Primary Source: Rachel Allen's Experience as Midwife and use of Herbal Medicine

In the eighteenth century, midwives were important people in a community even if there was a doctor who lived in the village or town. People typically consulted a midwife, not a physician, about an illness or ailment. And in more remote parts of North Carolina, a midwife would have been the only medical expert available.

Midwifery was an exclusively female profession, and it was one of the few public roles available to women. One reason why women were the chief practitioners of medicine was that family health was the concern of wives and mothers, and so people thought it was natural that women learn the art of healing. Midwives were paid for their work and were sought after for their knowledge and skills. Although it was often women who called upon the midwife to help a sick child or husband, men would also ask midwives for help.

Midwives also helped women in childbirth. As they do today, midwives gave advice to pregnant women and prepare them to give birth. Midwives were also present at the birth and delivered the baby. A physician or doctor would only be asked to assist the midwife if there were complications that required surgery.

Physicians, who were always men, had different duties from those of a midwife. These men were educated at a university and were called in to set bones and to operate. Physicians would rarely administer medication and people who were sick would see an apothecary (similar to a pharmacist).

Most midwives learned their skills from a female relative such as a mother or aunt. Other women learned medical skills from male relatives who were physicians or apothecaries.

Rachel Allen (1760-1840) was a midwife who lived near Snow Camp, North Carolina in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.We do not know where she learned her medical skills, but we do know that she chose to write down her herbal remedies, which suggests that she most likely passed her knowledge on to her children. Very few diaries or letters of everyday women such as Rachel Allen still survive, and the fact that her recipe book has been preserved shows us how important midwives were to their communities.

Below are excerpts from Rachel Allen's writing that show how residents of the backcountry treated wounds, illness, and disease.


To Make Green Salve take one pound of bores
Greese one pound of turpentine and melt it
together then take it of the fire take one ounce of VerdigreeseVerdigris is the green coating that forms on copper, brass, or bronze when the metal is exposed to air or water. You may have seen it on a statue or on an old penny. Verdigris is mainly copper acetate (Cu(OAc)2). It was traditionally made in vineyards, where acetic acid forms during the fermentation of grapes. The acetic acid was spread on sheets of copper, and the copper and acid reacted to form verdigris. Today, copper acetate is used as a fungicide (a chemical that kills fungus).
and pound it and Sift it then
put it in and Simmer it over the fire but not
to boil to be Sure put Something over thy
face while pounding Sifting and Stiring and
Stiring in the Verdigreese to take out proudProud here means protruding or standing above something else, so "proud flesh" is swollen flesh.
flesh and dead flesh from old Sores and Clense them


To make ointment to Cure a burn or Scald
take of the tops of high RattleSnakeA plant (not actually a snake!) also known as Calathea, a plant native to South and Central America. It has broad green leaves. It is sometimes used as a diuretic.
in the Spring of the year and fresh may butter
and pound them well together then make it up in
Balls let it lie about six weeks then put
it in a kettle over the fire let them Simmer
Well then Strain them out keep it for use


A Cancer wort the Cure
take Blood wortWas commonly used as a laxative. Also helps to stop bleeding by helping the skin to contract -- the origin of the name "blood wort." the inner Bark of
ShoemakeSumac, as we call it today, is a plant native to North America. It can grow quite tall -- about the size of small trees. The red berries were used to dye clothing. Root pound them together
Mix Sower cream & apply it to


The yaws A infection of the skin, bones, and joints caused by bacteria. or Countray Distemper is very
Bad to Cure perfectly Especially when
grown invitred this is the highest kind
of ScurvyA disease caused by a lack of Vitamin C. and the Symtoms of it are
Eating, UlcerUlcers are open soars that form in the lining of the stomach and esophagus. They are very painful. in the throat or pallet
and filthy Sores in other parts of
the body having neer Resemblence to
of the poxA popular expression referring to syphilis. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a virus. this unclean Diseas
often yealds to Dr. Paps Remady
or at Least may be Cept under by it:

