I went to my small local library in search of stories of our pioneer sisters. I was lucky enough to find a series called Covered Wagon Women which is a compilation of diaries and letters of women who came west. I was drawn to the story of Jean Rio Baker (1810-1883) because it sounded so similar to that of one of my ancestors who also came from England crossing the ocean and the plains. Jean settled in Ogden, after arriving in Utah and so did my ancestors so I like to think that they may have known each other. She is not a well-known woman from church history which attracted me to her story. The unsung heroes deserve to have their stories told as well.
Jean was a mother to seven children and left England as a widower. One of her sons died during the journey to America. Another son died after settling in Ogden (Holms, 204-207). She describes five births that took place during her journey. Two fine healthy boys born on the sea voyage and three while crossing the plains (Holms, 213, 222).
She was even called upon to help a woman in labor. From what I can tell, she did not have training nor was she called as a midwife as was done in the early days of the Church. I think this was quite common that as a neighbor you could be called upon to assist in labor. I’m sure there were many more unassisted births because of their frequent isolation. Many times a midwife or other physician was not to be found. Here she describes being called upon to help, August 25,
“Travelled 10 miles and encamped by the river, I was sent for to Sister Henderson, who had been sick for two days. In one hour, I was enabled to assist in giving birth to her daughter, but the Mother is so much exhausted that I fear she will not rally again. 26 – Remained in camp all day, setting tires, Sister Henderson very low, the infant quite well. A hunting party, which set out yesterday, returned with plenty of fresh meat. 27 – Sister Henderson died to-day at noon, we buried her at 9 p.m., she left seven children” (266).
Every Neighbor a Midwife/Doula?
If you lived in those days, yes. And you probably were called upon as doctor and nurse too. Being the female neighbor meant being ready to help in all kinds of situations as women and children were often left alone. This is referenced in the book, Pioneer Women: Voices From the Kansas Frontier, “oftentimes women were called upon to take care of ailing neighbors as well. Traveling to nearby homesteads, they delivered the newborn, soothed the ill, treated the wounded and even dressed the dead for burial” (Stratton, 73). The author also noted,
“Pregnancy and childbirth involved particular apprehension for the pioneer woman and her family. During pregnancy adequate medical supervision was totally lacking. Likewise, the expectant mother often had very little female company to console and guide her through any difficult times. Worse yet, an unbalanced diet, a heavy work load and poor housing conditions placed serious physical handicaps on the pregnant woman and her unborn child as well. Childbirth itself was often the most difficult time of all. For the most part, women struggled through labor and delivery with little assistance. While a practicing physician was occasionally available to them, blizzards, floods, or other mishaps often delayed him until it was too late. In many communities, the tireless hands of an experienced midwife brought some relief to the new mother. Yet all too often the woman isolated on her homestead found no medical help forthcoming. Instead, she relied on the assistance of an anxious husband, a concerned neighbor or an older son or daughter” (Stratton, 86).
As I thought of her story I wondered if we realize that we should be looking for opportunities to serve our pregnant sisters. We may not have to do it in the same way as Jean or other pioneer women, but we still need each other. What I am saying is that we could do more than just ask, “how are you doing?” Today we may not experience the same kind of hardships, but many of our sisters suffer quietly with numerous challenges. I think we should be ready to sit down and let that mothers talk about their fears. We ought to listen and then offer words of encouragement. We can babysit children while moms have been on bed rest or just need a break. I like taking a meal to a new mother but I recognize that maybe help with breastfeeding her baby in the middle of the night is needed more. I love participating in mother blessings (we have a great essay in the book about mother-centered showers) because being surrounded by loving sisters is irreplaceable. I guess that is why I love Relief Society and Visiting Teaching, they give us an excuse to do and be more. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if every visiting teacher was a doula too? Think of how we would be transformed. A girl can hope right?
Jean also describes the birth of one of her grandchildren during the trek, September 22, “As I feared, my dear girls labor came on during the night, and at daybreak a little grandson was born to my very great joy. I have some fears for its life, but I do hope our Heavenly Father will spare it to us, and make it a blessing to us all, and an honorable member of his kingdom; the children are all over-joyed.” (Holmes, 273). I think it was common to know that birth opened the doors of heaven, both life and death and that for one sacred moment both mother and baby linger between the two. A pioneer woman laid her fate in God’s hands. Today we do not have the same circumstances but I would think that God still expects us to reverence birth as a sacred door from heaven and back and put our faith in Him that He will guide us through whatever comes.
Holmes, Kenneth, Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters From the Western Trails, 1851, Arthur H. Clark Company: 1984, Glendale California.
Stratton, Joanna L., Pioneer Women: Voices From the Kansas Frontier, Simon and Schuster: 1981, New York, NY.