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Death and Mortality in the Colonial Chesapeake
By Jason Bindewald

"My dear love, I know not how it is, but I have a strange impression, death is very near us, as if it would be some sudden stroke upon one of us and it draws out all my soul in prayer that we may be ready."

 --Rev. Mr. Fletcher, Vicar of Madeley to his wife (Fletcher 15)


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Throughout the history of the Colonial Chesapeake people struggled to live through the many dangers and hardships of the new world.  As people struggled to subsist, death and mortality became very prominent issues in early Chesapeake societies.  Many aspects of death and mortality were addressed by people of the time and many more are being researched by modern historians in search of the intricacies of Chesapeake society. 

Effects of Disease

The Chesapeake area was home to many different diseases that had a great effect on the mortality rates in colonial times.  Some of the most common diseases included:  typhoid fever, dysentery, influenza, and malaria (Carr, 21).  These diseases can be directly linked to both having been carried over from England and also having to do with the geographical layout of the Chesapeake Bay area (Menard, 225).

Malaria outbreaks have been cited as having a vast influence upon the death rates of the Chesapeake area.  One of the more common forms of malaria, caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite, was accompanied by mortality rates anywhere from 5-25% (Rutman, 34).  Upon arrival in colonial Chesapeake most if not all people went through a period of "seasoning," the common term for the first exposure to malaria.  Those who were fortunate enough to survive their "seasoning" would most likely suffer from a lifetime of chronic sickness and poor health (Menard, 226).

Because of the death rates directly due to malaria a person might be led to think that malaria was not a very deadly disease.  In part this is a true statement, but as Darrett and Anita Rutman suggest:

Malaria is not notorious as a killer disease...It is rather 'the great debilitator'; it lowers the level of general health and the ability to resist other diseases.  One modern study estimates that for every death ascribed to malaria in an infected population, five additional deaths are actually due to malaria acting in concert with other diseases (Rutman, 50).

It logically follows that since malaria had high likeliness of recurrence and debilitating effects that it, as well as other diseases, had a profound economic impact.  Though it may seem illogical, the theory has been suggested that if colonial Chesapeake society had sustained a large population that the economy would have suffered.  This idea is based on the fact that higher production of a single crop (tobacco) would result in a lowered per capita income (Rutman, 55).

In general, disease was the major cause of the rather short life expectancies of the colonial Chesapeake societies.

Death in Childhood

Children accounted for a large portion of the deaths in colonial Virginia and Maryland.  In general, as children grew older their life expectancy continued to increase with age.  This is mainly because as children grew older the mortality rates decreased, because of developing immunities and higher tolerance to adverse conditions (Smith 412).

For example, the death rates of Charles Parish, Virginia demonstrate these facts:

(Smith 413) 

The high death rates for children aged 1-4 in comparison to those aged 0-1 seems quite puzzling at first.  Daniel Blake Smith explains a possible reason for this occurrence:

Infants frequently received from diseased mothers a short-term immunity to malaria which allowed many to survive infancy only later to succumb to the disease as small children (Smith 413).

When held in comparison to those of New England, mortality rates in Charles Parish were exceptionally high.  Therefore Charles Parish citizens were much less likely to live until maturity (Smith 414).

 (Smith 418)


Effects on Families

Because of the shortened lifespan that was present in the colonial Chesapeake, family tended to be very different than  the family life of modern America.

As discussed above, children had a hard time reaching adulthood, yet even adults were very susceptible to disease and mortality.  Not many records though exist that show the differences between genders and life expectancy (Menard 212).  One area that does contain information to this end is that of malarial deaths.  Women died at a more frequent rate than men (due to malaria) between the ages of 15-40, which are consequently the typical childbearing years (Rutman 52).

Parental death was not completely devastating to a family's wellbeing.  Often when a parent would die the living spouse would remarry and join the existing families.  But with the high death rates, even this practice didn't create huge families.  The typical family still only had 3-4 children.  Even fewer people could expect to see their grandchildren.  "From 1660-1700 only a dozen men in Charles Parish are known to have lived to see their grandchildren" (Smith 421). 

Death of parents also created orphans.  One staggering statistic shows that "about three-fourths (73.2 percent) of all children had lost at least one parent before reaching twenty-one or the age of marriage" (Smith 421).

(Smith 422)

The overall effect of high disease and death rates was a very strange family life, where the members were often only related through marriage.  Therefore as a family was growing it would often consist of more than just the mother father and children, but often include the larger community (Smith 426).

Religious Views of Death

Religiosity in general was not as prevalent in the colonial Chesapeake as it was in New England.  Nonetheless, religion was constantly intertwined with daily life in general and with the ideas of death and mortality in particular.

In many ways the colonial Chesapeake peoples borrowed religious ideals from the Anglican background.  So it is not surprising to see many of the aspects of the church around in everyday life. 

One such instance includes the account of an English woman recalling her husbands death; this account though written in England about an Englishmen was published in Richmond Virginia (Fletcher 1).  This demonstrates the intermingling of the cultures through the idea of death.

In her account of Mr. Fletcher's death Mary Fletcher spends almost the entire time speaking about their relationship with each other in respect to God.  She shows how great of an impact the church has on life in general (Fletcher).  She demonstrates this by writing the following:

For some time before this last illness, his precious Soul (always alive to God) was particularly penetrated with the nearness of eternity; there was scarce an hour in which he was not calling upon me to drop every thought and every care, that we might attend nothing but drinking deeper into God (Fletcher 3).

Other aspects of the culture showed religious influence including their views on the afterlife.  With their basis for belief coming from the Bible, colonists tended to agree with the theology of a definite Heaven and Hell to one of which a person would continue on for eternity upon the end of the earthly life.

These views came through even in colonial art forms.  The poet Samuel Davies of Hanover Virginia published a book of poetry in 1751.  This book gives an example of the theologies to which the people of his day held:

But Oh!--What dismal Scenes of Woe

Open in yonder Gulph below!

See!  how the fiery Surges swell,

And dash against the Cope of Hell.

The sulph'rous undulating Flames

Thro' the thick Gloom shed awful Gleams;

Pale Gleams that but expose to Sight

The Horrors of eternal Night!

-An excerpt from Davies' Hell (Davies 46)




Death and Mortality:



New England

Prevalence of Death

Chesapeake Bay Area






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