Ballard, Martha

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Ballard, Martha

Excerpt from A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based
on Her Diary, 1785–1812

Written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1990

For twenty-seven years, Martha Ballard kept a diary, from 1785 until her death in 1812. Ballard served as a midwife, a woman experienced in helping the birthing process of other women, and primary health-care giver for the pioneering community of Hallowell, Maine. During that time, she delivered 816 babies and treated countless ailing residents. Ballard was not only a midwife and nurse but an herbalist, pharmacist, mortician, wife, mother, and grandmother. In her diary, she recorded the daily weather and the household activities she participated in, including planting a garden, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, quilting, knitting, preparing foods, and brewing beer. She recorded the names of visitors at the Ballard home each day and all the visits she made to other homes. Amid all these regular occurrences, she recounted her medical calls and every baby delivery, carefully naming and numbering each case.

Without Ballard's diary, history would have little actual record of the role women played in their communities during the early formative years of the nation. For example, Hallowell resident Henry Sewall, who at times served as Hallowell's recording clerk, the official town record keeper whose primary role was to keep minutes of town meetings as well as marriage certificates issued, mentioned very little about Hallowell's women. Even though Ballard attended to Sewall's wife at eight deliveries, he did not mention her in his own diaries until the birth of the fourth child and never listed the fees he paid her.

Born Martha Moore in 1735, she married Ephraim Ballard in 1754. They moved to Hallowell from Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1777 so Ephraim could take a job running a sawmill. Ephraim, ten years older than his wife, was also a surveyor, and his skills were in high demand as settlers came to the region. The Ballards had nine children: Cyrus, born in 1756; Lucy, 1758; Martha, 1761; Jonathan, 1763; Triphene, 1765; Dorothy, 1767; Hannah, 1769; Dolly, 1772; and Ephraim Jr., 1779. Martha, Triphene, and Dorothy died of diphtheria, a contagious throat disease, in the summer of 1769 during an epidemic (a widespread outbreak of the disease).

Soon after Martha Ballard moved to Hallowell, she began to help deliver babies. The Hallowell community stretched for 10 miles along the Kennebec River, which generally stayed frozen from November until April. Ballard tirelessly traveled back and forth across the river to be with her patients. By the mid-1790s, as she turned sixty years old, she was attending an average of fifty births a year.

In addition to carefully recorded births, Ballard's diary reveals other important aspects of a woman's role in the community. For example, she recounts bartering, or trading, with other women. Women ran the bartering economy among families. The bartering economy allowed for exchanges of different items that people needed—cloth that the women wove, foodstuffs, ashes for soap making, candles, and cooking utensils. Ballard's diary also mentions that the young women in her community were busy with gardening, spinning, weaving, knitting, and quilting. She writes about socializing at parties or "frolics" and about marriage practices.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich used the entire diary for her research in writing A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. From these extensive entries, a full picture of Ballard's life emerged. In her book, Ulrich reprinted ten long passages from the diary and carefully explained what they revealed. They include:

  • In the August 1787 excerpt, Ballard describes traveling from house to house to care for children with scarlet fever (a strep infection). While she was busy caring for the sick, she took time to record details about the herbal remedies she used. She also noted other important events that were going on: a fire at her husband's sawmill, her daughter Hannah's birthday, and a delivery on August 16.
  • In September 1788, Martha recorded the bartering of household goods between Mrs. Savage and herself. She also writes of a town meeting, brewing beer, son Cyrus's birthday, weaving cloth, and attending a worship service.
  • In the October and November 1792 entries, in addition to recording several births, Martha tells of the wedding of daughter Hannah and Moses Pollard, quilting, "rewards" or payments for her midwifery services, and a shopping spree.
  • In December 1793, Martha's entries recall how she traveled to deliveries over the ice-locked river and bought a shawl and household items.

