Martha Ballard lived in Maine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her life was one of hard work and strife. We only know of her from the daily journal that she kept. Martha wrote about her daily chores and
business of being the de-facto doctor in her small village. She also shows how she needed her whole family to work if they were to survive. This journal not only tells us of her life but also gives us a glimpse into the social and economic struggles of early American History.
When Martha was 50 years old she had five children from ages seven to thirty-one, and all lived at home. They all lived in a one room home that would be very crowded. Her journal does not specify if the family had any problems with the arrangement. The family rented a house in the village where they lived even though they did own land. This is obviously common in early American history as many families were big and many kids would live at home longer to help farm and bring in money to the family. The land they owned would not be livable until it was properly cleared, which wasn’t until 1800. Young girls would spin cotton and usually take the cotton to other women to weave for them or until they could weave on their own. The men would work the fields or find jobs that paid cash. Martha’s husband Effrom worked at a sawmill and was also a surveyor, which kept him out of the house many nights of the year. So when he was away Martha was the head of the Household and would keep up on the garden and chop wood for the family
Martha served the village as a mid-wife and doctor. As a mid-wife she would often be called on in the middle of the night when a woman would go into labor. Martha would go to the woman’s house and stay with her until the woman would give birth. Over the years Martha would deliver over a thousand babies and never lose a mother and only a few babies were lost. This seems to be why most women would call on Martha first, whether it was for a delivery or for a malady. Even though there were other doctors around most women trusted Martha before any other. There was one doctor in particular, Benjamin Paige, that Martha thought was nothing but a bungler who would give people drugs and then walk away. There was an epidemic of Scarlet Fever in Martha’s region in the late 18th century. Many people died during it including Martha who lost three daughters. This was the beginning of hard times for Martha’s family and those in the village. Death seemed to be an event that was constantly reminding the people of the town how difficult life was. On one of her daughters 18th birthday during the epidemic Martha had to watch her husbands sawmill burn to the ground.
Martha did not talk a whole lot about her husband’s business in her journal but we can decipher a lot by what she did say. After the Sawmill Effrom became a surveyor for wealthy businessmen in Boston. These men thought that they owned the frontier land in the west. Meanwhile there were settlers and trappers in the frontier who believed that they owned the land. So when Effrom was hired to survey the land and create maps of the property lines he would be attacked and his survey equipment would be destroyed. This shows us how land was a big commodity in the early American History and how far people would go to keep it. Really no one knew who had the rights to the land and that led to many confrontations between businessmen and settlers. Effrom was attacked twice before he decided to quit (he only told Martha about one) and become a tax collector. Effrom needed to work jobs that would pay money. Martha would get paid in a mix of things like coffee, grain, sugar, snuff boxes and sometimes shillings. On her 600th delivery she was paid nine shillings and she gave one shilling and six pence to the child as a gift.
In one of her entries in the journal Martha mentioned a meeting with Rebecca Foster who was the wife of the Pastor of the village church. She told Martha that while her husband was away that she was raped by the Judge North (one of Effrom’s employers). She was pregnant with the Judge’s child. The case went to trial and Martha testified on what she knew. The Judge was eventually acquitted and Martha was so disappointed that she stopped going to church for four years. This shows that even then that powerful men rarely had to take responsibility for their actions. This continues to this day. Even though some things are the same now, one thing that we find that is completely different is premarital sex. It was not uncommon or frowned upon to become pregnant before wedlock. The only thing that would carry a bad stigma would be if the father refused to marry the girl he got pregnant. This is very strange since they were living in a time where religion played a key role in daily life. In today’s society where religion plays a smaller role this is severely frowned upon and it is usually directed towards the woman.
In 1800 Martha and Effrom were able to move into their own home. Even though the house and land were in their first born son’s name Martha and Effrom lived there. This new location severely hurt Martha’s business as a mid-wife because it was not as easy to travel to women’s houses. In 1799 Martha delivered 51 times, while in 1802 she only handled 11 deliveries. This put a lot of strain on Martha. Especially after Effrom was jailed for not collecting taxes and her oldest son moved in with his family and took control over the house. This shows a common theme that started to happen all across America after the Revolutionary War. The younger generation started to become more and more deferent to authority figures. Martha’s hired help even threatened to sue them if they did not pay her what she was owed. Young people were starting to think that these new freedoms that the country had gained granted them some sort of freedom as well. This was happening not only in small towns but also reflects what was happening with slaves on plantations, students at universities and apprentices with their masters. People were revolting more and more against authority.
Martha’s journal definitely portrays what daily life for those living in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was like. But it also gives us a great look into the physical, social, and economical life of that era as well. Whether it was dealing with death and disease or land battles and the fight for equality. She has given us more than what she probably ever realized she would. Historical pieces like hers are greatly important for us to understand what is was that they had to endure to survive. The country was going through growing pains itself and the colonists were trying to eek out a life of their own. Stuck in the middle of frontier life and a growing economy, these were not easy times, but thanks to Martha Ballard and her journal we understand them a little bit more.