and its way of life.

Finally, the arrival of European missionaries in North America brought more change, as Christian belief systems, which were clearly patriarchal, were substituted for native traditions. Native Americans who converted had to give up many aspects of their culture, including familiar concepts of the family and the role of women. As European influence expanded, Native American family life moved away from the clan-centered structure. Instead of loyalty to the larger group, the husband, wife, and children were regarded as the basic unit. The clan was not abandoned, but it began to have a lesser place in daily life as the nuclear family became central and families took on a patrilineal structure more like that of the European communities.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3425300031