Ulrich points out that "like most eighteenth-century diarists [Ballard] capitalized randomly, abbreviated freely, and spelled even proper names as the spirit moved, sometimes giving more than one spelling of a name ... in a single entry." Ballard did not use punctuation. Ulrich added periods and capital letters where sentences appeared to stop and start. She numbered the day of each entry, using Ballard's method. The first number is the day of the month; the second, the day of the week. For Sundays, Ballard used letters (g, E, G, F), then numbers for the rest of the days—2 through 7 for Monday through Saturday. Ballard wrote additional notes in the margins by each day's entry. Ulrich used italics in her book for recording the margin notes, placing notes from the right margin at the beginning of the entry and the left margin notes at the end. (Here, they are shown in roman type.) Ulrich cautions all readers not to become bogged down by all the names that are mentioned; they were all Martha's family members or residents of her community.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812:

  • Almost no diaries of pioneer women between 1780 and 1815 exist today. The diaries and other written records that men kept rarely mentioned women. Without Martha Ballard's diary, the role of pioneer women would largely be a mystery.
  • Ballard's diary illustrates how men and women had to work together to ensure the survival of a pioneer community.
  • Diary entries confirm that midwives and their female helpers provided the nation's first frontline health care.
  • The diary allows historians to reconstruct an accurate picture of the pioneer woman's role in her community.

Excerpt from A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812

August 1787. ...

3 6 Clear & very hot. I have been pullingflax. Mr Ballard Been to Savages about some hay.

4 7 Clear morn. I pulld flax till noon. A very severe shower of hail with thunder and Litning began at half after one continued near 1 hour. I hear it broke 130 pains of glass in fort western. Colonel Howeard made me a present of 1 gallon white Rhum & 2 lb sugar on account of my attendance of his family in sickness. Peter Kenny has wounded his Legg & Bled Excesivily.

5 g Clear morn. Mr Hamlin Breakfastd here. Had some pills. I was calld at 7 O Clok to Mrs. Howards to see James he being very sick with thecanker Rash. Tarried all night.

6 2 I am at Mrs. Howards watching with her son. Went out about day, discovered our saw mill in flames. The men at the fort went over. Found it consumd together with some plank & Bords. I tarried till Evining. Left James Exeedingly Dangerously ill. My daughter Hannah is 18 years old this day. Mrs Williams here when I came home. Hannah Cool gott Mrs Northsweb out at the Loome. Mr Ballard complains of a soar throat this night. He has been to take Mr gardners hors home.

7 3 Clear. I was Calld to Mrs Howards this morning for to see her son. Find him very low. Went from Mrs Howards to see Mrs Williams. Find her very unwell. Hannah Cool is there. From thence to Joseph Fosters to see her sick Children. Find Saray & Daniel very ill. Came home went to the field & got someCold water root. Then Calld to Mr Kenydays to see Polly. Very ill with the Canker. Gave her some of the root. I gargled her throat which gave her great Ease. Returned homeafter dark. Mr Ballard been to Cabesy. His throat is very soar. He gargled it with mytincture. Find relief & went to bed comfortably.

8 4 Clear. I have been to see Mary Kenida. Find her much as shee was yesterday. Was at Mr McMasters. Their Children two of them very ill. The other 2 recovering. At Mr Williams also. Shee is some better. Hear James Howard is mending. Hannah Cool came home.

9 5 Clear. I workd about house forenoon. Was Calld to Mrs Howards to see James. Found him seeminglyExpireing. Mrs Pollard there. We sett up. Herevivd.

10 6 At Mrs Howards. Her son very sick. Capt Sewall & Lady sett up till half after 4. Then I rose. The Child seems revivd.

11 7 Calld from Mrs Howard to Mr McMasters to see their son William who is very low. Tarried there this night.

12 g Loury [name of a family she visited.] At Mr McMasters. Their son very sick. I sett up all night. Mrs Patin with me. The Child very ill indeed.

13 2 William McMaster Expird at 3 O Clock this morn. Mrs Patin & Ilaid out the Child. Poor mother, how Distressing her Case, near thehour of Labour and three Children more very sick. I sett out for home. Calld at Mrs Howards. I find her son very Low. At Mr Williams. Shee very ill indeed. Now at home. It is nine O Clok morn. I feel as if I must take some rest. I find Mr Ballard is going to Pittston on Business. Dolly is beginning to weave thee hankerchiefs. Ephraim & I went to see Mrs Williams at Evining. I find her some Better. Death of Wm McMaster

14 3 Clear & hott. I pikt thesaffron . Mrs Patten here. Mr Ballard & I & all the girls attended funeral of William McMaster. Their other Children are mending. James Howard very low. I drank Tea at Mr Pollards. Calld at Mr Porters.

