GREAT FALLS — On Saturday, November 12, 2022, The History Museum in Great Falls hosted one of its ‘Second Saturdays’ events which take an opportunity to allow an educator to discuss subjects which are historically relevant to the region.
The presenter was Dr. Jennifer Hill, author of ‘Birthing The West’ which examines the importance and impact of midwives in the Mountain-West, during the 18th and early-19th centuries. Hill has a P.H.D. in American Studies with a concentration on childbirth and contraception.
In her research, Dr. Hill discovered just how prevalent, almost mandated, this tradition of midwifery was.
“Initially, I thought that these were scattered people, that they were just sort of historical renegades who were doing something strange and unusual. And after a while, all of a sudden, it became apparent to me that instead of being an exception, it was actually the rule, so to speak,” explains Hill, “Women who immigrated to Montana from from Finland and Sweden, had been enrolled in government programs which taught the skills needed to deliver effectively, so it was actually relatively quality healthcare for the time.”
In her efforts, Dr. Hill gathered evidence from scarce public health records, historical artifacts, journals, diaries, and even help from families descended from the midwives.
“Mary Kassmeier was a very prolific midwife who worked in the Fort Benton area. She asked all the people she helped to take a photograph of their infant, and she compiled all the photographs into a photo album, which she handed down to her family. The Kassmeier family generously allowed me access to it, and I could get a picture of her practice. It was families like that all over Montana, The Dakotas, and Wyoming that really helped me flesh out the story in a meaningful way,” says Hill.
Dr. Hill believes by telling these stories, she can help unravel an overlooked foundation to life as colonizers expanded into the West.
“These were people that were so important in their communities. They were valued in their communities. They had tremendous expertise and provided an important service and they were largely ignored. So it's a real honor to be able to record their stories and to share them,” says Hill.
There is also a level of symbolism to the work of the midwife, according to the author of ‘Birthing The West’.
“You know, I always talk about the lone man on a horse that sort of the image we have in our heads of the settlement of the American West, but really, we should be thinking about a midwife trudging through snowdrifts to get to a neighbor to help her have a baby. It was collaborative activities that helped shape the culture.”