J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Boston's population in 1765

In reading about Revolutionary Boston, I've found it incredibly important to know the scale of the town. And it was still a town, both legally (not a city) and in size. Here are the population figures for Boston in 1765, from the last surviving census before the Revolutionary War:

  • houses: 1,676
  • families: 2,069
  • white males under age sixteen: 4,109
  • white females under age sixteen: 4,010
  • white males above age sixteen: 2,941
  • white females above age sixteen: 3,612
  • negroes and mulattoes, male: 510
  • negroes and mulattoes, female: 301
  • male Indians: 21
  • female Indians: 16
  • French neutrals under age 16: none
  • French neutrals over age 16: none
  • TOTAL: 15,520 people
These figures come J. H. Benton, Jr., Early Census Making in Massachusetts, 1643-1765, published in 1905. They probably didn't change much in the decade that followed. The categories for counting might prompt some questions:
  • Why the dividing line at age sixteen? The legal age of majority for men was twenty-one; that's when they could vote and make contracts, and when apprenticeships usually ended. But sixteen was when white males had militia duties, and one reason for the census was to tell the government how many potential soldiers lived in each part of the province.
  • Why not divide non-whites by age? The militia was again a big factor. Free men of color were supposed to fulfill their public duties in other ways, such as by cleaning and repairing streets. By the 1760s that traditional system had broken down in Boston. As George Quintal, Jr., has documented for Boston National Historic Park, there would also be many men of African and Native American descent in the militia army outside Boston in 1775. But the 1765 census-takers were still using the traditional categorizations.
  • What's a "French neutral"? Those were Acadians driven out of eastern Canada. A significant number were living in Maine. The government didn't expect them to serve in the militia, particularly since that militia would be expected to fight Frenchmen (this was only two years after the end of the Seven Years' War, which in turn came less than a decade after King George's War...).
Analyzing the numbers brings up some fairly mind-twisting ways that this colonial society differed from our own.
  • Boston had far more children than adults. So did the whole British Empire, and most other societies of the time. Our mental picture of Revolutionary America probably involves groups of men: the Continental Congress, the Boston Tea Party, companies arrayed for battle, ships at sea. But demographically the colonies were more like Disneyland. (I play this up for all it's worth in my contribution to Children in Colonial America, coming this December from NYU Press.)
  • The town had far more white women than white men because of losses in the wars and at sea. On the other hand, there was an even bigger imbalance of black men to black women, a consequence of the slave trade's preference for young males.
  • There were more families than houses, and far more adult males or females than families. Households were bigger than what most of us are used to, and extended well beyond the nuclear family.
  • Though Boston contained only as many people as a small town today, it was still the third largest metropolitan area on the coast of North America. Only Philadelphia and New York were larger.
  • When the British government stationed 4,000 soldiers in Boston in early 1775, that was more than one soldier for every local male of military age. No wonder it felt like a "garrison town."


Anonymous said...

Another reason the age of sixteen was a dividing line: sixteen was the age Puritan churches had established as the minimum age for making a rational decision to enter into a church's covenant, although in practice people generally did this at a later age.

See Stephen Foster's "The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700".

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the additional info and citation. I don't see the province keeping track of who actually joined churches, but it did keep track of potential militia soldiers. So I suspect the militia law alone determined the census breakpoint.

On the other hand, the society clearly saw both militia service and church membership as elements of maturity, and it's interesting that it drew the dividing line at the same age for both. Onward, Christian soldiers...