15 4 Clear morn. I pulld flax thefornon. Rain afternoon. I am very muchfatagud. Lay on the bed & rested. The two Hannahs washing. Dolly weaving. I was called to Mrs Clatonin travil at 11 O Clok Evening.

16 5 At Mr. Cowens. Put Mrs Claton to Bed with a son at 3 pm. ...

September 1788. ...

93 Town Meeting. I have been at home. Mrs Savage here. Clear day. Thee Town Mett to hear Reverend Mr Fosters Proposals but did not except them. Dolly & Parthena went to see Mrs Hamlin. Mrs Savage here. Shee has spun 40 doubleskeins for me since April 15th and had 2Bushl of ashes & somephisic for James, & Dolly wove her 7 yds of Diaper. I let her have 1 skein oflining warp. The whole is6/X.

10 4 I was at Wido Willimss. Voce here. Clarisa Barton is 18 years old this Day. Clear. Mr Voce & Parmer Laying Shingles on our house. WeBrewed. I went to seewido Williams. Shee is Better. Dolly winding the warp forCheck.

11 5 I have been at home. Cyrus is 32 years old. Cloudy part of the day. Cyrus is gone to Gardners mill. He is 32 years old this day. I have been at home. Dollywarpt a piece for Mrs Pollard of 39 yards.

12 6 At home. Clear. Dollywarpt & drawd in a piece for Check.Laid 45 yds. I have been at home knitting. Mrs Harris here at Eving.

13 7 Mr Voce & son here shingleing the house. I have been at wido Williamss. Clear & pleasant. We spread the diaper out forwhitening. I was at wido Williamss. Shee is some Better. Dolly sleeps with her.

14 E I was at meeting & at Wido Williams Clear & pleasant. I attended worship in public. Nathaniel Norcross desird prayers, he being sick with a feavor. Revd Mr Foster Delivered two ExelentDiscoarses fromPsalm 90 & 12 vers . ...

October 1792. ...

28 G At home. A marriag in my Family. Cloudy fornoon, a little rain & Thunder, Clear before night. Cyrus was not at home. TheeMatrimonial writes were cellibrated between Mr Moses Pollard off this Town and my daughter Hannah this Evening. Esquire Cony performed the ceremony. My son & his wife & son tarry here.

29 2 At home. We killd three young Turkeys. Cloudy. Dolly went to Mr Densmores, Mr Ballard to thehook. I have been at home. Sally here helping the girls. Mr Pollard & Savagesupt here.

30 3 At home. Roasted a Turkey. Clear & pleasant. Mr Ballard been to Colonel Sewalls & the Hook. I have been at home. Sally & the girls put a Bed quilt in to thefraim for Parthenia. Sarah Densmore & Dolly here the Evng.

31 4 At home. Clear. Mr Ballard went toPittston. Polly Pollard, Mrs Damrin, & my daughter Dolly quilted all day. Mrs Livermore afternoon. I have been at home. Mr Town sleeps here.


1 5 At Mr Hodges Birth 38th. Son Town went home. Cloudy & some rain. Mr Town left here after breakfast. The girls had the Ladies to help them quillt. I was Calld to see Mrs Hodges at 4 h pm. Shee was safedelivered at 11 h Evening off a very fine son her sixth child. Mr Ballard came home. Birth Ezra Hodges Son X X

2 6 At ... Mr Burtuns & Magr Stickneys. Birth 39. Bizer Benjamins wife delivered of 2 sons. Both dead. Clear forenoon, Cloudy afternoon, rain at Evening. I receivd 6/ of Mr Hodges & returned home at noon. Left my patientcleverly. Calld at Mr Burtuns. His Lady is cleverly. I Bot off him 2 iron kettles which cost 7/, 1spider at3/6, 2 pepper boxes & 2dippers at /6 each, 2/, 1 yd binding /1, gin 2/6, total 15/1. I went to Magr Stickneys at 9 h Evn. His wife delivered at 11 h 5 m off a daughter. I tarried all night. Birth Benjamin Stickneys daughter X X.

