ESTIMATING AGES IN LISTS OF SLAVESI find that being able to estimate ages of slaves listed in source records can help to match peopleacross to other records, and to resolve ambiguities between different lists or sources.Many lists of slaves give no ages, but there are at least two common ways to estimate some ages.One way broadly estimates ages based on appraised values (especially if you have subsequentappraisals to compare and show trends) but I will discuss that method another time. In this post Iwill describe a way of estimating ages of mothers and children when they are identified andlisted together in an inventory, deed, mortgage, or similar property lists.Most records used by researchers are probate records, where the slave owners and their administrators or executors intend to distribute children among heirs, so mothers are usuallylisted with only their youngest children. Children over age 8 or 10 were often distributedseparately, so inventories often list mothers with only their youngest 4 or 5 children.Sometimes the youngest child is listed without a name. Nineteenth century parents sometimeswaited a few weeks or months before naming a child to see if it survived early infancy (notwanting to expend a precious family name on a child who would die in infancy). You sometimessee this in the 1870 census when the youngest member of the family is enumerated as "Babe"--the child has not yet been named. In slave lists, where the youngest child is not named, it may bean unnamed newborn--but this is not a rule: perhaps the appraiser did not know the name (or forgot it). Note: Historians are in fairly close agreement about the average age of enslaved women at the birth of their first child, and the average time between live births. Brenda E. Stevenson,
Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South
(1996), page 246, computes anaverage time between births, based on slave births in Virginia between the 1760s and 1860,finding “average spacing between live children was 2.4 years.” Stevenson also found theaverage age of mothers at the birth of their first child was 19.71 years. On her page 404, note 53,Stevenson cites the work of Trusselol and Steckel who calculated “the mean age of first birth ofr slave mothers throughout the antebellum South was 20.6 years.” Deborah Gray White,
Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South
(revised edition, 1999), pages 97-98,concludes that a typical slave woman had her first child at age 19 and subsequent children twoand a half years apart (see also her page 209, note 31, for discussion of findings by other historians). Marie Jenkins Schwartz,
Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and medicine in the Antebellum South
(2006), page 104, endorses the finding of an average age 20 of enslavedwomen giving birth to their first child, with subsequent children two and a half years apart.Here is a rule of thumb I use to estimate childrens' birth years. In inventories when enslavedmothers are listed with children, the children are almost invariably listed in descending ageorder. I estimate two and a half years between births. Two and a half years seems to work inmost cases unless there was unusual child mortality (but the records seldom document this) or other interruption. Unless I have other information that alters my assumptions, I assume thatchildren listed with mothers are the youngest children, that they were born two and a half yearsapart, and that they are listed in descending age order.