When the War of 1812 broke out, the Town of Billerica, Mass., was in the middle of an extraordinary baby boom.
William Manning, a Billerica farmer, Revolutionary War soldier and author, fathered 13 children with his wife Sarah. But he wasn’t the only one.
Twelve other families in the town had 13 children. Five had 14 offspring and one had 15. Twenty-six families each had 10 children, 20 families had 11 children and 24 families had 12 children. The largest family had 21 children by two wives. That meant 90 families accounted for 1,043 children.
The average Billerica family had an average of 11.6 children per family. The town’s population grew almost exclusively because of its fecundity. In 1810, the population of the entire town grew to 1,289.
Enormous Colonial Families
The large families of Billerica were typical of early New England. The region had the world’s lowest annual death rate, less than one percent. And its birth rate exceeded 3 percent.
The New Hampshire Historical Society in 1824 cited examples of enormous colonial families. Collections, Historical and Miscellaneous and Monthly Literary Journal, Vol III (1824), edited by J. Farmer and J.B. Moore, referred to Boston doctor Cotton Mather. Mather mentioned one woman who had at least 22 children and another who had at least 23 — by one husband. Of those, 19 survived to adulthood. Mather also mentioned a third woman who had 27 children.
The historical journal also cited the mother of Massachusetts governor (William) Phips, who had 25 children, including 21 sons.
Rev. John Sherman, the first minister of Watertown, had 26 children by two wives, included 20 by his last wife. Rev. Samuel Willard, a minister in Groton, Mass., and Boston who served as vice president of Harvard college, had 20 children.
Major Simon Willard, his father, one of the first settlers of Concord, Mass., had 17 children. All grew to adulthood and had families of their own.
Mather himself had 15 children by two of his three wives. (His father, unironically, was named Increase.) Only six lived to adulthood and only two outlived him.
Why the Baby Boom?
New England’s harsh winters have been suggested as a reason for the low death rate, as they killed off disease-bearing insects. New Englanders also had plenty of food and, by then, a high standard of living. Finally, New Englanders were expected to marry young, and they were not expected to practice birth control.
The high birth rate accounted for the uniquely Yankee character of the region. Between 1640 and 1845, immigration to the New England colonies only reached about one percent.
This story was updated in 2021.