Childbirth in the Plymouth Colony

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In writing about the life of Mary Allerton Cushman, who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 as a four-year-old, I knew I would have to research childbirth. The Separatist women were awesomely fertile – for example, Priscilla Mullins Alden had thirteen children. I shudder at that thought, but the descendants of those children number in the millions.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a book – The Midwives Book or The Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered. The author is Jane Sharp, an actual midwife in the seventeenth century. We don’t know who she was, but she was among a group of women occupying an extraordinary position in that time. At some point in the future, I will write more about midwives.

The book by Jane Sharp was edited by Elaine Hobby, and I was awed by Sharp’s knowledge of anatomy and obstetrics. Even my husband, the OB-GYN, was impressed.

The midwife for the women of Plymouth Colony was Bridget Fuller, wife of their physick, Samuel Fuller. Based on the number of successful births and healthy women in the colony, I would say she was extraordinarily skilled, birthing being one of the most deadly things for women of that time.

Circling back to my next book, The Last Pilgrim, here is an excerpt from the chapter in which Mary gives birth to her first child.

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By the middle of September, I had grown large with child, making some tasks difficult, but Thomas would oft help me. My back hurt and my ankles swelled, but I was happy – until the ache in my back turned to pains in my belly, which grew stronger and more rhythmic.

My time had come, and despite having been present for the birth of Alice Bradford’s three children, I knew not what it would feel like. Certainly not this? As the pains grew stronger, I walked to relieve the building pressure and panted with each contraction. Thomas had sailed to Rocky Nook early in the morning to ask Mistress Bradford to come and had then gone on to Mistress Fuller’s house, not far away. All three returned mid-afternoon, along with Mercy Bradford, who looked as I must have when her mother first gave birth – scared and anxious.

In the meantime, Elizabeth Warren stayed with me. Since the death of her husband, she oversaw his estate plus a household of five daughters and two sons. She was indeed a formidable woman.

With this group of women, I now had my own gossip, but I missed Priscilla Mullins. She lived in Duxborough with her seven children and was carrying her eighth, so her life was now too full.

The pain was terrible and I felt like I was being cleaved in two. Mistress Bradford made a meal for Thomas since he had not eaten, but, he just grabbed cheese and bread and left the house. Mercy milked our goat and her mother gave me warm goat’s milk to drink and held my arm as I walked around the garden between the pains. Midwife Fuller had brought her stool and had me sit in it so she could examine me from beneath. She clucked each time, but said the birth was well progressing. She had me drink broth, wine with cinnamon, and some water with mugwort and feverfew during that day, to keep up my strength. By that evening, I removed all of my clothes and wore only my linen smock. I had been laboring for some twelve hours and was drenched in sweat, crying out as the pains grew closer together.

I was so focused on the pain that I knew not whether Thomas was even nearby. My groans and moans would certainly have driven him elsewhere for his evening meal and longer.

“Will this never end?” I gasped out when one pain had subsided.

“Let me check you again, dear,” answered Mistress Fuller. She motioned for me to sit in her chair, and lowered herself to look beneath. “You are nearly there. Not much longer and all will be well.”

Just then, I felt a great need to push down, and Mistress Fuller said, “Push again! I can see the head.” She massaged me below with an oil containing what smelled like chamomile, rose and lavender, saying, “This will ease the baby’s passage and prevent any tearing of the flesh.”

Tearing of the flesh? At that point I was far from caring. I gasped and pushed again…and again. After a final scream, I felt a great release and there in Mistress Fuller’s hands was a red, crying mite. I fell back, caught by Mistress Warren.

“You have a fine boy, Mistress Cushman,” my midwife announced. “I need to tie off his birth string, then you can hold him.” This she did and then, taking the clean linen from Mercy Bradford, wrapped him well and gently placed him, still bawling, in my arms. “You need now to deliver the after-burden, Mistress. Here drink this.”

Mistress Fuller told me later that she had had Mercy boil the juice of mugwart, tansy and featherfew down to a syrup. She had added a bit of sugar to make it more palatable, but it still had an unpleasant taste. Soon after drinking it, the pain of contraction occurred again – I thought not to feel that anymore! – and the after-burden was delivered into a bowl.

I was wrapped below in a napkin and helped into a clean smock before I gratefully went to my bed, where I lay, cradling my newborn until he finally slept. The members of my gossip gave me many instructions about taking him to the breast, although I was so tired myself, I heard them as through a fog. Before I slept, Mistress Fuller gave me something to quicken the discharge of my milk.

When Thomas returned and learned all was well, he came to my side and kissed me, then stood back, wordless, in awe of his son, Thomas.

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I hope you enjoyed this snippet and will want to read the entire book! It won’t be too long, since it is written and I am in the first major edit.

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15 thoughts on “Childbirth in the Plymouth Colony

    • The original was truly formidable – five daughters, a few sons sprinkled in, and her husband died young so she ran the farm and the family and was considered equal to man in the colony. Definitely NOT the current one – the debate last night was hilarious with promises of medicare for all, including ALL our illegal immigrants. When asked who among the Democratic hopefuls would be willing to give up THEIR personal insurance for medicare, only two raised their hands.

  1. Your Elizabeth Warren was certainly made of the stuff that “founded countries” and I’m looking forward to reading your whole book. My great-grandmother became a widow a few days after the birth of her 5th. They had just purchased a farm but hadn’t moved on to it. She moved, farmed, and reared the children on her own, only to watch them die in WW1…

  2. It’s impressive how much skill and knowledge these midwives had so many years ago. And your description of Mary’s labor and the birth of her son makes me feel like she was in very good hands. Great passage!

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