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.


Jamestown Adventure

I was excited to review the game Jamestown Adventure because my interest is in colonial America. Unfortunately, the game is very simplistic and I was able to complete the entire game several times during several different scenarios in a short amount of time. After completing your adventure you are given the option of printing out both the results of your game and the actual history for comparison.

When I followed the known history of Jamestown and recreated those events in the game the colonists were hungry because their crops did not do well in the marshy soil, suffered a malaria epidemic, were poisoned by brackish water, sanitation was poor, found Pyrite instead of gold and were disappointed about not finding gold – all in less than five minutes. By following the actual history my ratings were: Food – fair (trading with Powhatan Indians provided several bushels of corn); Health – poor; Wealth – good (trading with Indians provided a refined form of tobacco) however the moral rating was good and I was promoted to Governor of Virginia!

The game does have redeeming quality of the game is that you can play the game multiple times using different scenarios making better decisions each time. While I find the game simplistic and somewhat boring, it is actually an excellent learning tool for elementary age students and a unique way to teach history to that age group.

Midwifery In Colonial America

Historians have utilized existing court records from colonial Virginia, specifically the records of the General Court, Richmond County Court and Accomack – Northampton County Court to study local history, legal history and even gender relations. Thus far there has been little attention given to women’s history as presented within these records. I am currently reviewing these same records to determine the types of cases which brought women to court during the colonial period in Virginia and who testified in those cases. Specifically, I am searching for the presence of midwives within the court records. Historically, in England in addition to their role in childbirth, midwives testified in court in regard to cases of bastardy, infanticide, fornication, adultery, rape and witchcraft. My research will determine if this aspect of their practice made the journey with them from England to the colony of Virginia.

My website, www.midwiferyincolonialamerica.com focuses on the practice of midwifery in colonial Virginia based upon the information available in local court records. Women seldom left letters or diaries behind, especially midwives who usually did not keep records to protect the secrets of both the birthing room and their patients. In the absence of first-hand accounts, court records can provide a window through which historians can view the lives of these early settlers and gain an understanding regarding their gendered roles, social relations and gendered power dynamics.

I selected a ready-made product such as Omeka.com and a hosting service, BlueHost.com to create my website. I have provided links to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s website, www.dohistory.org, the site for Archiving Early America at www.earlyamerica.com and Colonial Williamsburg at www.colonialwilliamsburg.org which provides information on midwives and apothecaries.

The website currently features a specific case which moved from the local court, through the Court of Oyer and Terminer and ultimately ended at the General Court of Colonial Virginia. So far, I have located all of the records except those of the General Court which contain the final decision and punishment assigned to the case. This website is a work in progress and will most likely continue to evolve as I locate additional resources and information to add to its pages.

History…The Wikipedia Way???

Is Wikipedia a good reliable source of historical scholarship?

The answer to this question depends upon several factors including, but not limited to our own relationship to historical scholarship.  According to Roy Rosenzweig, “History is a deeply individualistic craft” and its scholarship is characterized by the possessive individualism of historians.  As historians we are taught to cite our sources, giving credit to other historians for the use of their ideas and words to avoid charges of plagiarism.  In contrast, Wikipedia encourages the creation of entries in cooperation with multiple authors, who may be anonymous.  Wikipedia allows users to freely copy and use the entries found on their site in a variety of ways.  Teachers can make copies to use in their classes, students can copy and use the articles in their papers, authors can use the information in books, and anyone with a website can copy information found on Wikipedia to their website.  The only restriction imposed by Wikipedia regarding the use of these entries is…”you may not impose any more restrictions on subsequent readers and users than have been imposed on you”.

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free, open, collaborative source which first appeared on the World Wide Web in January 2001.  The idea behind Wikipedia was originally developed in 1999 by Richard Stallman who proposed a website called GNUpedia.   The following year Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales and Larry Sanger, the driving forces behind Wikipedia, developed and launched Wikipedia’s predecessor – Nupedia in March 2000.  This was followed quickly by Wikipedia in January 2001.   The WikiWikiWeb software which enabled the creation of Wikipedia was developed in the mid 1990’s by Ward Cunningham.  Since its premier Wikipedia has become the largest, most widely read and most important free historical source.  Wikipedia has its own set of rules which are intended to regulate participation, however the co-creator and the site’s editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger resigned in 2003 in response to the projects “tolerance of problem participants and its hostility toward experts”.

The Wikipedia Way…

Wikipedia has its own set of policies and guidelines, which are “policed” by both volunteers as well as The Wikipedia Foundation.  The  Wikipedia Foundation consists of five members including Wales, two of his business partners and two elected members who retain the power to “ban users” from the website.

There are four “key” policies which should be adhered to in using Wikipedia.  They include:

1.      Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and therefore personal essays, dictionary entries, critical reviews, propaganda, advocacy and original research are excluded.  Basically, Wikipedia wants the accepted history summarized on the site and discourages anyone, especially historians from breaking new ground with original research.

2.      Avoid bias – All entries must be void of any bias effectively remaining neutral on all subjects – especially volatile ones.  Rosenzweig compares Wikipedia’s “founding myth” of neutrality with Peter Novak’s “founding myth” of the historical profession, “objectivity”.

3.      “don’t infringe copyrights”

4.      Respect other contributors

History…Wikipedia Style!

Is Wikipedia a good, reliable resource for historical scholarship?  This question keeps resurfacing and for good reason.  Wikipedia is first and foremost an encyclopedia and therefore is not a good, reliable resource for any student beyond middle school.  Like other encyclopedias the information contained within the entries is limited with a neutral point of view and therefore void of opinion.

Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia is a white board site which enables readers to edit the information contained within any entry.  The collaborative writing style encouraged by Wikipedia increases the possibility that Wikipedia entries could be altered at any given time, a characteristic which prevents its use as a reliable source of historical scholarship.

Why should historians and educators care about Wikipedia? The answer to this question is simple…because our students do!  Personally, when I returned to school in 2002 I had not heard about Wikipedia, but I learned quickly.  During my undergraduate and master’s programs my history professors warned us against using Wikipedia for several reasons…

1.      It was new technology and they did not trust the information.

2.      The constantly changing information within the entries

3.      It is an encyclopedia and college students should never use an encyclopedia as a source

I have been teaching history at a community college since last spring and in my syllabus under instructions for research papers I tell my students, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for your paper.  My primary reasons for this are that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and the collaborative nature of the site which potentially results in changing and/or inaccurate information.

Roy Rosenzweig leaves us with an idea, a challenge in regard to Wikipedia’s popular history.  It is his tentative belief that “If Wikipedia is becoming the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century, historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible”.  He challenges historians to devote one day to review and improve those entries which cover their area of expertise.  Participating in this project would enhance the quality of Wikipedia.