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Frontier Women in 1816 Indiana


Part III – Health and Childbirth

For a woman in early Indiana, childbirth was a very real part of her life. More births were attended by female midwives than male doctors in early nineteenth century America. However, out on the frontier, there were not likely to be any doctors, nor even midwives. Women were responsible for the health of their families, using home remedies that were composed largely of the wild native plants in the area. These were steeped in a tea, a tincture or even a poultice. The birth rate was higher on the frontier than in the more civilized east, though, just as in the older states, the mother and infant mortality rate could be alarmingly high. Childbirth was not generally attended by the father, unless he was the only one to attend to the mother, which out in the isolation of early Indiana could often be the case. If pregnancy and delivery in a settlement would be more than a modern woman could fathom, birth on the trail en route was more so, often on horseback or in a Conestoga wagon over miles of tortuous roads filled with mud holes and tree stumps.

Then as now, life had to go on when a woman was pregnant. There were older children to tend, soap and candles to make, tallow to render, meals to cook, wool to be spun, clothes to make and mend and gardens to tend. There was very little time, if any, for a pregnant mother to put her feet up. Days were long and hard, filled with homesickness and isolation. Another reality for the frontier woman was knowing that some of her children would not make it to adulthood, some dying in their first year.

Most medicine was from the native plants in the area. Herbs like pennyroyal, very dangerous in earlier pregnancy, were used at the end to facilitate childbirth. She might also drink an infusion of wild red raspberry leaves, a tea commonly enough drunk during the American Revolution when regular tea from England was taxed. Most children were nursed to at least their second year, which helped to space births.

In 1816, when Indiana went from territory to state, it was a luxury to have a medical man in a frontier settlement. In 1823 Doctor John T. Plummer moved with his family to Richmond. However, childbirth was still often as not, the role of the women in the community. Childbirth, like many aspects of a frontier woman’s life, was a something she faced with patience and fortitude.

— Gretchen Brown


Pioneer Women — The Lives of Women on the Frontier by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith

Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey edited by Gerda Lerner

Family and Fertility on the Indiana Frontier in 1820 by John Modell

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