3 7 At Mr Stickneys & Mr Devenports. Rainy forenoon. I tarried at the Magrs till after dineing. Recevd 6/ asreward. Mrs Conry came with me to Mr Devenports where we spent the remainder of the afternoon. Returned home at dusk. I left my patients Cleverly. ...

December [1793]

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 At Mr Parkers 5 Days. At Mr Parkers. His Lady isabout house. The river is difucult to pass. I knit while gone from home 2 pair gloves and 5 pair & 1/2 mitts. The river was past on the ice this day.

6 6 At Mr Whites Clear. I was Calld to Benn Whites at 2 hour morning. Wrode in a sleigh.

7 7 At Whites & Parkers. Birth 50. Birth 51. At Whites. His wife was deliverd at 12 O Clok of a daughter and I was Calld back to Mr Parkers. His Lady was deliverd at 9 hour 30 minutes of a daughter. I am some fatagud. Son Town here. Births Mr Whites and Mr Parkers daughters.

8F At Mr Parkers. Returnd home Snow hail & rain. Mr Parker went for his Nurs. I left his Lady at 4 pm as well as Could be Expected & walkt over the river. Wrode Mr Ballards hors home. I had awrestles night by fataug & weting my feet.

9 2 At Mr Finnys & the hook Clear. Mr Ballard Surveying for Mr Pollard & Page. I went to Mr Finnys & Benjamins. Brot my wollen web yarn home & went to Mr Peter Clearks. Theyingagd to weav it. I Calld at Capt Meloys Store. Bot a Shall [shawl?] at 5/6. He made me a present of a muslin apron. I bot at Capt Fillebrowns 5 2/1 pints Brandy, 2/9; 3puter porringers, 4/6; paper pins, /10. Total 8/1.

What happened next ...

Between May 1, 1801, and April 30, 1809, as Ballard grew older, she averaged only one delivery each month. Then the unexpected death of another Hallowell midwife suddenly increased Ballard's workload. By the end of 1809, she had attended twenty-one births for that year. In the first four months of 1812, the year Ballard died, she delivered fourteen babies. Her last delivery was on April 24. On May 7, Ballard wrote her last diary entry. She died at the end of May 1812 at the age of seventy-seven.

Although Ballard played a vital role in her town, her name did not appear in any historical record in Hallowell. All censuses and tax and property records were in her husband's name. Her obituary in the newspaper simply called her the "consort" (wife) of Mr. Ephraim Ballard. Martha Ballard had been known as Mrs. Ballard most of her life, and if she had not signed one of her diaries "Martha Ballard, Her Diary," history would have never known her given name was Martha.

It was highly unusual for a woman to keep a diary at the time that Ballard lived. Perhaps she felt a need to order her life or felt a responsibility to accurately record births. It is amazing that her descendants kept the diaries at all. Ballard's daughter, Dolly Lambard, held on to the diaries and passed them on to her daughters Sarah Lambard and Hannah Lambard Wolcot, all residents of Augusta, Maine.

In 1884, Lambard and Wolcot passed the diaries on to Mary Hobart, Ballard's great-great-granddaughter. Hobart graduated that year from medical school. She was a physician at a time when almost all physicians were men. She was fascinated by the Ballard diaries. By that time, the diaries were a loose pile of pages that had fallen out of order. Hobart and a cousin ordered the pages, bound them with homemade linen covers, and placed them in a specially made mahogany box.

Hobart practiced medicine in Boston, Massachusetts, until 1913 and kept the treasured diaries in their box at her home. In 1930, out of a desire to share them with the public, she donated them to the Maine State Library, where they remain in the twenty-first century.

Did you know ...

