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Family Life, Colonial Families

colonial children, caring parents, religious development, marital rights, minor offenses

During the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century, when Americans from European backgrounds spoke about family, they often referred to what we would call households—people who happen to be living together. In addition to the husband, wife, and children, this could include servants, apprentices, and sometimes slaves. These earliest families were productive units, not sentimental, affectionate groupings. The family performed a number of functions that larger institutions now provide. The father, as head of the family, educated his sons, servants and apprentices. Women instructed their daughters in how to run a household. Both husband and wife were responsible for the religious development of the their household members. Primary responsibility for the order of society fell to the family, including supervising individuals, punishing minor offenses, and reporting major offenses to local officials. There was no other police force. Men and women provided basic health care, food, clothing, and entertainment. In order to fill all these roles, it was expected that obedience to the authorities of master, father, mother, church, and state would be maintained. Individualism was not valued. Everyone was expected to pull his or her weight in order for the family to survive.

Marriages were forged primarily for economic reasons, and only secondarily for companionship. Love, if it appeared at all, came after marriage, not before. Husband and wife labored together to sustain the family, but at quite separate tasks. Husbands worked in the fields, tended livestock, worked at a craft, or were merchants. Women often specialized in producing goods, such as dairy products, beer, or sausage, or they provided services like midwifery. They then traded these products or services with other women for their specialties. In the cities, women worked in shops, kept accounts, and assisted their husbands, who practiced a trade or engaged in commerce. Children assisted their parents from an early age. Everywhere, family, business, and social order were combined. Emotional satisfaction was not a function of the family.

While men and women both contributed to the success of the farm or family business, men had full legal authority over their families. Only men could hold positions in government, in the church, or in higher education. Women had no property or marital rights, except those their husbands granted, and fathers had custody of children in the rare cases of separation. Divorce was extremely rare and was illegal in many colonies. Some children, boys and girls, were sent about age 12 to work as servants in other people’s houses to learn farming, a craft, commerce, or housework. Boys might also to go to boarding schools and then to college or to sea, but most girls were not formally educated. The individuality of children was not recognized, and if one died, a later child was sometimes given the same name. The oldest son usually received more of the family's property than his younger brothers. Daughters received even less, and generally only when they married. Life was hard, and caring parents made sure that their children were obedient, hardworking, and responsible.

Life for children in the colonial period could be difficult. Whipping and other forms of physical punishment were commonplace and sometimes mandated by law. Such punishment was considered a sign of parental love, as parents sought to wean their children from their natural tendency toward sin and corruption. Virtually all children saw a sibling die and suffered several bouts of serious illness themselves. From one-third to half of all children experienced the death of a parent, and the cruel stepmother or heartless stepfather was more than a fairy tale for many colonial children. Orphans were shipped out to relatives, or sometimes local authorities gave them to the lowest bidder—the person who promised tax officials to raise the child most cheaply. Even as adults, sons and especially daughters were expected to obey their parents. Sons were given considerable freedom in deciding whom to marry, but often daughters could only choose to turn down an offensive suitor selected by their father.

Life was harsh in the country and for the majority in the city. There were few social services to support the family. Although children were expected to honor their parents, there was no guarantee that adult children would support their elderly parents. Many parents wrote wills linking the children's inheritance to the care the children provided their elderly parents. Servants and apprentices were often subjected to harsh beatings, coarse food, and deprivation. In addition, servants could not marry or leave the premises without their master's permission. Slaves were treated even more harshly. The family was concerned with the maintenance of hierarchies and social order.

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