Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.
A spread from the birth register of Rosina Heydrich, midwife in the Schwenkfelder community of Lower Salford, Montgomery County. Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center, Pennsburg, PA

A spread from the birth register of Rosina Heydrich, midwife in the Schwenkfelder community of Lower Salford, Montgomery County.
Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center, Pennsburg, PA

Hoofbeats on the dirt path announced the arrival of the midwife, who traveled on horseback from her home at Lower Salford in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County to attend a birth at the residence of the Haag family in nearby Franconia Township on August 1, 1770. Johannes Haag was the first delivery attended by Rosina (Krauss) Heydrich (1737–1828) when she began her Hebamme Büchlein, or midwife’s manuscript, at the age of 32. Over the next five decades, she and an anonymous assistant recorded 1,739 attended births in the Perkiomen Valley, along with detailed medical treatments and herbal remedies for a wide variety of health concerns for women and children. The extensive manuscript may be the earliest midwife’s birth register in America, providing the rare opportunity to closely examine the life and work of a leading female pioneer in early Pennsylvania.

The historic Lower Salford Schwenkfelder Meetinghouse was originally built as a schoolhouse in 1828 and rebuilt in 1869 on the site of the 1738 Schwenkfelder graveyard where Rosina Heydrich and her husband George were buried. Photo, Patrick J. Donmoyer

The historic Lower Salford Schwenkfelder Meetinghouse was originally built as a schoolhouse in 1828 and rebuilt in 1869 on the site of the 1738 Schwenkfelder graveyard where Rosina Heydrich and her husband George were buried.
Photo, Patrick J. Donmoyer

After years of obscurity in the collection of the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center in Pennsburg, the manuscript is now fully available online for the first time through support from the Historical & Archival Records Care Grant, a program funded by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) and managed by the Pennsylvania State Archives. A complete translation and high-resolution scans of the original document are available to the public online through the POWER Library, a project of the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Office of Commonwealth Libraries.

This project was undertaken following the successful conservation of the manuscript in 2015 at the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia, where conservators repaired the fragile pages and applied a protective archival binding. When grant funding from PHMC was awarded in the summer of 2019, the manuscript was scanned and digitized at the Conservation Center, and thereafter, I commenced the transcription and translation of the full 94 pages of the idiosyncratic German script.

Rosina’s gravestone at the cemetery bears the anglicized name “Rosana Heydrick.” Several herbs featured in healing remedies in her midwifery manuscript are still growing on her grave to this day, including juniper, rose and plantain. Photo, Patrick J. Donmoyer

Rosina’s gravestone at the cemetery bears the anglicized name “Rosana Heydrick.” Several herbs featured in healing remedies in her midwifery manuscript are still growing on her grave to this day, including juniper, rose and plantain.
Photo, Patrick J. Donmoyer

Penned between 1770 and 1819, the midwifery manuscript begins with a compendium of botanical medicine consisting of 14 pages with more than 150 entries. Emphasizing both practical properties and esoteric virtues of particular plants, this literary complement to the midwife’s practice includes remedies, treatments and recommendations for the health of women and families. Except for a few addenda, the majority of these entries appear to have been written at the same time, suggesting that the writer may have copied this material from another source that has yet to be identified. Some remedies are notably ritual in nature, describing the use of healing objects or procedures enacted in a particular manner or at certain times. This parallels the use of Braucherei, or ritual healing traditions, commonly practiced in the home and cultural community of Pennsylvania Dutch settlements in the region.

Immediately following the collection of remedies is the largest and most significant portion of the text, comprising 84 pages of births that Rosina attended. These entries list the date and name of the child, occasionally with other significant information, such as birth complications or the names of parents. The first 20 years of the birth register match the handwriting of the first section of remedies, but beginning in 1790, the birth record appears to have been completed by another writer. This change likely coincided with the collaboration between Rosina and an assistant, who were able to practice side by side or work separately to attend as many as four births in a single day. Although the full geographic spread of the birth register has yet to be determined, circumstantial evidence suggests that Rosina and her assistant were working throughout the Perkiomen Valley across as many as half a dozen townships in Montgomery County, especially Lower Salford, Hatfield, Franconia, Worcester, Skippack and Towamencin.

