[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 15 January 2014.]
I cannot imagine the faith that John Leverett and his wives, Hannah Hudson and Sarah Sedgwick, must have had to cope with deaths of so many of their children. By his two wives, John was the father of eighteen children, eleven of whom died as infants or young children. Six of these children were given the name Sarah after their mother, and five of them died before the sixth survived. Three sons were named John, none of whom lived to grow up.
John Leverett kept meticulous records of the births and deaths of his children in his Bible, noting the time of day and sometimes the tide. The record of his seventeenth child, one of the Sarahs, states that she was born at “10 clock in the evening at Low water” on 30 June 1670, baptized on 3 July, and “departed 16 day july at 2 a clock afternoon, halfe flood.”
John, Hannah, and Sarah knew nothing, of course, about chromosomes or DNA. To them each pregnancy and each death was the will of God, but clearly there was a genetic problem in the Leverett family that can be traced at least one more generation back to John’s parents. Thomas and Ann (Fitch) Leverett had fifteen children, nine of them boys, but only John and his sister Ann lived to marry. Of John’s children, only one boy out of five survived. Sarah, John’s second wife (who was fourteen years younger than he), had fourteen pregnancies that resulted in the birth of a child. In a world where the leading cause of death for women was childbirth, she survived her husband by 26 years and died at age 74.
It is the extreme number of children John fathered that allows us to see the genetic problem. If he had had only a few children, even a death rate of 60 percent could be considered possible, since child mortality was high because of disease and other environmental factors. The Leverett problem appears to have been Y-chromosome related. A study of the next generations of Leveretts would definitely be interesting.
John’s son Hudson (named for his mother’s family) was the only surviving male of his generation. He had two sons to survive, of which the elder was President John Leverett of Harvard, who had nine children but was only survived by two daughters. Thus the Leverett surname continued only through Hudson’s younger son, Thomas.