Tennessee Mountain Stories

Give Away Babies

Tales of a baby left on the doorstep in a basket have tormented more than one younger brother or sister and, unfortunately, we still occasionally hear the heartbreaking news-story of a baby being left in some unlikely and unprotected places.  Just last week I read a story about a tiny baby found in a dumpster somewhere in Tennessee.  In today’s world, there seems to be no reason whatsoever to abandon a child – maybe there never has been a good reason to do it.  But it has always happened.

Life has been tough everywhere at one time or another.  Today, when prices soar and jobs are hard to find, we have a plethora of social relief programs and I would certainly hope we have churches with hearts and coffers sufficient to help anyone in need.  However, in the not too distant past, food was short and jobs nonexistent on the mountain; healthcare was scarce and too many youngsters were orphaned.  Even those with two living parents sometimes found their family unable to sustain them.  In those cases, children were often simply given away.

I have a huge respect for any woman who is able to hand over a baby that she would be unable to properly care for and put him in the hands of a family that will love, protect and nurture him.  While we know that lots of details are lost as the years roll by, it seems that not every situation included those careful and tear-filled decisions for the welfare of the baby. 

There are lots of these stories that vary from grandparents raising entire families to de facto indenturing agreements where children were given to work for their room and board.  Today I want to share one of these stories.

This story is about a young child, we’ll call her Doris, who was given to her maternal grandparents when she was just six months old.  She would spend her whole life wondering why.

There seem to be a number of logical reasons for giving away one or more of your children.  Single parenthood is hard enough in the twenty-first century but at the beginning of the twentieth century it was nearly impossible.  Therefore, illegitimate children were very often given away.   However, Doris’ parents were married.

Many times a family simply had too many children to care for.  A small hillside farm, tilled with mules, could only sustain so many people.  As a family grew, a father was hard pressed to bring home food sufficient to feed them all.  This seems to be the reason for a lot of the give-away babies especially when older children were turned out of the home in their early teen years.  They were old enough to lend a hand on a larger farm or maybe for a doctor or storekeeper who had an extra income besides the subsistence farming.  So the children were given into another’s care to not only feed that child but to allow extra for those still at home.  However, Doris was the oldest child in her family, and she was given away when she was just six months old.

Parents who were in poor health could not provide for children, and in the absence of social programs to help them, they often had to give up their children.  However, Doris’ parents went on to raise six children and the second child was born just eleven months after Doris. 

That really exhausts my imagination for why you would give up your child.  One fact of Doris’ little life that doesn’t seem to fall into any of those categories was her tiny size.  Doris was so small when she was born that we’re told her mother would carry her in an apron pocket and she used a turkey quill to feed her.  Since the next baby came just five months after Doris’ mother gave her away, I suppose it’s possible that her mother feared she could not care for such this special-needs baby when she had another newborn to care for as well. 

Doris grew and thrived with her grandparents.  When she was sixteen years old, another of Grandma Black’s children passed away just one year after his wife died, leaving eight orphaned children; Grandma Black raised seven of them with Doris’ help.  Doris and her grandparents took on this large family in order to keep the siblings together, otherwise they would have been sent to seven different homes.  There were also three more grandchildren left with the Blacks.  That household, which should have been an empty nest enjoying the golden years, raised eleven children and you can just imagine how poor they were.  As adults, the children would remember their grandparents knitting throughout the winter in hopes that each child would have just two pair of socks.

Doris’ birth parents lived just about five miles away so Doris knew her siblings.  When she once saw one of her sisters wearing a cheap necklace at church she was very hurt for she had no such luxuries; the orphaned or given-away child had only the necessities of life.  Many years later that sister taunted Doris, stating that she’d had a better upbringing than Doris – Doris responded by expelling her from her home and never really talking to her again.

Doris spent her whole life wondering why she was given away.  She asked grandparents, aunts and uncles and was always told, “Don’t worry about that”.  I can certainly imagine not wanting to trouble a child with the kind of adult problems that might lead to that kind of difficult decision, but surely there was a point at which the grown-up Doris could have understood the explanation.  Doris was born in 1892 so the answers to all of our questions are surely long since dead; yet the mystery remains. 

Doris married and raised five daughters of her own but her whole life would be characterized by distrust, even of her closest loved ones.  She unconsciously always wanted proof that they loved her and would try to pit them against each other in hopes they would offer her that proof.  As I said in the beginning, there are many stories of give-away children but Doris’ seems the saddest because she could never understand the ‘why’ of the whole thing despite growing up in close proximity to her parents and siblings.

Do you have family members who were given away?  I’d love to hear their story – just click on “comments” below.