The remedies in Rosina Heydrich’s manuscript involve the use of herbs in a variety of ways, including as teas, tinctures, baths and inhalants, sometimes administered according to ritual procedures, such as the use of elderberry tops in spring, which were to be rubbed in the hand and smelled three times in order to treat uterine pains and postpartum depression. Photo, Patrick J. Donmoyer

The remedies in Rosina Heydrich’s manuscript involve the use of herbs in a variety of ways, including as teas, tinctures, baths and inhalants, sometimes administered according to ritual procedures, such as the use of elderberry tops in spring, which were to be rubbed in the hand and smelled three times in order to treat uterine pains and postpartum depression.
Photo, Patrick J. Donmoyer

This geographic spread encompasses a significant portion of the early settlement of the Schwenkfelders, a religious denomination that immigrated to Pennsylvania between 1731 and 1737, settling in the Perkiomen Valley after more than a century and a half of persecution in Germany. Their founder Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1489–1561) was a Silesian nobleman whose radical theology, especially concerning the practice of the Eucharist, branded him a heretic by Martin Luther and his contemporaries. During his exile, he wrote the theological works that inspired the formation of the Schwenkfelder community, which grew to between 1,200 and 1,500 residents of Lower Silesia by the 18th century. Persecuted by Catholics and Lutherans alike, the Schwenkfelders were routinely jailed, stripped of their rights to worship, barred from selling their property, and forbidden to leave the region. More than 500 Schwenkfelders decided to flee Silesia at night, and after briefly taking refuge with the Moravians in Saxony, they undertook the long journey to Pennsylvania.

The author of the manuscript, Rosina Heydrich, was among the first generation of Schwenkfelders to be born on American soil. On April 10, 1737, she was the first child born of the immigrants Balthasar Krauss (1706–74) and Susanna Hoffmann (1708–91), whose proposed marriage in 1736 initiated the organization of the Schwenkfelder congregations with the very first formal selection of a minister and two deacons to preside over the union. Balthasar had arrived in Philadelphia with his widowed mother Anna (Heydrich) Krauss (d. 1755) in 1733, and Susanna and her family arrived in 1734. They settled on a tract of 200 acres in present-day Lehigh County, near the border with Montgomery County, in an area later known as Kraussdale, where one of the earliest Schwenkfelder meetinghouses was erected.

The first page of entries from Rosina Heydrich’s birth register, begun in 1770, includes her initials, “RH,” and the inscription “aged 32.” Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center, Pennsburg, PA

The first page of entries from Rosina Heydrich’s birth register, begun in 1770, includes her initials, “RH,” and the inscription “aged 32.”
Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center, Pennsburg, PA

Little else is known about what must have been a colorful and challenging life as the region’s preeminent midwife. Rosina’s husband George Heydrich (1737–1824) was a shoemaker and farmer who settled with a group of Schwenkfelders in Lower Salford, not far from a small cemetery where he and Rosina were later buried. Rosina’s manuscript was passed down through her family and eventually donated to the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center by Rev. Ruben Kriebel and his wife Hannah (Heydrich) Kriebel, who was Rosina’s granddaughter. This provenance is significant, because other than a single inscription containing the initials “R.H.” and her age on the heading of the first page of the birth register, the manuscript bears no formal inscription with her name.

Perhaps most enigmatic is the variability of the handwriting in the manuscript, which is nearly illegible in many places. Passages freely combine German and Latin script, fraktur calligraphy, and Latin printing in varying degrees on a single page and even sometimes in a single inscription. Although it is clear that Rosina was quite literate, it is possible that she was not formally taught to write in school. Women’s education was neither free nor unanimously prioritized across all sectors of society in her era, and the first church-affiliated Schwenkfelder schools were only initiated when she was an adult. As a result, she may have developed a distinctive self-taught writing style.

