Mortality in an Early Ontario Community: Belleville 1876-1885

Article excerpt


This study contributes to our understanding of health in late nineteenth-century communities in Ontario and the major factors contributing to the high mortality of the period. The focus of the study is Belleville, Ontario, from 1876 to 1885. Life expectancies at birth in the low forties characterized the community with infant mortality rates in the very high range, 160 per 1000 live-births. Major contributors to the observed pattern of mortality included tuberculosis, weanling diarrhea, and scarlet fever. Significant differences in the likelihood of dying from these three major causes varied by gender and religious affiliation. It is possible that more extended patterns of breast-feeding among Catholics led to lower levels of weanling diarrhea mortality in their infants.


Cette etude permet de mieux comprendre la sante dans les communautes ontariennes a lafin du dix-nauvieme siecle ainsi que les principaux facteurs responsables dufort taux de mortalite durant cette periode. L'etude porte sur Belleville en Ontario, entre 1876 et 1885. Cette communaute se caracterisait par une esperance de vie a la naissance d'une quarantaine d'annees et un taux de mortalite infantile tres eleve, soit 160 deces pour 1000 naissances vivantes. Les principaux facteurs agissant sur le taux de mortalite observe incluaient la tuberculose, la diarrbee post-sevrage et la scarlatine. Les probabilites de deces liees a ces trois grandes causes variaient beaucoup selon le sexe et Pappartenance religieuse. La duree plus longue de Pallaitement au sein chez les meres catholiques contribuait peut-etre a abaisser le taux de mortalite cause par la diarrbee post-sevrage chez leurs nourrissons.


According to Pelletier and co-workers, [1] "knowledge of nineteenth-century mortality levels in Canada and Quebec is limited," so limited, in fact, that they refer to this period as the "dark ages for the study of mortality." Our understanding of mortality in early American populations, on the other hand, while still far from complete, is more satisfactory. [2] The overall progress in tracing the demographic evolution of communities in early Ontario [3] has been regrettably slow. To date, most attention has focused on fertility and household structure, [4] while comparatively less has been done in addressing mortality. [5] The paucity of information on mortality in Ontario is related to a host of problems inherent in undertaking a study of this nature. Perhaps the single most serious deterrent to mortality research in Canada is the lack of reliable multi-source demographic information for settlements located outside of Quebec. [6]

For the current study, we draw upon the nominal registers of vital events held at the Provincial Archives of Ontario to reconstruct the mortality experience of one such community in the late nineteenth century, the city of Belleville, Ontario, from 1876 to 1885. While a ten-year study period may seem limited in scope, there are distinct advantages offered by this micro-level investigation. First, the selected period represents an ideal time frame in which to use mortality estimates based on government registers, since 1876 was a watershed year for civil registration in Ontario. According to Emery, [7] legislation that came into effect on the 1 January 1876 "required householders to register a death prior to interment (rather than within 10 days) in return for which they were issued a certificate of death." Reviews for the decade 1871-80 showed birth registrations up to 70 per cent from 50 per cent and death registrations almost doubled from 32 per cent to 60 per cent. [8 ]The onset of our study period also co incides with the year that Belleville petitioned to change its status from that of a town to a city and, accordingly, captures some of the problems inherent in the early transition to urban living. Furthermore, the study period reflects a time of relative demographic stability in Belleville, as a world depression in the 1870s reduced the volume of migration to the area. …