How long is a generation?

Much of my attention over the last eighteen months has been focused on creating the online database Mayflower Families Fifth Generation Descendants, 1700-1880. It was great to make this resource available to help people research their Mayflower ancestry.

Now we have a database with nearly 165,000 birth, marriage, and death records, and thus a unique opportunity to do some analysis on the Mayflower fifth generation descendants in aggregate, looking for interesting facts about this group.

Determining just how long a period the fifth generation spans seems like a good place to start. So I crunched the numbers in an Excel spreadsheet for the 6,478 people with a birth year, representing about 92% of this generation. The chart above shows the distribution people born by year. The average birth year of the fifth generation is between 1725 and 1726, which is about 105 years after the Mayflower passengers arrived. For additional perspective I added red lines showing the range where 80% of the births occurred; this is between 1698 and 1757 – a 59-year span.

[The] outliers are remarkable, ranging from 1667 to 1795, for a 128-year time span.

This result does not does seem to be an extremely large range, but the outliers are remarkable, ranging from 1667 to 1795, for a 128-year time span. I found it surprising that first two members of the generation were born only 47 years after the Mayflower landed in 1620. Fearing that there might be an issue with indexing, I looked into the details of the first and last arrivals.

Rebecca Burge/Burgess (Patience Freeman4, Rebecca Prence3, Patience Brewster2, William Brewster1) came first, born 17 January 1667 in Sandwich, Massachusetts. William Brewster was born about 1566, which of course means that he was about 54 when the Mayflower landed. With this background we can see that the generations were not unusually close together. Rather, William Brewster was simply not a young man when the Mayflower sailed, and seven years after his arrival he was already a grandfather. Aside from having a head start, the people in this line averaged about 25 years old when their descendant was born:

  • William Brewster, b. 1566
  • Patience Brewster, b. 1600 (father was 34)
  • Rebecca Prence, b. 1627 (mother was 27)
  • Patience Freeman, b. 1647 (mother was 20)
  • Rebecca Burge, b. 1667 (mother was 20)

Gilbert Palmer Doty (Elias Doty4, Samuel Doty3, Isaac Doty2, Edward Doty1) was at the extreme end of the group. He was born 1 October 1798 in Clinton, New York. Edward Doty was a reasonably young passenger, having been born about 1599. However, the men in this line averaged nearly fifty years of age when their child was born:

  • Edward, b. 1599
  • Isaac, b. 1649 (father was 49)
  • Samuel, b. 1689 (father was 40)
  • Elias, b. 1732 (father was 43)
  • Gilbert Palmer, b. 1798 (father was 66!)

I am sure that many of us have noted a lot of variability in the birth years for a generation in any family. It is interesting to see just how wide the dispersion is for the fifth-generation descendants of the Mayflower passengers. William Brewster’s fourth-generation descendant Patience Freeman arrived just two years before Edward Doty’s second-generation son!

Additional notes for the statistically inclined: For this article I have included only the fifth-generation descendants included in the Silver Books (not their spouses or children), and of these people, only the ones with a birth date. Some additional points to consider: First, this is not actually the entire fifth generation, but rather the members of that generation who married and had at least one child. Second, it includes only the current Silver Books, so not the Soule “pink books” or the Howland books by Picton Press. And, third, there will be some amount of duplication due to intermarriage between lines. Despite these limitations, I think we still get some interesting perspectives about this group.

Don LeClair

About Don LeClair

Don is the Associate Director, Database Search & Systems, at NEHGS. He first got involved with genealogy while in college and spent many a day in the NEHGS library tracing his ancestors through New England and New York. Don also did volunteer indexing work for the library before joining the staff in 2016. Previously, Don had a 30-year career in the software industry working in and leading engineering and product management teams focused on IT Management products. Don has a B.A. and M.B.A. from Boston University.View all posts by Don LeClair