Ballard, Martha (Moore)

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BALLARD, Martha (Moore)

Born 9 February 1735, Oxford, Massachusetts; died early June[before 9 June] 1812, Hallowell, Maine

Daughter of Elijah and Doratha Larned Moore Ballard; married Ephriam Ballard, 1754; children: nine

Little is known of Martha Ballard's life before 1785, when she began writing the diary that would bring her into the historical record. Evidence suggests that she was a fairly typical goodwife. Although she came from a relatively educated family (her uncle was the first person from Oxford, Massachusetts, to graduate from college), her mother signed her name with a mark. Someone taught young Martha to write, but her spelling and orthography remained erratic even by the standards of her time. She had nine children, three of whom died in a diphtheria epidemic shortly before the seventh was born. Like other married women, she produced foods and textiles for neighborhood trade, nursed the sick, and attended births. A family story described her, during the pre-revolutionary tea boycotts, secretly preparing tea for a sick woman. Both she and her husband seem to have had little interest in revolutionary politics.

In 1777 Ballard moved to Hallowell, Maine, and less than a year later acted as a midwife for the first time. At the time, childbirth was a social event. Ideally, a midwife arrived first and then three or more women gathered to assist—but of course things didn't always go as planned. Hallowell, unlike Oxford, was near the frontier of European settlement, so after her move Ballard was one of the older women in the community. Her youngest child was eight, and her daughters were old enough to do the cooking, laundry, and weaving in her absence, so she was somewhat freed from the responsibilities of running a home. It was not surprising, therefore, that her younger neighbors called on her to help them with their births. Within a few years, Ballard was widely recognized as a midwife, and between 1778 and 1812 she would deliver 998 babies. Her success rates were impressive: only 14 babies (including those with congenital defects) were stillborn, no women died at birth, and only five women died of infection afterward (often during epidemics).

Ballard began her diary to record births, midwifery payments, and other economic activities—peas planted, cloth taken off the loom, and the gifts of food and home-produced goods that sustained a barter economy. Her early entries were short and noted little except the weather and the day's production and exchanges. As the years went by, she wrote more, creating a remarkable record of her life: the days she did laundry or planted flax, braved river-crossings or blizzards or unpredictable horses to get to a woman in labor, treated a child's illness or tried to help her neighbors survive a scarlet fever epidemic, testified in a rape trial or witnessed the aftermath of a murder/suicide, or coped with her husband's imprisonment for debt or her grown son's rages.

Ballard's writing remained remarkably matter-of-fact. Few adjectives interfered with her account of tasks accomplished and actions taken. In the early years she might punctuate her descriptions of especially stressful events with acknowledgments of a merciful divine Providence. Later she was more likely to intersperse expressions of exhaustion or helplessness. In both eras, however, the drama of her writing is to be found in its understatement and unremitting dailiness.

Like most diarists, Ballard is widely known only because one historian took an interest in her writing and made it accessible to a larger audience. Many scholars have used Ballard's diary in their studies of New England farm life, and some have quoted it at length. For the most part, however, they dismissed it as an exhausting account of the trivial details of domestic work. In her prize-winning book A Midwife's Tale (1990), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich showed that Ballard's concerns were not trivial at all, but the warp and woof of life in her time. Ulrich excerpted selections from the diary, and the full diary was published for the first time two years later.

Ballard's life was in many ways typical for a woman of her time and place. She participated in a household and neighborhood economy in which almost everything people needed was produced locally. She had more medical and herbal knowledge than most of her (younger) neighbors, but there were plenty of other midwives/herbalists with similar expertise. She grew old and fought against her increasing dependence on her son and daughter-in-law. What made her remarkable is that she left a record of her experience.

Other Works:

The Diary of Martha Ballard, 1785-1812 (1992).


Nash, C., The History of Augusta (1961). Ulrich, L., A Midwife's Tale (1990).


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Ballard, Martha (Moore)

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