“Look’d Like Milk”: Breastmilk Substitutes in New England’s Borderlands

By Carla Cevasco 

Captured by the Abenaki in 1724, the English colonist Elizabeth Hanson fretted as “my daily Travel and hard Living made my Milk dry almost quite up.” As Hanson recorded in her captivity narrative, God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty (1728), she watched her baby become “very poor and weak,” so thin that she could “perceive all its Joynts from one End of the Babe’s Back to the other.” Among English women taken captive by Native Americans in colonial New England, food shortage and the rigor of travel, as well as perhaps the psychological anxiety of captivity, caused many women’s milk to fail, or exacerbated other breastfeeding difficulties. Early modern medical authorities recognized the urgency of infant feeding and the difficulty of nursing: while breastfeeding was physically demanding for mothers, infants who were separated from their mothers often perished.[1]

At home, English women likely would have had access to remedies to help them with breastfeeding problems. Gervase Markham’s The English House-Wife (first published in 1615) offered two concoctions “To increase a womans milke.” One required the woman to consume “good store of Colworts,” a cabbage-like plant, that had been boiled “in strong posset-ale,” a drink of curdled dairy and beer. Another remedy consisted of “the buds and tender crops of Briony,” a common wild vine, in “broth or pottage.” Other nursing women also suckled the children of women who could not nurse themselves.[2] But women in captivity were usually isolated from the social support networks that would have provided them with alternate sources of breastmilk or treatments to increase their milk.

Instead, like other early moderns, women in captivity relied on substitutes to nourish their children. For much of her journey, Hanson used “Broth of the Beaver, or other Guts,” to feed her child “as well as I could.” When those foods were not available, Hanson drank “cold Water” and then “let it fall on my Breast” for the baby to suck “with what it could get from the Breast.”

Porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding, 18th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding, 18th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Captives like Hanson found alternative support networks, who offered substitute foods and fulfilled the roles that other women or physicians would have played in helping mothers at home. When Hanson’s baby became emaciated and barely able to eat with a “weak Appetite,” an Abenaki woman noticed Hanson’s “uneasiness” at the child’s frailty and offered to help. She instructed Hanson “to take the Kernels of Walnuts, and clean them, and beat them with a little Water.” The resulting mixture “look’d like Milk,” Hanson noted. Next, the woman told Hanson to add “a little of the finest of the Indian Corn Meal, and boyl it a little together.”

The resulting mixture, to Hanson’s relief (and the child’s), was “nourishing to the Babe.” The woman explained to Hanson that “with this kind of Diet the Indians did often nurse their Infants.” Like Hanson, Abenaki women would have experienced periods of food shortage or had trouble breastfeeding for other reasons, and the combination of water, walnuts, and corn provided invaluable hydration, protein, and carbohydrates to nursing children. English women who were in the process of weaning their children often would have fed them similar paps or gruels.[3]

 

[1] Marylynn Salmon, “The Cultural Significance of Breastfeeding and Infant Care in Early Modern England and America,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 2 (Winter, 1994), 260-262, 250.

[2] Ibid, 257, 259, 262.

[3] Ibid, 256.


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