The Puritan Nuclear Family

Like most of their contemporaries, the Puritans thought of the family as a concentric set of nuclear and extended rings. But within that conventional idea, they gave special importance to the innermost nuclear ring. Strong quantitative evidence of this attitude appeared in their uniquely nuclear naming customs. As we shall see below, the Puritans of Massachusetts gave high priority to the descent of names from parents to children within the nuclear family. This naming strategy was unique to the Puritans, and very different from other cultures in British America.

Similar tendencies also appeared in customs of inheritance, which were more nuclear in New England than in other American colonies during the seventeenth century. One study of 168 wills in Newbury, Massachusetts, for example, found that only 6.5 percent left bequests to a niece or nephew, and 3.0 percent to other kin. None whatever bequeathed property to a cousin—a pattern different from the Chesapeake colonies.

The same nuclear pattern also appeared in the composition of households. By comparison with other colonies, households throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut included large numbers of children, small numbers of servants and high proportions of intact marital unions. In Waltham, Massachusetts, for example, completed marriages formed in the 1730s produced 9.7 children on the average. These Waltham families were the largest that demographic historians have found anywhere in the Western world, except for a few Christian communes which regarded reproduction as a form of worship. But they were not unique. In many other New England towns fertility rates rose nearly as high, and the number of children was larger than French demographer Louis Henry defined as the biological maximum in a normal population.

The number of servants in New England, however, was very small—less than one per family. At any given time, most households in this region had no servants at all—a pattern very different from the Chesapeake and Delaware colonies. In short, the New England household more closely coincided with the nuclear unit, and the nuclear family was larger and stronger than elsewhere in the Western world.

The strength of the nuclear unit was merely one of many special features of New England families. Another was a strong sense of collective responsibility for maintaining its individual integrity. The people of the Bay Colony worked through many institutions to preserve what they called “family order” and “family government” within each nuclear unit. Other cultures also shared these concerns, but once again Puritan New England did things in its own way, with a special intensity of purpose. The selectmen and constables of each town were required by law to inspect families on a regular basis. Where “good order” broke down within a household, their task was to restore it. In nuclear families that were persistently “disorderly”—a word that covered a multitude of misdeeds—the selectmen were required to remove the children and servants and place them in other homes. Thus, in 1675, Robert Styles of Dorchester was presented for many sins, and ordered to “put forth his children, or otherwise the selectmen are hereby empowered to do it, according to law.”