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Thread from Roots-L mailing list on early pregnancies in US Colonial times


Sender: ROOTS-L Genealogy List
Date:    Tue, 6 Dec 1994 08:57:00
From:    McIntire, Erin <EMcIntir@UNEX.UCLA.EDU>
Subj:     marriages/births

I don't remember where I heard this, but I was under the impression that the reason for early births was for the man to ensure that the woman was capable of having children before he married her and saddled himself with a wife who could not give him the children he needed to help with the work. (Whew! How's that for a run-on sentence!) I may be mistaken and this may have applied only to royalty, but it seems as good a reason as any...

Erin McIntire
emcintir@unex.ucla.edu


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Date:    Tue, 6 Dec 1994 09:09:41
From:    Barbara F Daly <bfdaly@BLUE.WEEG.UIOWA.EDU>
To:       All
Subj:     early marriages/pregnancies

On Mon, 5 Dec 1994, Roy Iutzi-Mitchell wrote:

> I am afraid I can't cite the source (something like Natural History,
> Smithsonian, or such) about five-to-eight years ago had an article
> that might be relevant to the discussion about age of marriage and
> first pregnancy. It included a summary of the diary of a midwife
> from the time of the American Revolution. If I remember
> correctly, about 40% of women's first-born children were born
> significantly before nine months of marital bliss. The gist of
> the article, I believe, was that Americans 200 years ago—
> although they may have talked against it—commonly practiced
> pre-marital sex. However, once the girl/woman became pregnant,
> it was assumed that they would wed. It is interesting to me, as
> an anthropologist, as an illustrative example of the distinction
> between what is called "ideal" and "real" culture, as well as for
> the amazingly revisionist history that likely takes place in all
> societies. If 40% of first-births were to women who were pregnant
> for some time at their marriage, then it is clear that far more than
> half of colonial era Americans engaged in premarital intercourse.
> Not that I am saying that I am shocked by this, or would castigate
> them, but that from two centuries beyond, we have Fabricated a
> false notion about sexuality, marriage and childbirth. Anyway,
> just to share this thought. Hope no one is offended. --roy--
> Roy Iutzi-Mitchell
> ffri@aurora.alaska.edu

I believe that the source you're thinking of is A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. It came out in 1990 and is still in print; it's a Pulitzer Prize winner. A very good read and very informative on social history in Early America. I highly recommend it.

Barbara Daly
bfdaly@blue.weeg.uiowa.edu


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Date:    Tue, 6 Dec 1994 08:52:09 -0700
From:    Chuck Bramlet <"ELL447::BRAMLET"@ECC7.ATENG.AZ.HONEYWELL.COM>
To:       All
Subj:     Early marriages/pregnancies

Roy Iutzi-Mitchell writes...

<Stuff deleted>
"first pregnancy. It included a summary of the diary of a
"midwife from the time of the American Revolution. If I remember
"correctly, about 40% of women's first-born children were born
"significantly before nine months of marital bliss. The gist of
"the article, I believe, was that Americans 200 years ago—
"although they may have talked against it—commonly practiced
"pre-marital sex. However, once the girl/woman became pregnant,
<more stuff deleted>

One thing that really should be kept in mind about that period in American History, is that they ALSO commonly practiced "common law marriage." Now, the question is, was the marriage actually contracted and agreed to at one time, and then formallized by a Judge or Minister at a later time?

Chuck Bramlet
bramlet@eccx.ateng.az.honeywell.com


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Date:    Tue, 6 Dec 1994 08:39:26 PST
From:    A. Sharp <AXSC%GeAs%GS@BANGATE.PGE.COM>
To:       All
Subj:     Early Marriage/Pregnancy

The book referred to is the diary of a New England midwife—Martha Bellenger? There's also a paperback, called Lost Babes of Essex County, MA about town records involving early and illegitimate births.

Comment:  The interest of the town fathers in babies arriving out of turn was not prurient, but practical:  they knew that illegitimate children and their mothers were far more likely than others to need financial help from the town. The town fathers weren't prepared to put up with deadbeat dads; fathers of illegitimate children were required to support their children until they were seven or eight—old enough to be apprenticed to a trade. Consequently, a pregnant spinster (or even a married woman whose husband hadn't been in town recently) was required to make a statment about the paternity of the child. If she refused, she [the midwife] was required to return again and again, and the midwife was required to demand the information when the woman was in labor, on the theory she [the mother] wouldn't be able to lie then. Many such statements recorded by these town fathers are explicit about the name, date, place, and circumstances surrounding the conception of the baby—a real eye-opener for descendents to read.