Rosina’s earliest calligraphy begins with the section of healing remedies and continues into the first two decades of the birth register. A notable period of transition takes place from 1789 to 1790, when the large, rounded calligraphic hand nearly ceases altogether and another narrower, more organized style appears to take over, as if an assistant became involved in the documentation of her midwifery practice. If this theory were to be correct, who was the midwife’s apprentice?

This subpoena from the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas summoned Rosina Heydrich to testify in the trial of defendant Joel Lukens for his responsibility in the paternity of a son born of Nancy Reiff in 1791. Rosina received three subpoenas between 1792 and 1793, and she bound the documents into her midwifery manuscript. Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center, Pennsburg, PA

This subpoena from the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas summoned Rosina Heydrich to testify in the trial of defendant Joel Lukens for his responsibility in the paternity of a son born of Nancy Reiff in 1791. Rosina received three subpoenas between 1792 and 1793, and she bound the documents into her midwifery manuscript.
Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center, Pennsburg, PA

Although the identity of an assistant is not revealed in the manuscript, one single entry dated March 8, 1800, provides notable clues to both the new writer’s identity and the midwife’s preferred method of travel: “Mother had yet another hard fall from a horse.” Rosina’s mother was already deceased by 1791, presumably leaving the “mother” in question to be none other than Rosina herself, and the dutiful scrivener to be her daughter. Although Rosina had three daughters, only one, Eva (Heydrich) Kriebel (1767–1826), lived long enough to have penned the entries from 1790 to 1819. Eva may have taken over some of the responsibilities of her mother’s practice or, at the very least, taken charge of regularly updating the extensive ledger. The birth entries show signs of having been recorded in clusters rather than entered on a daily basis, indicating the possibility that it was difficult to keep the record current and up to date due to the sheer number of births attended.

In many ways, Rosina Heydrich’s manuscript is comparable to the extensive midwife’s daybook kept from 1785 to 1812 by Martha Ballard (1735–1812), midwife and healer of Hallowell, Maine, celebrated in the Pulitzer Prize–winning book A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The accounts differ, however, on many levels. Ballard attended 816 deliveries between 1785 and 1812, with an average of 3.9 births per month, while Heydrich attended more than twice as many births over a longer period, with as many as four births recorded in just one day. In addition, Heydrich’s register lacked the names of those who paid for her services, while Ballard recorded precise transactions, and the bulk of her entries included a wide range of activities in daily life. But Heydrich’s manuscript contains detailed medical treatments and remedies that are not included in Ballard’s daybook. Nevertheless, both accounts are complimentary examples of the important role of women in early American medicine.

It is difficult to tell what levels of discretion surrounded the creation and use of Rosina Heydrich’s document. Was the register intended for posterity as an asset to the Schwenkfelder community and their neighbors in the area? Or was it considered private, as evidence of medical confidentiality in early Pennsylvania?

Clues shedding light on these questions are found not in the bulk of the day-to-day details of particular deliveries but in specific, unusual entries scattered throughout the manuscript. Entries describing controversy surrounding paternity, allusions to impropriety, and instances of accidental death and even infanticide are found tacitly recorded among ordinary birth records, such as when “Maria Mester threw her child in the well” on July 8, 1804.

 

A spread from a popular late-18th-century midwifery compendium of “Women’s Secrets,” pseudonymously attributed to St. Albert the Great, features images and detailed text on childbirth practice. In contrast, Rosina Heydrich’s manuscript contains little information about delivery procedures, likely because her training as a midwife was based in practical experience rather than literary works such as this one. Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

A spread from a popular late-18th-century midwifery compendium of “Women’s Secrets,” pseudonymously attributed to St. Albert the Great, features images and detailed text on childbirth practice. In contrast, Rosina Heydrich’s manuscript contains little information about delivery procedures, likely because her training as a midwife was based in practical experience rather than literary works such as this one.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

As evidence of the manuscript’s role as both a private and public document, Rosina received subpoenas from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to testify in court as a witness, on three occasions between May 1792 and February 1793, against Joel Lukens for the charges of “Fornication and Bastardy.” All three subpoenas were bound into the manuscript, and it is possible that her birth register was entered as evidence. Although court transcripts would likely reveal more details about the trial, the manuscript records the birth of a child to Nancy, daughter of Jacob Reiff, on September 8, 1791, with a notation in German phonetics regarding “Cort Bissniß.”

