“the loss I have sustained in my little circle”

It is truly amazing how women during the 18th century managed to deal with their frequent pregnancies as well as the frequent deaths of their children. Multiple pregnancies were to be expected in marriage. And the deaths of infants and children, so commonplace, were supposed to be accepted as the will of God, or so religion dictated. More easily said than done. (Studies have found that between 10 and 30 percent of newborns died in the first year of life. Now only seven out of 1,000 die before age one.)
Joseph and Esther De Berdt Reed lost a child, a little girl nearly two, to smallpox in May 1778. Esther gave birth to another son the day before the girl’s death. Earlier that year she had written to her friend Mrs. Cox (whose husband had been appointed Deputy Quarter-master general to General Nathaniel Greene) about the low-spirited state she was in because of her pregnancy and the dread of delivering another child in strange surroundings. “The fears of my approaching hour, sometimes so depress me, that my whole fortitude avails me nothing. You will not wonder so much at this, when I tell you that I must be entirely in the hands of strangers, nor know I what assistance to procure.”
In June, after the death of her daughter and the birth of her son, she again wrote to Mrs. Cox of what she considered neglect on her part over the death of her little girl. This excerpt is painful to read.

I was intending to sit down and write to you the very time I received your kind, acceptable letter, truly welcome in the sympathizing words of my dear friend, much do I stand in need of them; the loss I have sustained in my little circle I find sits very heavy upon me, and I find, by experience, how hard a task it is to be resigned. Therefore I must make yet larger demands on you, and beg you will continue to apply every argument which will tend to make me more perfectly acquiesce in the Divine pleasure, concerning me and mine. Surely my affliction had its aggravation, and I cannot help reflecting on my neglect of my dear lost child. Too thoughtful and attentive to my own situation, I did not take the necessary precaution to prevent that fatal disorder when it was in my power [a reference, I assume, to the smallpox inoculation]. Surely, my dear friend, I ought to take blame to myself. I would not do it to aggravate my sorrow, but to learn a lesson of humility, and more caution and prudence in future. Would to God I could learn every lesson intended by the stroke. I think sometimes of my loss with composure, acknowledging the wisdom, right, even the kindness of the dispensation. Again I find it overcome me, and strike to the very bottom of my heart, and tell me the work is not yet finished, I’ve much yet to do; assist me, therefore, my dear friend, with your counsels, and teach me to say, that God does all things well. . . . for God has given, as well as taken away, and the loss of one should not make me unmindful of the blessings I have left, and those newly given.
I am pretty well recovered, but my strength is not so much recruited as usual in the same time. My dear little boy grows very fast; his name is Dennis De Berdt; he has as few complaints as any child of his age I ever saw; my fresh duty to him greatly tends to relieve my thoughts, and divert my too melancholy reflections.

William B. Reed, Esther De Berdt, afterwards Esther Reed, of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: C. Sherman Printer, 1853), pages 284, 290-92.

posted October 26th, 2015 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Childbirth, Children, Death, Reed, Esther De Berdt, Smallpox


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