Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Live births outside of marriage - colonial times to the 21st century

One of the comments on the APG Public List that I mentioned in Who Should Be On the Family Tree? today was that "the-husband-of-the-mother-is-not-the-father-of-child" percentage may be about 10%."

I believe that the intent of the writer was historical data - from colonial times to modern times, or at least into the 20th century.

In a subsequent reply, V.C. Tinney replied:

"It seems to be a very complicated issue.  There is no easy answer. Eurostat - Tables, Graphs and Maps Interface (TGM) graph shows:  Births, where the mother's marital status at the time of birth is other than married. This resource has data going back to 1999, which can be shown various ways."

I went to the site and made this chart using the options there:

The chart shows that many of the countries in Europe, for the time period 1999 to 2010, have a share of "live births outside of marriage" much higher than 10%, with Iceland leading the way with 64% and Estonia with 59%.  Some countries in Europe did not provide data.

This trend in live births outside of marriage obviously complicates the family tree, as discussed in my earlierp ost.

There are some studies published about earlier European births - for instance, the Catholic Encyclopedia page for Illegitmacy shows the percentage to be 1% to 15% in the 1880 to 1905 time period, with many countries in the 1% to 5% range. 

A graph in the CDC report  Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States shows the growth of non-marital childbearing from 1940 onwards.  In 1940, the percentage was about 4%, in 1980 it was 18%, and in 2007 it was 40%.

What about colonial times up into the 20th century?  The FAQS page on Bastardy says:

"The rate of extramarital births during the sixteenth century is generally perceived to be quite high, but it later sank during the age of absolutism. It is stipulated that only 2 to 3 percent of all births in the mid-1700s were extramarital, but a century later numbers hovered between 7 and 11 percent in the Nordic countries and around 7 percent in France and England. Certain countries and regions had higher figures; in Iceland more than 14 percent of all births occurred outside of marriage, and in the Basque Country the illegitimacy rate was exceptionally high. The following century or so, from the 1840s to 1960, witnessed a new decline of illegitimate births, particularly conspicuous around the turn of the century. Regional differences, however, were still to be found."


"In America it has been claimed that illegitimate births during colonial times were relatively rare, and that the ratio remained low at the beginning of the twentieth century."

Other web pages make similar statements.

It appears that the "live births outside of marriage" for colonial times up until the mid-20th century in the USA was in the 3% to 4% range.

Does anyone have valid statistical data for "share of live births outside of marriage" for colonial times and the pre-1950 United States? 

Note that this is a quick literature review and not an exhaustive search for absolutely correct and vetted statistics.

One comment:  A review of the Y-DNA matches might reveal some interesting facts.  One question might be "does a given male Y-DNA line match surnames with other male Y-DNA lines."  Of course, the Y-DNA matches are cumulative through many generations, so the potential errors can add up.  A 3% rate over 10 generations might result in a 30% "error rate" if every generation was a live birth outside of marriage. 

The URL for this post is

(c) 2011. Randall J. Seaver. All Rights Reserved. If you wish to re-publish my content, please contact me for permission, which I will usually grant. If you are reading this on any other genealogy website, then they have stolen my work.


Rosemary said...

I don't know about your family Randy, but in mine there appears to be at least one every generation.

Literature Review Writing said...

Live births outside of marriage - colonial times to the 21st century <-- that's what i was looking for
Dissertation Literature Review