Aug 13, 2021

How Many Children Did Your Ancestors Have?

August 13, 2021

The other day I read a post on the American Ancestors blog Vita Brevis (by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society at ) which dealt with philoprogenitive ancestry. The author, Christopher C. Child, mentioned that he didn’t know what the term meant when he ran across it on a Facebook post by another genealogist. He had to look it up; I admit when I saw the word I had no idea what it meant either. I was interested to learn that it means “producing many offspring.”


The article then detailed the large families that the author’s own ancestors produced. I, of course, was inspired to think of my own ancestors and how prolific some of them were. The family sizes in earlier days were nothing short of shocking to those of us used to thinking of three children as a large family.


Since men can father children with multiple women, they have an advantage when it comes to producing a large family. For example, one of my second great grandfather’s, Parshall Peter Terry, was an early Latter-Day Saint who became a polygamist. With his three wives he produced nineteen children. He was a slacker, though, when compared with early Church leader Brigham Young, who fathered fifty-six children with sixteen wives.


When it comes to female ancestors, who are constrained by biology, mine nevertheless seemed to routinely produce large families of ten or eleven or even twelve. Sadly, until fairly recently, many children died in childhood, so most of my ancestors of both sexes raised only some of their many children.


However, one of my ancestral families stands out as the champion in child bearing and rearing. My third great grandmother Sally Alton Hadlock bore and raised to adulthood ten children. This, in spite of frequent moves West into ever more harsh living conditions and the early death of her husband. One of her daughters, Chastina Hadlock Allen, did even better. She bore fourteen children and raised all of them to adulthood, apparently without ever even visiting a doctor once during their childhoods. The grand champion at child bearing and rearing, though, has to be Chastina’s eldest daughter, Emeline Allen Bingham, who gave birth to nineteen children. She raised eighteen of them to adulthood!


Looking at your family tree to see who your most prolific ancestors were is a fun way to spend a hot, August afternoon, when actual research just seems like too much effort. However, it’s also a wonderful way to put an ancestor’s life in perspective. It’s easy to shrug and say “Well, it was easier for them. They didn’t have the same expectations from life that we do now.” Maybe so, but raising a dozen or more children had to have been challenging. Just thinking about it makes me tired. I only raised three children, but I can remember the days when my children took every bit of energy I could muster. If I multiply that by five or six, I have some idea about life might have been like for some of our ancestors.


Most genealogists will run across philoprogenitive ancestry somewhere in their family tree. It’s interesting to spend a little time looking at those huge families and trying to imagine their circumstances. So, what are you waiting for? How many children did your ancestors have?


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large