Martha Ballard

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Martha Ballard
Martha Moore

DiedMay 1812
OccupationMidwife, healer, mortician
Known forDiary with 10,000 entries kept over 27 years
Spouse(s)Ephraim Ballard (m. 19 December 1754)
ChildrenCyrus (1756), Lucy (1758), Martha (1761-1769), Jonathan (1763), Triphene (1765-1769), Dorothy (1767-1769), Hannah (1769), Dolly (1772), and Ephraim Jr. (1779).[1]
Parent(s)Elijah and Doratha Moore
RelativesClara Barton

Martha Moore Ballard (1735 – May 1812) was an American midwife and healer. Unusually for the time, Ballard kept a diary with thousands of entries over nearly three decades, which has provided historians with invaluable insight into frontier-women's lives.[2] Ballard was made famous by the publication of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812 by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1990.[3]


Martha Moore was born in Oxford, Province of Massachusetts on the 9th of February 1735, to the family of Elijah Moore and Dorothy Learned Moore.[4] Nothing is known about her childhood and education, though it is known that her family had medical links; her uncle Abijah Moore and brother-in-law Stephen Barton were physicians.[5] She married Ephraim Ballard in 1754.[6] The couple had nine children between 1756 and 1779, but lost three of them to a diphtheria epidemic in Oxford between June 17 and July 5, 1769.[1]

Ballard delivered 816 babies over the 27 years that she wrote her diary, and was present at more than 1,000 births; the mortality rates of infants and mothers that she visited were as good as any in the United States before the 1940s.[5] Her diary also records her administering medicines and remedies, which she made herself mostly from local plants and occasionally from ingredients bought from a local physician.[5] Ballard was sometimes called to observe autopsies; she recorded 85 instances of what she called "desections" in her diary.[4] She also took testimonies from unwed mothers that was used in paternity suits. She testified in 1789 in a high-profile case of a judge accused of raping a minister’s wife.[5] In addition to her medical and judicial responsibilities, Ballard frequently carried out tasks such as trading, weaving, and social visits.[1] Ballard and her family experienced difficult times during 1803–1804, when her husband was imprisoned for debt and her son was indicted for fraud.[7] Ballard's obituary was published on June 9, 1812, in the American Advocate, Hallowell. It simply stated:

Died in Augusta, Mrs Martha, consort of Mr Ephraim Ballard, aged 77 years.[6]

Ballard was related to Clara Barton, known for her American Civil War work and for founding the American Red Cross.[5] Clara was the granddaughter of Ballard's sister, Dorothy Barton.

Ballard's Diary[edit]

From when she was 50 (1785) until her death in 1812, Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her work and domestic life in Hallowell on the Kennebec River, District of Maine.[6] The log of daily events, written with a quill pen and homemade ink, records numerous babies delivered and illnesses treated as she travelled by horse or canoe around the Massachusetts frontier in what is today the state of Maine. For 27 years, she wrote in the diary daily, often by candlelight when her family had gone to bed.[6]

The diary consists of more than 1,400 pages, with entries which start with the weather and the time. Many of her early records were short and choppy, but her later entries became longer and detailed.[6] Her writing illustrates struggles and tragedies within her own family and local crimes and scandals. One includes the comment that children in New England were allowed to choose their romantic interest as long as they were in the same economic class, something which was rare at that time.[6] Many of the people mentioned in the diary do not appear on official records such as censuses or deeds and probate, so the diary helps provide insight into the lives of ordinary people who might otherwise have remained invisible.[6] Because of the scale of the diary, scholars have been able to use digital tools to mine it for information. Such studies have revealed, for instance, that because Ballard's deliveries spiked significantly between February and April, her neighbours were most likely to be having sex between May and July.[7]