Take one ounce of the Bark of
Shoemake Root one ounce of the iner
Bark of Spanish oakAlso known as Southern Red Oak. Native to North America, it can be found from the southern part of New Jersey south to Florida. Native Americans used Southern Oak to cure indigestion, chapped skin, fever, and asthma. boil these together
in two quarts of water till the decoctionDecoction is a process of boiling a substance to remove the water. For example, if you wanted to capture salt from sea water, you would boil it until the water evaporated and you were left with the salt. Allen is using "decoction" to refer to the substance left after the water is removed.
Bee very Strong, of the Liquor drink a
full pint milk warm and imeadiatelly
after it half a pint quite cold and
it will give thee powerful
vomit the next morning take half a
point of the Same Drink warm and
the Same quantity again in the
Evening and Continue So doing for
Six weeks or two months only the
Vomit must bee Repeated Every
Seventh day, in the meantime gargle
your throat and wash all you Sores
and ulcers with the Same warm
Liquor which aught to be made fresh
Every two days Besides all this you
Must Chew the Shoemake Root very
often and Swallow the healing juice
Every night before you go to Rest
take two pills made of turpentine
and Deers dung in Equel quantitys
of Eating and Drinking
Confine thyself from fleshmeat and from
Strong DrinkAny drink that contained alcohol. and bee very carefull
of catching Cold


A Receit"Receipt" (here spelled "receit") was another word for recipe. for a Canser
take the bark of the root of Spanish
oak dogwood sassafras persimmonSassafras is a tree native to the eastern United States. It has orange bark and usually 3 different types of leaves. Although people used sassafras in the colonial period for medicinal purposes, it is not commonly used today. In fact the United States Food and Drug Administration has banned all consumable forms of sassafras except in very small dosages. It can cause permanent liver damage. Persimmon is a dark orange-red fruit found on certain types of pine trees. The word comes from an Algonquin word for dried fruit, pessemmins. and the
shoemake that bares the berrys take
of these one pound each off the
north side wash them scrape of
the outside bark put them in a
pot cover it close boile it for half
a day then strain the liquer
then put it in a small pot and
bile it to it becomes a save
then put it away for use


To Make Eye Water
Take half a point of Spring water, the bigness
of two hazelnutsAllen is using hazelnut as a form of measurement. People wouldn't have had standardized forms of measuring cups like we have today, so Allen is using a common object to help people know how much ingredients to use. of alloma white transparent mineral salt AlK(SO4)2 one Spoonfull of
hunney the bigness of a large heazelnut
of verdigreese boile all together and SProbably "stir."
it well Let it Settle and bottle it for use.


To Make Hunney physickA laxative made from honey. Laxatives are medicines taken to help a person's digestive track. They initiate defecation.
Take flower of sulpharSulphur, also known as brimstone, is formed from volcanic material, is greenish-yellow in color, and looks like crystals. It is highly flammable. When refined into a powder, it can be used in medicine as a laxative, or to make a person sweat. one ounce Creame of tarterAn acid derived from the grapes used to make wine. When it becomes a solid, it turns into white crystals. It is often used in cooking, but can also be used as a laxative. one ounce, powder of Jallep Allen probably is referring to jollop, which is a general term for a strong liquor that acts as a laxative.
Quarter of an ounce mix them in
Clarified honey to the Consistance of an
ElecturyA medicinal paste made of other ingredients mixed with honey or syrup. and take thereof Every morning
fasting as much as will ly on the point
of a Case knife to cure Bad Blood.


For the consumptionConsumption is now called tuberculosis, which is a bacterial infection that attacks the lungs. take angillicoAngelica is a plant with small white leaves. It is used to treat fevers, colds, coughs and other stomach disorders. horseradishA type of root, commonly used today as a condiment. It is used in medicine as a diuretic, which increases urine flow.
allcom pain Each one Large handful put them
into an earthen pot with two gallons of Spring
Water cover it cloce Set it on the coles and
Stew it half away then Strain it and ad
thereto half a pound of fresh butter half a
pound of treacleA dark syrup made from sugar cane. then Stew it 5 hours take in
the morning and at night half a point
milk warm.


