Life expectancy in colonial New York

My snapshot of the graph on display in the visitor’s center

This past winter I was working in Manhattan, within a short walk of the African Burial Ground National Monument. In colonial New York, Africans – whether free or enslaved – were buried in a graveyard beyond the city walls. Remarkably, this site was forgotten until it was rediscovered during a construction project in the 1990s. On a wall inside the visitor’s center hangs this graph, which succinctly sums up human health of the past: significant numbers of deaths in every age group starting at 15-19, relatively few reaching what we would now consider late-middle age; Africans faring far worse than the Episcopalians of Trinity Church, who would have been immigrants from England or their direct descendants. In my history classes growing up, I don’t recall ever hearing this story. Trumbull’s iconic painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence becomes not just a document of the formation of a new nation, but a document of a group of unlikely survivors. I don’t know if the data used for this graph are publicly available and at what level of detail (a cursory Internet search found nothing). I would like to see the data by sex, cause of death (at least at the level of injury versus disease), year of death, data for children. Perhaps the spike in deaths among 25-29 year old Episcopalians reflects deaths during childbirth, or perhaps a single, brutal epidemic. Were conditions in the 1760s any better than in the 1660s? My guess would be no. While I make some inquiries about whether these data are available somewhere, I’ll redraw it using R, if for no other reason than because the original has such distortion and poor lighting.

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