The last birth that Ballard attended was on April 26, 1812.[5] Ballard's final diary entry, from 1812, stated: "made a prayer adapted to my case."[6] The diary was kept in her family, eventually coming into the care of her great-great-granddaughter, Mary Hobart, one of America’s first female physicians who graduated from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1884, the same year that she received the diary. In 1930, Hobart donated the diary to the Maine State Library in Augusta.[5] Just over 50 years later, in July 1982, E. Wheaton of the Maine State Archive created a microfilm copy of the diary.[6] Robert R. McCausland and Cynthia MacAlman McCausland later spent ten years producing a verbatim transcription on the diary, which they made freely available online as well as for purchase in hard-copy.[6][8]

A Midwife's Tale[edit]

For many years Martha Ballard's diary was not considered to be of scholarly interest as it was generally dismissed as repetitive and ordinary.[4] However, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich saw potential in the diary, realising how rare Ballard's first-hand account was after having researched a previous book on women in early New England.[2] After eight years of research, Ulrich produced A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812. Each chapter in A Midwife's Tale represents one aspect of the life of a woman in the late 18th century.[3] The overriding theme is the nature of women's work in the context and community. Ulrich stated that:

When I finally was able to connect Martha's work to her world, I could begin to create stories.

Supporting documents construct Ulrich's interpretation of terse and circumspect diary entries, dealing with medical practice and the prevalence of violence and crime.

The book received a positive critical response, and was praised for the insight it offered into the lives of 18th-century women and life in early New England. In 1991, A Midwife's Tale received the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, the John H. Dunning Prize, the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize, the Society for Historians of the Early Republic Book Prize, the William Henry Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine, and the New England Historical Association Award.[2]

In 1997, the PBS series The American Experience aired A Midwife's Tale. This documentary film was based upon Ulrich’s book, and Ulrich served as a consultant, script collaborator, and narrator for the film.[2][9] It was directed by Richard P. Rogers, and produced by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt. Actress Kaluani Sewell Lee played Martha Ballard. When filming the series, details were given close attention. The production crew chose King's Landing Historical Settlement in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island to capture Maine's three seasons: "black flies, snow and mud." The actors wore mud-soaked shoes below historically-accurate costumes, and replicas were made of the hand sewn booklets that formed the diary, so that Lee could write in them.[6] The music in the film, played by the ensemble Orison, included shape note singing by the Word of Mouth Chorus.


  1. ^ a b c Hanes, Richard Clay; Hanes, Sharon M.; Rudd, Kelly; Baker, Lawrence W. (2006). Shaping of America: 1783-1815. Gale. ISBN 9781414401812.
  2. ^ a b c d "Sparknote on A Midwife's Tale: Context". Sparknotes. Sparknotes LLC. 2006. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  3. ^ a b Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (1990). A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ISBN 9780679733768.
  4. ^ a b c "Martha Ballard". Maine Memory Network. Maine Historical Society. 2013. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (February 2000). "Ballard, Martha Moore". American National Biography Online. American Council of Learned Societies. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Film Study Centre, George Mason University; Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University (2000). "Martha Ballard's Diary Online". Do History. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  7. ^ a b Blevins, Cameron (September 2009). "Text Analysis of Martha Ballard's Diary". Cameron Blevins. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  8. ^ McCausland, Robert R; McCausland, Cynthia MacAlman (1992). The Diary of Martha Ballard, 1785-1812. Camden, Maine: Picton Press. ISBN 9780929539621.
  9. ^ Rogers, Richard P. and Kahn-Leavitt, Laurie (1998). A Midwife’s Tale (film). PBS.

Further reading[edit]

  • McMahon, Sarah F. "Review: [Untitled]." The William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 3 (July 1998): 470.
  • Wolfe, Thomas J. "Review: [Untitled]." Isis 84, no. 2 (June 1993): 390.
  • Rogers, Deborah D. "Review: [Untitled]." Eighteenth-Century Studies 26, no. 1 (Autumn, 1992): 180–182
  • Alison Duncan Hirsch. "Review: [Untitled]." The Public Historian 19, no. 4 (Autumn, 1997): 107.