Some of the remedies in Rosina Heydrich’s manuscript are ritual in nature, suggesting the treatment of illness according to precise symbolic procedures. A notable example includes treating a child for a hernia by feeding a combination of dried forget-me-not roots and ginger to the child’s doll and also to the elders in the family. Mennonite Historical Society (formerly Clarke Hess Collection / Photo, Patrick J. Donmoyer

Some of the remedies in Rosina Heydrich’s manuscript are ritual in nature, suggesting the treatment of illness according to precise symbolic procedures. A notable example includes treating a child for a hernia by feeding a combination of dried forget-me-not roots and ginger to the child’s doll and also to the elders in the family.
Mennonite Historical Society (formerly Clarke Hess Collection / Photo, Patrick J. Donmoyer

Rosina’s entries were concise and matter of fact, even in the face of tragedy among members of her own family, such as when her youngest sister, Maria (Krauss) Gerhard, died “giving birth to a son while suffering from dysentery” on September 11, 1777, or when her daughter-in-law Susanna (Heydrich) Snyder gave birth to a stillborn child while suffering from a high fever and died five days later on November 8, 1801. Rosina was no stranger to death and uncertainty, as she was well aware of the plight faced by her parents’ and grandparents’ generations among the Schwenkfelders in Europe. By the dawn of the American Revolution, and just before her husband left to serve in the Pennsylvania Volunteers, she had given birth to six children, only four of whom survived childhood, and she later buried two others who reached adulthood. She witnessed life’s arrival and departure in both a personal and communal sense.

In the midst of a pandemic, she wrote on August 27, 1793: “At this time of the year many were called out of the mortal realm and into eternity.” This inscription refers to the outbreak of yellow fever that affected Philadelphia and the surrounding region from August to December 1793. Although the cause of the illness was unknown at the time, ships arrived in Philadelphia from Haiti carrying plantation owners and their families fleeing the uprising of enslaved workers, along with sick people and infected mosquitoes, which was the primary means of transmission. In just a few months, the pandemic claimed the lives of 4,000 people, accounting for fully one tenth of the population of Philadelphia at the time, and it only subsided when the weather was cool enough to kill the mosquitoes. She penned an undated inscription sometime between December 6 and Christmas: “The period of many deaths in the area has now abated.” This coincided exactly with the officially reported chronology.

Rosina Heydrich’s experiences as a seasoned practitioner of obstetric medicine in early Pennsylvania culminated in one of the richest primary source documents of its kind, worthy of further research and analysis for students of history, medicine, women’s studies, linguistics and folklife. As a unique source of genealogical information for the region’s early settlement and diverse religious communities, the birth register provides the opportunity for hundreds of thousands of descendants today in communities across the United States to trace their roots. Above all, the manuscript is a testament to the often overlooked but absolutely essential role of the midwife in protecting and caring for the health and well-being of the women, children and families of early Pennsylvania.

 

Historical & Archival Records Care (HARC) Grants are designed to improve the preservation of historical records significant to Pennsylvania and are available to organizations for collections care — including surveying, inventorying, preserving, arranging and describing—and for records reformatting and equipment. Each year, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and the Pennsylvania State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB) accept applications for HARC Grants, which are awarded based on a competitive review of applications by a subcommittee of SHRAB. For more information, contact Joshua Stahlman at jostahlman@pa.gov or 717-772-3257.

 

Patrick J. Donmoyer is the director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. He is the author of several books and is a frequent contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage. His recent articles include “The Easter Egg: A Flourishing Tradition in Pennsylvania” (Spring 2020), “Kutztown Folk Festival: America’s Oldest Folklife Celebration” (Summer 2019), and “Der Belsnickel: Nicholas in Furs or the Hairy Devil?” (Winter 2018).