My Ancestors’ Longevity

It’s Week 3 of the #52Ancestors writing challenge, and this time the prompt is “longevity.”

I took this suggestion as motivation to look at the pattern of longevity of my ancestors over time, and I came up with the following:

AncestorLongevityPlot
Longevity for my direct ancestors, ordered by birth year (most to least recent), grouped by generation. Each individual is shown as a single bar. The black dots show average life expectancy based on the year of birth.1 Plot made in R using ggplot2.

Some caveats:

  • Clearly, not all of my direct ancestors are shown here; I only included individuals for whom I have at least some evidence of both birth year and death year (and only back to my 3rd great grandparents).
  • Birth dates and death dates are not yet proven for most of these ancestors. This analysis is an exercise to get a feel for the overall pattern of lifespan I can see in my family based on current best estimates.

That being said, I see some interesting things here.

I have had a handful of ancestors who were tragically short-lived (for example: my grandmother, Margaret Mary (Mooney) Fitzpatrick, 46 years old;2 my 2nd great grandfather Harry B Hill, about 31 years old;3 and my 2nd great grandmother Mary (Henion) Rutledge, about 41 years old).4 Most individuals here, though, lived longer (at times, substantially longer) than the average life expectancy.

Were my ancestors just lucky? Yes and no. Yes, like most who live longer than average, they were lucky. But I don’t think I necessarily come from exceptionally hardy stock. The average life expectancies shown here were calculated based on everyone who was born that year, including those who died very young. And given that everyone here lived long enough to become parents before they died, none of them succumbed to infant mortality. Furthermore, they not only survived into reproductive age, but they also were healthy enough to have children, and to have healthy children that survived to have families of their own. So, I suspect, in general, people who were healthy enough to be ancestors and show up in plots like this would have been among the longer-lived of the population.

Along those same lines, from studying a lot of these individuals and their families, I know that many of them had siblings who died (much) younger and/or who had fewer children. (Perhaps a different analysis on a different day will look into that more carefully.) I guess I do feel lucky myself that my ancestors were among those fortunate enough to survive and have descendants.

I also notice that in the earliest generation of my ancestors plotted (3rd great grandparents, shown in purple), while there aren’t any who stand out as being very long-lived, there are also very few among this group who died young. This might be a byproduct of the incompleteness of my records at this point. People in this group were born between 1825 and 1845, and if someone of that era died young, I may be less likely to have evidence of their death than if they died later, leaving easier to find records. Just a hypothesis for now… perhaps I’ll revisit this as I get more data.

Everyone I’ve looked at here died in the United States, but a few were not born here. How did the immigrants fare compared to the others?

AncestorLongevityPlotImm
Same plot as above, but with “I” over the bars representing immigrant ancestors. 

I have five immigrant ancestors in this plot (denoted with “I”): three great grandparents born in Ireland and two 3rd great grandparents born in England. While there are certainly not large enough numbers of immigrant (or non-immigrant) ancestors to make much of a comparison here, I don’t see any obvious difference between the groups.

While it’s fun to plot what I have and see what patterns emerge, I also want to dig into the records more to get even more data to add – and to better understand what happened between each pair of birth and death dates.

Updated 17 January 2018: R code used to generate this plot shown here.

See here for my previous #52Ancestors posts.


  1. Life expectancy was determined using “Chapter B. Vital Statistics and Health and Medical Care,” U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1975); accessed in United States Census Bureau Publications (https://www.census.gov/library/publications.html : 16 January 2018). Life expectancies for birth dates from 1900 and later were taken from the table “Series B 107-115. Expectation of Life (in Years) at Birth, by Race and Sex: 1900 to 1970” based on the sex of the individual (all were White). For birth dates before 1900, life expectancies were taken from the table “Series B 126-135. Expectation of Life at Specified Ages, by Sex, for Massachusetts: 1850 to 1949-51” based on the sex of the individual. While most of the pre-1900 ancestors shown did not live in Massachusetts, they did live (or at least die) in the Mid-Atlantic or New England region of the United States, so Massachusetts life expectancies may be a reasonable proxy. All of the ancestors shown lived at least part of their lives in the United States.
  2. Ancestry, Find A Grave, database with images (http://www.findagrave.com : accessed 15 June 2017), memorial 5431815, Margaret M Fitzpatrick (1922-1968), Holy Cross Cemetery, Dover, Kent County, Delaware; gravestone photograph by Anonymous.
  3. Delaware Public Archives, Return of a Death in the City of Wilmington (1895), Harry B Hill; accessed in “Delaware Death Records, 1811-1933,” database with digital images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : 14 July 2017).
  4. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Return of a Death in the City of Philadelphia (1904), Mary F Rutledge; accessed in “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915,” database with digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 16 January 2018).

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