  • Martha Ballard's diaries were homemade booklets. She ruled the lines on the pages and numbered the month and days of the week.
  • Ballard's interest in medicine seemed to run in the family. Her uncle was a doctor, as were two brothers-in-law. Ballard's great-niece was Clara Barton (1821–1912), founder of the American Red Cross.
  • Excerpts of Ballard's diaries appeared in two early histories of Augusta, Maine. First, author James W. North published History of Augusta in 1870 and included brief passages from the diary. However, he stated that generally the diaries were of no interest. Second, in 1904, author Charles Elventon Nash painstakingly copied about a third of the diaries to be included in a history of Augusta he was writing. Apparently he found them very interesting. Unfortunately, Nash died before his book was published. His work, which was printed but unbound, sat in a crate in a barn until 1958, when one of Nash's descendants contacted the Maine State Library to see if it would take the manuscript. Library staff managed to have Nash's work published in 1961 as The History of Augusta: First Settlements and Early Days as a Town Including the Diary of Mrs. Martha Moore Ballard.

Consider the following ...

  • In the late 1780s and early 1790s, the U.S. Constitution was written and approved by the states, the nation's first president was inaugurated, and the U.S. Congress assembled to run the young nation. Why do you think Ballard does not refer to any of these events in her diary? Give possible explanations.
  • Consider that Ballard wrote faithfully every day in her diary for twenty-seven years. What reasons do you think must have compelled her to do this?
  • From your library obtain a copy of the PBS documentary The Midwife's Tale. Show it to the whole class and have a class discussion.

Flax: A plant whose silky stem fibers are used to weave linen cloth.

Canker rash: Scarlet fever, a strep infection causing very sore throat and red rash; generally affects children and can lead to death.

Tarried: Stayed.

Web out at the Loome: Woven cloth from the loom.

Cold water root: A root crushed, mixed with a liquid, and gargled to soothe a sore throat.

Tincture: Liquid mixture of ingredients.

Expireing: Dying.

Revivd: Improved.

Laid out: Washed and dressed for burial.

Hour of labour: Time for delivery of another child.

Saffron: Plant that was mixed with honey and given to infants.

Fornon: Morning.

Fatagud: Fatigued; tired.

In travil: In labor; ready to deliver a baby.

Skeins: Bundles of yarn.

Bushl of ashes: Bushels of ashes, which were used to make soap.

Phisic: Physic; a medicinal preparation used to cure a symptom.

Lining warp: Linen yarn web put into a loom on which more yarn is woven into cloth.6/: Six shillings (English money).

X: Two X's denotes full payment received for a delivery; one X means less than full payment received.

Brewed: Made beer.

Wido: Widow; woman whose husband has died.

Check: Checkered cloth.

Warpt a piece: Wove cloth.

Warpt & drawd: Set up on the loom.

Laid: Wove. Whitening: Woven diaper cloth laid in the sun to whiten. Discoarses: Sermons, speeches.

Psalm 90 & 12 vers: The book of Psalms in the Bible, chapter 90, verse 12.

Matrimonial writes: Marriage rites.

Hook: Large curve in Kennebec River just south of the Ballards; he went there to survey a cemetery and new meeting house location.

Supt: Suppered; ate dinner.

Fraim: Loom frame.

Pittston: Land south of Hallowell.

Cleverly: In good health.

Spider: Caste iron frying pan with short legs to stand over the coals in a fireplace.

3/6: Three shillings (left side of virgule, or slash) and six pence (right side of virgule). Dippers: Utensils that dip into a pot.

Reward: Payment received for her midwife services.

About house: Out of bed; tending to chores around the house.

Wrestles: Restless.

Ingagd: Began.

Puter porringers: Small cups made of pewter.

For More Information


Hawke, David F. Everyday Life in Early America. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

McMillan, Sally. Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Scholten, Catherine. Childbearing in American Society, 1650–1850. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Web Sites

"Martha Ballard's Diary Online." DoHistory: Film Study Center at the University of Harvard. (accessed on July 25, 2005).

"The Midwife's Tale." American Experience: Public Broadcasting Service. (accessed on July 25, 2005).

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