UX Librarian: Midwives in West Virginia

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Midwives in West Virginia

I was helping a patron today at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library who was looking for some information about her Harman and Huffman ancestors in Randolph County and Pendleton County, West Virginia. In digging through our records of marriages, births, and deaths, I found an old photocopy about Aunt Sara Midwife (1853-1916). I have no idea where the piece of paper came from but the story of Aunt Sara is so typical of the strong frontier women of West Virginia. I have transcribed below what I found:

Aunt Sara Midwife

"Aunt Sara Murphy Wilmoth Phillips the second of thirteen children of Elder James and Mary (Polly) Stansbury Murphy. Her paternal grandparents were Jonah and Sarah Pride Stansbury.

She was born December 3, 1853 in their home on Haddix Mountain, Randolph County, near the Tucker County line.

She was married July 15, 1869 first to Abel Wilmoth, and to this union were born four children, Lloyd, Hinnie, Emma, and Evva [sic]. Later she married Albert Phillips, but they had no children. Besides her own four children Aunt Sarah helped to rear three other children who needed a home, Elam Cross, Charley Wamsley, and Gladys Vanscoy. After marriage she lived in a log house, but later they built the fine home that was located in the field near where the J and H market is now located. The home burned within the last year, and the burned remains can still be seen from the highway.

Perhaps the greatest contribution she made to her community was her services as a midwife which according to records began in 1889 when she was 36 years old, and ended in 1916 when she was 63. She died December 26, 1916. In her medical records the first births recorded were those of Cora Wilmoth, January 10, 1889, who later married her youngest brother, Hickman Murphy, and Columbus Rossey, July 19, 1889 who was the son of her oldest sister, Isabella. One of the last recordings in her book was Roscoe Murphy, January 16, 1916, a cousin. She worked very little the year of 1916.

Her son-in-law Austin Curtis, who married her daughter Hinnie said, "Her records were thorough, and promptly recorded at the court house."

In most of the reports we find the name of each child, the date of birth, and the number of the child. She gave the names of the parents, and many times their ages, the maiden name of the mother, and the county where they were born. It is interesting to note how many of the parents came into Randolph County from Barbour County.

In response to calls, in early years by the father's voice, and later years by phone, night or day, she mounted her sorrel mare, Maude, and away she went on a side saddle with her little black bag. In cold weather she wrapped her legs even though she wore long skirts and petticoats. She stayed as long as she was needed at each home until both mother and baby were alright.

She was not only a midwife, but she was a friend to help the mother care for the babies, and she did much work as a Doctor anytime she was called.

Aunt Sarah did her work well because of her God given talent, and experience. She was not required to have a practicing license, as did her niece, Bessie Ferguson, who was also a midwife in later years.

Aunt Sarah perhaps never charged more than five dollars to deliver a baby, yet she was a good manager in her home and accumulated considerable wealth. She found work for all members of her family as they raised, harvested, and sold farm products. The merchants in Montrose would buy, trade, and sell, anything the people in the community had extra.

Even though all the children worked for Aunt Sarah, she sent them to school and they all loved her.

Her records show that she delivered 36 babies in this community. Many of their names you will recognize as you read the following complete list as preserved by her grandson, the late Russell Curtis, and his wife Pauline, who loaned the fragile books and Aunt Sarah's picture to be copied. We hope that you will be able to find some names and dates that will help you in compiling your own family history.

In the front of one of Aunt Sarah's books we found this message:

"When these you see, Oh, think of me."

I am indeed thinking of you today, Aunt Sara Midwife of West Virginia.

Fiction From West Virginia

Which reminds me...Have you read the "The Midwife of Hope River: A Novel of an American Midwife" (2012) by Patricia Harman? It is a story that may be a lot like that of Aunt Sarah Midwife.

Patience Murphy is a midwife who travels her community birthing babies and helping out new mothers. Murphy has come to Appalachia to escape a chequered past and to reinvent herself. (And honestly, a lot of people still come to WV to start over or to reinvent themselves.) Midwife Murphy distinguishes herself by serving both the white and black populations of West Virginia.

Probably also true to past times, Midwife Murphy accepts produce or livestock from patients unable to to pay cash.

Patricia Harman proves herself to be a top notch writer by delivering authentic mountain prose without resorting to hokey dialect. As a West Virginian and midwife, Harman's story has the distinct ring of truth and beauty. Each chapter tells the story of a birth and ends with the entry in her journal.

"The Midwife of Hope River" is one of those magical books that is written so seamlessly that it almost reads itself. Rewarding and rich, "The Midwife of Hope River" is a book that will please discerning readers of all ages.

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