By Dr. Mary Melcher

During the 19th century, a woman’s death in childbirth occurred about 65 times more often than in the late twentieth century, according to historian Judith Leavitt.  In the rural West and Arizona Territory, giving birth was especially hazardous due to a lack of competent attendants, long distances between ranches, farms and towns, as well as poor roads.  Women relied on a variety of people to help them through this potential ordeal, including midwives, doctors, neighbors, relatives and even their husbands, who were called into service when others were not available.

 Choice of attendants in childbirth also related to one’s cultural traditions.  For American Indian women, tribal customs and spiritual beliefs directed health care and childbirth practices.  Traditionally, medicine men and women performed rituals and used natural remedies to heal the sick and to create balance and harmony.  Navajo women followed certain practices, such as kneeling during childbirth, which were passed down through the generations.  They used herbal teas, as well as songs and blessings that eased pain and provided comfort.  American Indian women continued to follow their own traditions during childbirth until the mid-twentieth century, when they began using Anglo physicians and hospitals.

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 Apache twin babies (Photo Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum Call Number: IN-A-125pa).

Sometimes American Indian customs influenced Anglos.  Martha Summerhayes, an Army officer’s wife, gave birth to a baby boy at Camp Apache in January of 1875.  Even though she had not met members of the nearby White Mountain Apache tribe, some Apache women visited her following the birth of her baby.  This small delegation brought her some “finely woven baskets” and a cradleboard, which Summerhayes described:  “This was made of the lightest wood, and covered with the finest skin of fawn, tanned with birch bark by their own hands and embroidered in blue beads; it was their best work.  I admired it, and tried to express to them my thanks.”  The women proceeded to pick up, smile and coo at baby Harry before placing him in the cradleboard and soothing him to sleep.  Martha Summerhayes was “quite touched by the friendliness of it all.”  This type of cross cultural friendship often developed around motherhood and babies—experiences which united women of diverse heritage.

Even though new friendships developed in relation to babies, childbirth still induced fear, and women searched for help in many different arenas.  Newspapers in Arizona Territory often carried ads for remedies that promised to aid women in becoming pregnant and delivering healthy infants.  For example, the Arizona Republican newspaper carried many ads for the Wine of Cadui which would supposedly “regulate menstruation and give and tone and strength to the organs which inflammation and weakness have affected.”  It would also cure barrenness and help women conserve their strength during the ordeal of childbirth. There were other ads aimed at men, such as one for the Sex-ine Pill which would “cure weak nerves”….perhaps the Viagra of the early twentieth century.

Early physicians in Arizona Territory, like others around the country, knew very little about the germ theory or the fact that germs could be transported from one individual to the next and cause illness.  Even as late as the 1920s, they went between beds of laboring women in hospitals and infected them with childbed fever because they didn’t wash their hands.  This was happening around the country; however, some doctors in Prescott and the surrounding area learned about cleansing their hands with a carbolic acid solution.  This cut the number of deaths due to puerperal or childbed fever.  Still there were complications in childbirth which doctors and midwives did not understand, resulting in women, like Territorial Governor McCormick’s wife Margaret, dying following the birth of her stillborn baby in 1867.

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Carrie Johnson Aitken and daughters, 1892 (Photo Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum Call Number: PO-243pa).

Those who delivered infants successfully still faced the difficult task of getting their babies through childhood.  Arizona had a very high infant mortality rate, with babies dying from common illnesses such as diarrhea and pneumonia.  The state’s rate of infant deaths remained very high in comparison to the national average until the 1960s, when public health measures were effective in aiding infants and families.

To learn more about childbirth in Territorial Arizona, attend the free lecture by Dr. Mary Melcher, at the Sharlot Hall Museum on October 18 at 11 a.m. in the Lawler Exhibit Center.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com.