Second comment:  If your girl became pregnant before marriage, the town fathers "encouraged" the two of you to marry right away. The New England fine was forty shillings each, unless the midwife testified that the baby was small and undeveloped—OBVIOUSLY a seven-months child. But the Lost Babes book commented that in an era where divorce was for all practical purposes nonexistent and children supremely important, couples may also have decided it was worth eighty shillings to assure their mutual fertility before marrying. (I blush to confess that I have one late eighteenth-century ancestor who married four times—and only his last wife, being past it, was NOT pregnant at the time of the marriage.)

Ann Sharp
axsc@pge.com


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Date:    Tue, 6 Dec 1994 21:42:18 CST
From:    Mary Swanson <swans060@GOLD.TC.UMN.EDU>
Subj:     Early Marriages/Pregnancies

Since we can determine with relative certainty that a Colonial American woman was pregnant at the time of her marriage, we can therefore assume that people didn't necessarily practice what they preached. My question is how did this circumstance play itself out? How were these children treated by their community and family? Did people treat them well because although everyone knew the rules, few people followed them, OR, were these first children treated rather badly because people did not want to condone this behaviour? Maybe everything was okay as long as the two people, especially the pregnant Mother got married. I'm sure she didn't always marry the father of her first child.

Mary at: swans060@gold.tc.umn.edu


Sender: ROOTS-L Genealogy List
Date:    Thu, 8 Dec 1994 12:55:22 -0500
From:    Paul McBride <cybvax0!pbm@UUNET.UU.NET>
Subj:     Re: Early Marriages/Pregnancies

Mary Swanson wrote:

> My question is how did this circumstance play itself out? How were these
> children treated by their community and family? Did people treat them well
> because although everyone knew the rules, few people followed them, OR,
> were these first children treated rather badly because people did not want
> to condone this behaviour? Maybe everything was okay as long as the two
> people, especially the pregnant Mother got married. I'm sure she didn't
> always marry the father of her first child.

I recently saw part of a mini series "The Awakening Land" (1978). In frontier Ohio, a boy and girl of about age 10 had become friends. When the girl's mother found out who the boy was, the mother went into a frantic rage forbidding her to see him again. The girl's mother wrote to the boy's father and asked him to forbid his son's seeing her daughter. The boy's father told his son that it was against the law and against the church for him to see her, but didn't seem to explain why. Because the girl did not understand the reason, she thought that they thought she was immoral or unclean. She became depressed, and soon died, possibly by suicide. It turned out that she was his half sister.

--
Paul B. McBride (uunet!cybvax0!pbm) or (pbm%cybvax0@uunet.uu.net)


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Date:    Thu, 8 Dec 1994 13:03:47
From:    Kathy Schroeder <kschroed@WILEY.CSUSB.EDU>
Subj:     Re: Early Marriages/Pregnancies

> Mary Swanson <swans060@gold.tc.umn.edu> wrote:
>
> > My question is how did this circumstance play itself out? How were these
> > children treated by their community and family? Did people treat them well

And Paul McBride added (about "The Awakening Land," the mini-series:

> When the girl's mother found out who the boy was, the mother went
> into a frantic rage forbidding her to see him again. The girl's mother
> wrote to the boy's father and asked him to forbid his son's seeing
> her daughter. The boy's father told his son that it was against the
> law and against the church for him to see her, but didn't seem to
> explain why <snip>.
> It turned out that she was his half sister.

The mini-series was based on the Conrad Richter novels, The Trees, The Fields and The Town.  (*My* favorite author :))  The girl in question was not, technically, illegitimate.  When the boy's father (the local lawyer) impregnated the girl's mother (the local school teacher), a town merchant stepped in and married the school teacher.  The problems the boy and girl had were the result of their being half-siblings, not because the girl was "illegitimate."

A more illustrative example from literature might be Pearl of The Scarlet Letter by Nat'l. Hawthorne. As the manifestation of her mother's "sin," Pearl is seen as a "wild child." But even Pearl is less scorned than her mother, Hester. Hawthorne suggests that it is the parent who bears the brunt of public scorn.

But this is literature . . .  (Heaven help us, a movie version of The Scarlet Letter is on the way.)

Kathy Schroeder kschroed@wiley.csusb.edu


Also on this topic see comments relating to the early birth of Andrew Loomis.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

— FYI only, not an advertisement —

Allen County Public Library Call No. 974.16 UL7MA

A midwife's tale: the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Published by Vintage Books, New York 1991
ISBN No. 0679733760

Allen County Public Library Call No. 974.401 ES7SA

Lost babes: fornication abstracts from court records, Essex County, Massachusetts, 1692-1745 by Melinde Lutz Sanborn
Book published in Derry, N.H. by the author, 1992.
ISBN No. 0961871148