Midwifery In Colonial America Final Thoughts

Creating a website, www.midwiferyincolonialamerica.com was an interesting and sometimes frustrating endeavor.  I initially started my project using Word Press and then switched to Omeka.  However, making the switch was not as easy as it was supposed to be when in the process my entire website disappeared from the internet.   I contacted the help desk at my hosting site, BlueHost.com but found they were actually not at all helpful.  I explained that my website disappeared and they kept insisting that it was still there with all of the content I described.  After discussing my dilemma with Trevor, I posted to the Omeka forum which actually proved quite helpful by making suggestions regarding what to look for to recover the missing information.  I consider myself computer literate, however I know absolutely nothing about computer programing which seemed necessary to fix the problem with my website.  I contacted Trevor again and he was able to add the missing information to the Omeka program on my hosting site and in the process recovered my website.  Once this was accomplished I was able to begin working on my website.

Before I started my website I used Google to search the internet for any websites related to the history of midwifery in the United States.  The Google search for “history of midwifery” located “The History of Childbirth and Midwifery in America – A Timeline”, Wikipedia pages and links to articles and books.  Outside of the Google search there are very few websites related to midwifery and the only site which discusses the practice of midwifery from a historical perspective is www.dohistory.org which is the companion site for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale.  In addition to this website, I have provided links (in the exhibit section) to some other websites including Archiving Early America at www.earlyamerica.com which provides links to primary sources, and Colonial Williamsburg at www.colonialwilliamsburg.org (under the heading History and Education/people) which provides links to information regarding people who lived and worked in Williamsburg during the eighteenth century.

In creating the website, I considered several aspects of my current research project, carefully determining which aspects could be incorporated into the website.  The practice of midwifery is an ancient one carried to the colonies from England by women who had learned their art from a female friend or relative who was an experienced midwife.  Midwives kept the secrets shared with them by their patients and therefore did not usually keep written records of their daily practice.  If records were kept, they were usually destroyed when the midwife stopped practicing due to age or infirmity.  In England, midwives traditionally testified in court in cases of infanticide, abortion, bastardy, fornication and adultery.  My research involves utilizing court records for the colony of Virginia to determine if this aspect of the English practice of midwifery was successfully transported to the American Colonies.  Court records provide a window into the lives of colonists and help historians to understand their interpersonal relationships as well as the gendered and class-based nature of crime and punishment.

I have incorporated into my website the records of several interesting court cases in the Richmond County Courts, the Court of Oyer and Terminer and the Colonial Court of Accomack-Northampton County, Virginia.  These cases ultimately highlight the reasons why it was imperative to use the services of a midwife in childbirth.  The presence of the midwife not only safeguarded the lives of mother and child during the birth process, but also offered legal protection for the mother.  Midwives testified in cases of paternity for unwed mothers who provided the midwife with the identity of the father at the height of labor – a time when it was believed women would not lie.  This belief grew out of the fear women suffered during childbirth – they feared for their lives because women died during childbirth at much higher rates than today due to complications, especially childbed fever (Puerperal fever).  The presence of the midwife also provided the mother protection against charges of infanticide – if the baby was stillborn the midwife and other women present were able to attest to the condition of the child at birth.

The cases included on this website involve charges of infanticide when childbirth took place outside of the company of women, as well as cases of bastardy, fornication and adultery.  When men of property were charged with crimes the primary “punishment” assigned involved a fine payable in cash or tobacco.  In contrast, when women and indentured servants (men and women) were the defendants in these cases the punishments assigned included whipping, added time to their indenture and hanging.

Also included in the exhibit section are some photographs taken by me at Colonial Williamsburg of the man-midwife/surgeon’s tools and Dr. Galt’s license to practice midwifery from London, England.

I enjoyed creating this website and feel that I have accomplished the goals stated in my project proposal.  I also decided to add a comments page using Intense Debates so that visitors can leave comments or suggestions regarding the website.  I plan to continue to add case files and photographs to the site as I pursue additional research into the practice of midwifery in colonial America.


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