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Researched and written by Kobe M. Brown and Cheri Todd Molter  

Orlean Hawks Puckett was an Appalachian midwife known for assisting with the safe deliveries of over 1,000 babies and for never losing a mother or child while in her care. However, determining the “real” spelling of her name can cause some confusion: “Throughout her lifetime, Orleana Puckett’s first name was spelled differently by those who heard her name. For example, census takers recorded Olinah (1850), Pauline (1860), Aulina (1870), Orlena (1880), Aulina (1900), Orlenna (1910), Orlean (1920), and Orlene (1930). In 1913, when Puckett applied for a pension based on her husband’s service in the Confederate army, the notary public who filled out the form spelled her name Orleana. However, descendants of her family and residents of the community where she lived remember her as Aunt Orlean. She could not write, so we don’t know how she spelled it herself. Although we selected Orlean as a likely spelling based on our interpretation of the evidence, other researchers favor Orleana” (“Orleana Hawks Puckett,” Virginia Changemakers, https://edu.lva.virginia.gov/changemakers/items/show/224 ).

Orlean Hawks was born in North Carolina around 1844, and she received very little formal education. According to the 1850 census, six-year-old Orlean lived in Mount Airy, Surry County, North Carolina. At the age of sixteen, Orlean married John Puckett and they moved to Patrick County, Virginia, soon afterward. In 1861, Orlean gave birth to her first child, Julia Ann Puckett. Unfortunately, baby Julia died when she was less than a year old, possibly from diphtheria. Following their first child’s death, Orlean and John attempted multiple times to add to their family; however, they were not successful. Orlean was pregnant at least 24 times during her lifetime, but none of their babies lived past infancy. It has been theorized that Rh hemolytic disease may have been to blame.

By 1875, Orlean and John had relocated to a farm in Carroll County, Virginia. In 1889, Orlean served as a midwife for her pregnant neighbor who was in labor when no doctor was available. Afterward, as her reputation as a skilled midwife began to spread, Orlean traveled—either by horseback or on foot—up to twenty miles to deliver babies at no charge. Orlean became well known in the area for her skilled expertise and for never losing a mother or baby.

Orlean Hawks Puckett died in 1939, and the cabin that her husband built in Carroll County still stands, serving as a monument to her midwifery skills and contributions to the community. Known as the Puckett Cabin, it is currently maintained by the National Park Service.

Although her name was recorded in various ways, one thing is certain: Orlean Hawks Puckett is remembered as an excellent nineteenth-century midwife who successfully assisted many pregnant Appalachian women through their deliveries. In fact, her legacy of care continues at the Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute, in Asheville, North Carolina, which works to promote and strengthen child, parent, and family development.

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