Update: Age at death vs. Average Age at Death

statisticsThis is a update to my previous post on the average age at time of death for my ancestors. I wanted to verify my previous conclusions when I received a better source of average age data than I had used.  Thanks to Ginny S. for providing the link to the National Institutes of Health paper which looked at the average age statistics in the 1800s in multiple ways.[1]  You might find the article of interest as you write papers and analyze your family:


You can read the previous post by clicking here.

There were several observations I make about the article:

  1. It identified issues with the data collection that I had not considered before: such as the process for collection of data,  small sample sizes, the rural vs. urban dynamics, the east coast and racial bias, etc.
  2. Immigrants averaged a shorter life span in the US than native born whites in 1850. (Table 1, Ferrie, 1996.) The study did not, however, address the difference in the life span of those who stayed in the country of origin to those who immigrated. The rural differential was about 5%; the urban differential was about 18%.
  3. I was surprised that the life expectancy of a 20 year old in the US declined starting at the beginning of the 19th century until mid-century for both males or females.  There is then a slow increase in longevity; the average age does not exceed that of earlier in the century until after 1900!  (Table 1, Kunze, 1979; Pope, 1992)
  4. I was surprised that I didn’t see a more radical effect of the Civil War  in the 1860s. Twenty year old white men seemed to “hold their own” in the very low 40s. The effect of the CW is probably manifested in that during this time 20 year old white women’s life span became equal to men’s, where before it had consistently lagged by 2 years, plus or minus.
  5. The US Census mortality schedules (effective the year previous to the census year) under-reported deaths by perhaps as much as 40%, an interesting fact for genealogists, who cannot find their ancestor but feel like they should, in these non-population schedules. (15th paragraph in article after abstract.)

So, what about my data from the previous post? It appears that any differences between the “infoplease” data I used, and the NIH report are negligible, or supported my case more strongly that our family lived longer than average. My conclusions do not change and my family lived longer than average in all respects. The reasons for the extended life span were probably due to my ancestors being rural and not urban, less susceptible to communicable disease, reduction in pulmonary tuberculosis and other medical advances, etc.

Here is a summary of the immigrants in my family and why they were, as a whole became better off in the US.

My Swedes: This family emigrated in 1881 for religious reasons. They were Baptists in the land of Lutherans. The family’s safety net was the brother of the wife who had been in the US for 10 years prior to my family’s chain migration. Bengt Peter worked on the railroad for 10 years, earning enough money to buy a farm.

My Dane: Chris emigrated in the early 1900s as a young man and progressed from $5 in his pocket to owning his own business and two farms in Iowa. He had a safety net of a close friend with whom he stayed for two years before heading to northern Iowa.

My paternal Ostfriesens: emigrated in 1854 with money to buy a farm within 10 days of landing in Illinois. They were the wealthiest of all of my immigrants with much land and privilege in Ostfriesland, Germany. The males became the most formally educated of my ancestors. Marrying into this family is a young woman who was orphaned at an early age, immigrated with an unrelated family and married much younger than average into this wealthy family.

My maternal Ostfriesens: emigrated in 1864 (why, why, why would you do that!!), landed in Iowa and immediately bought a farm. But, another line within this family sector was not so advantaged.  The head of household of the Berg family died within 1.5 years of arrival, leaving the widow with 6 children under the age of 15.  She remarried, “disappeared” for 7 years and reappeared in 1871, a widow with sons who bought land all over the Midwest and daughters who married well.

I pause here for a moment to discuss my use of the word “wealthy.” By no means were these families members of the upper echelon of the society in the United States at this time, but rather they owned more land than they ever could in the country of origin. In addition, the amount of real estate and personal property indicated in agricultural schedules had a higher value when compared to their immediate neighbors. Even my great grandfather, a minister, died at the age of 55 with three farms.

So, it should be no surprise that my ancestors lived longer than the average of the time. I used to say that our family was “extraordinarily ordinary,” but I think that is no longer true. We were “privileged” from the time of their arrival–privileged with a strong work ethic, and a chain migration pattern leading them to settle in the rich land of Iowa and Illinois. That privilege does not negate the hard work, and tough times that the families endured to make the path a little smoother for their descendants. Their commitment to investment in land as a stabilizer in the family reflects their reaction to their inability to do the same in their country of origin.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: celebrated new years with family and friends and prepped my presentations for the new year. I have several new ones and so there was much work to do. I also prepped the presentations I have presented before for my very active first half of 2017.  I have also been recording and linking my findings from my summer trip to by database. There are hundreds of documents to record, transcribe, analyze and enter. I figure I am only about 25% through. (press on gladly!!  It’s my New Year’s resolution.)

[1] National Institute of Health, “Decennial Life Tables for the White Population of the United States, 1790 to 1900,” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2885717/ : accessed 2 January 2017).


4 comments on “Update: Age at death vs. Average Age at Death

  1. Good luck on Tuesday! Really sorry I can’t be there as I have an ancestor who was committed to an asylum in Illinois around 1861. I have not been able to trace her to find out why she was committed, if she ever got out and when she died. Her name was Laura MacCallum (nee Carpenter) and she married Malcolm MacCallum June 7, 1855 in Kane County, Illinois. She had at least one child, James Byron MacCallum, born Feb 1857 in Illinois. We wondered if you thought you might be able to help at all… You can reach me at will.maccallum@gmail.com

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Do you know which asylum? 1861 must mean Jacksonville (if IL) as it was constructed in 1848 and was the only one until about 1872. They had admission and transition records for the 1872 time frame so they might have some for you as well. Do not expect copious notes. Perhaps they have them for Laura. You would have to go through the courts and there would be no guarantee that Jacksonville had the information you seek. The other avenue is to identify the county in which the commitment occurred–usually the county of residence at the time of commitment. You can then do a request for the commitment papers of the court. both of these actions would require the hiring of a lawyer and petitioning the court. During this time period the husband could just declare his wife insane and the Sheriff would come pick her up; probably the father could do this as well. I am giving the presentation again in a webinar on 4 February through the Southern California GS webinar series. It is free but you have to register.

      • Thank you very much Jill for taking the time to respond. It turns out I was able to listen to your webinar last night and get the notes. It was very informative. To answer your question, yes I know which county they resided in: Kane. Being a Canadian would it be more problematic for me to retain a lawyer and be granted access to the information? How much would a lawyer end up costing me? Did you say you used a Kane County lawyer? If so, do you have a name you would recommend? I am actually in contact with two American descendants of Laura and her husband Malcolm. They are Tracy MacCallum of Los Angeles and Tammie Powers of Colorado. I am just thinking that maybe it would be better (and cheaper) for all three of us to work together and easier if one of them were the “point man”, being American… You now have me even more intrigued about our Laura because of the story of Elizabeth Packard who was committed to the same asylum within a year or so of Laura. Now I am really curious about why she was committed and what happened to her. I have the original letters from her husband Malcolm from the 1850s and 1860s which my grandfather found in a trunk in his attic about a hundred years later. The one relating that Laura had been committed to the asylum and how difficult it was to parent a 4-year old boy himself and how he hopes his mother is coming home every time he hears a train, because he knew she had left on a train, is heartbreaking… Anyway, thanks… Wm

      • Jill Morelli says:

        I don’t think you should have any more difficulty because you are Canadian, but a family member is better than an interested party. I used Michael Kalland. I thought he was good. He charged me (several years ago) $500., but every case is different. Good luck and let me know if you decide to proceed and if you are successful. Remember, in this time period, there isn’t much in the way of records.

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