A Diet Drink to be Wrought in Beer
2 handfulls of Water CressesAn herb which grows near, or in shallow running, water. It has small white flowers. Has a number of medicinal purposes, such as helping with coughs, or acting as a diuretic. 2 handfulls
of Sassafras roots 2 handfull of NettlesNettles refers to a variety of different plants that have small green leaves and stinging hairs, such as the plant Stinging Nettles. 2
handfuls of SasborelleSarsaparilla is a vine native to South and Central America. In medicine, it refers to the root which is used as a tonic and to help keep people awake or alert.
2 pounds of LignumeityLignum Vitae is another name for the Guaiacum tree. It is a evergreen tree native to the Caribbean. The resin from this tree (a liquid substance, insoluble in water, excreted by some trees) has medicinal qualities. In folk medicine, it is used to cure respiratory problems and skin diseases. 2 hanfulls of BurdockA coarse plant with burs. It can be used as a diuretic, or to help cure skin problems such as acne, or to as a "blood cleanser" to rid the blood of toxins. roots 2 handfulls of Sweet BryersSweet Briar is a type of wild rose. It was used to treat constipation, skin disorders, and could be applied in a paste to help stop bleeding from minor cuts.
rots all this infuse in 3 or 4 gallons of
Malt Beer – for the consumption


for the consumption take white turpentine
hunney and fresh Butter mix them all
together take the Bigness of a Chestnut
in the Morning


Clense the Blood take VervineVervain grows along roadsides and in sunny pastures. It has small lilac colored flowers. It was often used to help alleviate fevers and pain ulcers. DittonyDittany is a plant which grows approximately one meter high. It has white, purple, or pink flowers. It can be used as a diuretic and to help with menstruation.
Sweet goldin rodGoldenrod is an herb plant with bright yellow leaves. It was sometimes used in healing wounds, tuberculosis, and other respiratory disorders. of each alike ----(ripped)
and Sweeten it with honey & Drink


for deafness & busing in ye head peel a
Clove of garlick dip it in honey & peel
it in ye Eare at lying down
ye Eare Ach from worms drop in warm
Milk Brings them out or Juse of
WormwoodThe wormswood plant's leaves contain absinth, which was used to treat stomach pain, bloating, gas, heartburn, and indigestion.> which kils them
Nurse in the Eare drop in Juse of onions.


for Weak Eyes Wel the Eye lids Morning
& Evening with Campfire
to restore Strength after RhematismRheumatism referred to a range of ailments including achy joints and bones, as well as severe arthritis.
Walk in a Strong Broth Made of wordThe hoof of a cow.Cow heels.


to clean the teeth Rub them With
ye ashes of Burnt Bread
for an Ulser in Bladder or kidneys
take decotionDecoction is a process of boiling a substance to remove the water. For example, if you wanted to capture salt from sea water, you would boil it until the water evaporated and you were left with the salt. Allen is using "decoction" to refer to the substance left after the water is removed. of agrimonySometimes called "church steeple" because of its shape. The plant is green in color with rough steams that grow 1 to 2 feet tall and spiky, yellow flowers. It was used widely in folk remedies as a diuretic. 3 times a day
or decotion powder or syrup of horse tailHorsetail is a long green hollow plant, similar to a willow. It grows in water or wet sandy areas. It was often used to help stop bleeding and to heal ulcers..


for an old sore leg take
parsnipsParsnips are root vegetables that resemble carrots but are paler in color. pounded boil in water
til soft thicken it with
Wheat Bran make a poltisA poultice is a moist, usually heated, paste that is applied to the skin & apply it


Inflamation of ye Bladder a pain
in the Bottom of ye Belly a desire to make
water often & with difficulty the diet
light and thin ye drink cooling
Bleeding goodBloodletting was practiced for centuries. It involved cutting the patient, usually in the arm, to remove blood. People believed that a person could create too much blood, or that the blood could become poisonous, and a person would fall ill. A medical practitioner needed to relieve the body of poisons or to let out the excess blood. They believed this would return the normal "balance" of the body and cure the patient. It is hardly ever practiced in modern medicine because it is now considered very harmful to a patient. --- ye Lower part
of ye Belly with warm water and
Emalient ClystersEmollient is a descriptive term for a substance that will soften or relax skin and muscles. Clyster is an archaic term for enema, which is a procedure where warm water is injected in to the rectum. frequently
Eating Small broths gruelsa watery oatmeal. or mild herbs


In a Raging fit of StoneKidney stones are created from mineral deposits that line the kidney. Normally, these minerals are expunged from the body in urine. When the kidneys do not properly function, these minerals build up and form small stones. Eventually, the body passe these stones, which is quite painful. beat
onions into a pulp & apply them as
a poultis part to the Back & part to
Each Groin it gives Speedy ease in
the most Raching pain.


