Massachusetts

The Amazing Baby Boom of Billerica, Mass.

colonial baby boom

The Savage Family, c. 1779, by Edward Savage, courtesy Worcester Art Museum

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.

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.

The average Billerica family had an average of 11.6 children per family, with 90 families producing 1,043 children. The town’s population growth was due almost entirely to its fecundity. In 1810, the population of the entire town was 1,289.

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. Its birth rate was greater than 3 percent.

Examples of enormous colonial families were cited by The New Hampshire Historical Society, Collections, Historical and Miscellaneous and Monthly Literary Journal, Vol III (1824), edited by J. Farmer and J.B. Moore.

Dr. Mather mentions “one woman who had not less than twenty-two children, and another had no less than twenty three children by one husband, whereof nineteen lived to men’s and women’s estate, and a third who was mother to seven and twenty children.”

The mother of Governor (William) Phipps had twenty-five children of which twenty-one were sons.

Rev. John Sherman, the first minister of Watertown, had twenty-six children by two wifes, — twenty by his last wife. Rev. Samuel Willard, the first minister of Groton, and afterwards of Boston, and Vice President of Harvard college, had twenty children.

Major Simon Willard, his father, one of the first settlers of Concord, had a family of seventeen children, of whom nine were sons and all attained mature age and had families.

New England’s harsh winters have been suggested as a reason for the low death rate, as they killed off disease-bearing insects. There was also plenty of food. 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 was only about one percent.

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