Martha Ballard Crosses the Kennebec To Deliver a Baby

On April 24, 1789, 54-year-old Martha Ballard took a harrowing trip across the flooded Kennebec River to deliver a baby — and then sat down to write about it in her diary.

Detail from Martha Ballard's diary

Detail from Martha Ballard’s diary

Martha Ballard was living with her family in Hallowell, Maine, then the Massachusetts frontier. She was a respected member of her community. She traveled around the wilderness in canoe and on horseback, delivering babies and healing the sick. She started  her diary when she was 50 years old on Jan. 1, 1785, recording the dangers and difficulties of her life. She kept the diary for 27 years. In 1981, historian Laurel Thacher Ulrich got a grant to research Martha’s diary. Ten years later she published her prize-winning book, A Midwife’s Tale about it.

Martha Ballard was born in Oxford, Mass., in 1735. Her sister, Dorothy Barton, would have a granddaughter who was also a healer: Clara Barton. Martha married Ephraim Ballard in 1754. They had nine children. Three died in a diphtheria epidemic in the summer of 1769.

In the spring of 1789, Martha Ballard was living a busy and challenging life in Hallowell. The river was flooded, and she attended seven deliveries in March and seven by the end of April. On April 23 she went down the west side of the Kennebec to visit several families. Here is what she wrote that day:

Clear & very Pleast. I Sett out to Go to mr Bullins. Stept out of ye Canue & Sunk in ye mire. Came back & Changd my Cloaths, maid another attempt& got Safe there. Sett out for home. Calld at CaptCoxes & mr Goodins. was Calld in at mrs Husseys, tarried all night. a Severe Storm before morn.





  1. Jane MacLeod LeBlanc

    April 23, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    That’s a great book. Found it @ Goodwill & as I find more copies I purchase them for friends.

  2. Susan L Field

    April 24, 2014 at 2:47 am

    Excellent book.

  3. Lisbeth Whitney

    April 24, 2014 at 6:30 am

    There is an episode of The American Experience about Martha Ballard. It was good!

  4. Letitia LaVerdiere

    April 24, 2014 at 7:51 am

    How fascinating reading the words of a midwife back when you had to be as tough as nails braving so much hardship. They saw life, death, and was a part of peoples joys and struggles.

  5. Pat Cremens

    April 25, 2014 at 12:44 am

    I had the PBS video of this and used to show it to my students. They loved this story of life and struggles.

  6. Pingback: Martha Ballard Visits the Sick, Cards Cotton, Builds a Fence | New England Historical Society

  7. Pingback: Martha Ballard: As Good, In Some Ways, As the Best Doctors - New England Historical Society

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