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Redefining Family


During the eighteenth century, customs of family life inherited from Europe underwent alterations that had a profound effect on the way family members defined themselves in relation to one another and to society at large. Gradually, these changes brought the "modern American"` family into being.

The Seventeenth Century

Harsh conditions of everyday life, which made the formation of stable families difficult for the first generations of European and African immigrants, began to ease by the end of the seventeenth century. Native-American family patterns, by contrast, continued to be decimated by disease, displacement, and warfare.

The European Family

The European family was patterned after a patriarchal ideal in which the father exercised supreme authority over an extended family, at least in theory. Reality often deviated from that ideal.

The Native-American Family

European observers misunderstood traditional Native-American work roles and family relations. Interaction with Europeans further undermined the structure of the traditional Indian family and ultimately threatened its survival

The African American Family

Enslaved Africans, torn from their homeland and denied the stability of legal marriage, created distinctively African-Virginian family structures based on African concepts of extended kinships.

The Family Transformed

A more openly affectionate, child-centered family that reflected egalitarian republican sentiments and changing roles for men and women began to emerge among gentry and middling white families after the middle of the eighteenth century.

The New American Family

The redefined American white family became accepted as an important part of the ideal for the new American nation. Notwithstanding, some white families, especially poor whites, retained their patriarchal-based status. By contrast, Native-American and African American families remained virtually unaffected by egalitarian, republican sentiments.

Moving Toward Today's Family

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s publication “Becoming Americans” explores the lives of real colonial Virginian families and how they approached life passages such as courtship and marriage, birth, childhood, and death.

During the colonial era, the institution of family evolved as political developments changed relationships between blacks, whites, and Native Americans. Families had to adapt as new leaders and principles redefined the status of every man.

"Redefining Family" and the Becoming Americans Theme