To ease or Cure ye Stone take decoction
or agrimony Morning & Night
or of CamomileChamomile is a plant similar to daisies. Today, it is usually taken in the form of tea. It is used to treat indigestion, anxiety, and insomnia.
or boil half a pound of parsnips in
a Quart of Water drink a glass Morning
& night & no other drink all day for
6 weeks
or take Morning & Night a teaspoon full of onions caleind into White
ashes in White wine an ounce
will often dissolve ye Stone.


a Drink for any Inward Weakness
take Grounding and YarrowA plant that grows in almost any climate and type of soil. It is now considered a noxious weed because it spreads quickly and chokes out other plants. It was used in herbal medicine to induce perspiration, or sweating. White plantainPlantains look very similar to bananas. They are much more starchy and are sometimes made into flour and used in making pancakes and bread. They can also be left to ripen and eaten like a fruit.
and SilverwortAlso known as silverweed. It grows 2 to 5 inches long. The leaves are covered with white hairs (hence "silver"weed) and the flowers are yellow, like buttercups. It can be boiled in water and used to help alleviate soar throats. It is also used to help with stomach aches and indigestion. agrimony BittersweetsBittersweet is a vine that can grow up to 10 feet tall. It has star shaped purple-pink flowers. When ingested, the herb as a mild necrotic effect which helps people stay alert. It also functions as a diuretic.
Hartstongue Maidenhair CinquefoyldeHartstone is a fern that can be used to prevent heartburn, and strengthens the liver and spleen. It also can act as a laxative and diuretic. Maidenhair is a fern that was usually used to help with coughs and other serious respiratory problems. Cinquefoil is a herb native to North America. It has strong astringent qualities, which means it causes the body tissues to contract. It was often used to help stop bleeding.
Strawberry Leaves and Cattsfoot leavesCatsfoot is an herb plant with pink and purple flowers. It also has astringent qualities.
take a Small hadfull of Each
and cut them Small and Boil in
three Quarts of Water Until it Comes
to two then take one pill Night and
Morning Milk Warm or more if
Necessary if the Cant all Be got
Such as can if Circum Stance
Should render it Difficult or unsafe to take
any of the yerbs on any account they
May be omitted polpadom is
Sometimes put in with Them.


take LinseedLinseed oil is also know as flaxseed oil. It is still recommended today as a supplement that is good for the heart. 2 Spoonfulls LiquoriceLicorice plant is related to beans and peas. It sweet juice can be extracted from the plant and used as flavoring. It is a expectorant, meaning that the plant helps clear up mucus and saliva in the respiratory system, helping to relieve coughing and other respiratory ailments. half an
ounce Stew them for Some houres then Strain
it take in difficulty of Making Water and
coughs and Compalints of y Brest
Emollient mucilagientMucilage is a sticky paste made from plant matter. While it does not have any medicinal qualities, mucilage is mixed with herbs that do have medical value, essentially acting as a vehicle to carry the medicine into the body. Liquor


for the QuinseyQuinsy is an inflammation of the throat. take Stalions
dung fresh Stewed in Sweet wortIt is ground malt or grains, used for making beer, but before fermentation has begun.
or new Milk and thickened with
Wheat Bran Make a poltis &
apply it to the throat.


dissolve 2 drams of gum arabeckGum Arabic is derived from the sap of acacia trees. It can be used to help with oral hygiene, soar throats, diarrhea and to help with problems in the kidneys. and 2 drams of Liquorice ball in ten
ounces of boiling water when cool add 150 drops of anlimonialAntimony is a silvery-metal that is found in nature. It causes vomiting. wine and
one ounce Paregoric Paregoric is a medicine made from opium (which is derived from poppies). take a table spoon full three tiem a day Shake the bottle before pouring out the drops.


Credit text

Rachel Stout Allen Medicine Recipe Book, from the John Allen Papers (1815–1816 Papers), North Carolina State Archives Collection 1467.