We’re reading A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 for Women’s History month.¹ This is an opportunity to celebrate our female ancestors – the ones who aren’t listed in the land, or tax, or early census records- the women who are often just a mark in a column.
Author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning book after researching Martha’s diary and community for eight years. She earned her PHD in history through the University of New Hampshire while mothering five young children. She became an early American historian, writing and publishing works that examined the everyday lives of early New Englanders. While on a research task in Augusta, Maine, Professor Ulrich decided to take a look at Martha Ballard’s Diary. Other historians hadn’t fully seen the possibilities in Martha’s day by day writings. Ulrich became fascinated with the seemingly mundane activities interspersed with the life and death of friends and neighbors.
Clear. I went to Doct Colmans at 1 hour pm. His Child Expired at 4. I put on the grave Cloaths and tarried till 7. Colo North and Lady there. I found Mrs Williams & Mrs Harris here at my return. I sett up till very late to finish Hannahs stockins. (p. 72)
Written over a period of 32 years, the diary documents Martha’s travels and travails as a midwife for the community. Interspersed with an accounting of her services and her payment are snippets of Martha’s life – her family, home, garden – the stuff of a woman’s life. Professor Ulrich uses the diary to open up the lives of the people in Hallowell, Maine. We learn fascinating details of the commonplace and the astonishing, all from Martha’s careful writings and Ulrich’s interpretation of them in time and place.
As family historians, we may never discover a diary or journal of an ancestor, but we may have letters. We may find documents that detail the sale of land. We may read a widow’s pension application and discover the cause of death of our great grandfather.
We can learn much of how to interpret our findings in the context of our ancestor’s community. They didn’t live in a vacuum. Historical events swirled about them, influencing their decisions and their actions. The more we learn of their setting the more we will feel connected to them. The more we will understand them. The more we will learn from them.
I had the pleasure of meeting Laurel Thatcher Ulrich a year ago when she lectured at the University of Utah for the opening of the Aileen H. Clyde 20th Century Women’s Archive. She discussed the leavings of a person’s life and the importance of donating those leavings. I was so impressed with her words that I examined my grandmother’s “leavings” in the form of her scrapbook and wrote two posts about her experiences as a War Mother and a member of the Daughter’s of Utah pioneers. Those posts, written about a grandmother I knew and loved remain some of my favorites out of the many I’ve written in the last year.
I learned that our understanding of another individual is never complete. As we research our ancestors, all it takes if one new document, letter, or photo to change our perceptions. Perhaps that is why we family historians never give up looking.
Professor Ulrich ends A Midwife’s Tale with a beautiful exposé on the value of a life and the diary that preserves Martha’s memory.
There was nothing in Christian tradition that said a midwife ought to keep a diary. . . For some complex of reasons, probably unknown to her, Martha felt an intense need to re-create her own life day by day in her diary. As a consequence, she left a eulogy more powerful than any New England pastor was capable of preaching.
To celebrate such a life is to acknowledge the power–and the poverty–of written records. Outside her own diary, Martha has no history. Although she considered herself “the head of a family,” a full partner in the management of a household, no independent record of her work survives. It is her husband’s name, not hers, that appears in censuses, tax lists, and merchant accounts for her town. (p.344)
The epilogue of A Midwife’s Tale explains how Martha Ballard’s descendants saved the diary. Handed down by her daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters, it eventually reached Mary Hobart. Mary was a recent graduate of medical school when her great-aunts gave her the diary, noting that she was a fitting recipient, given Martha Ballard’s profession. In 1930, Mary donated the diary to the Maine State Library in Augusta where it would be housed with minimal use until Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discovered it and opened up a long forgotten world through its pages.
In a 2014 interview with Corydon Ireland of the Harvard Gazette, Professor Ulrich explains that her connection with Martha Ballard came from listening to the stories of her grandmother.²
I had this sudden flash of insight that it was my grandmother, and the stories of listening to my grandmother, that made me identify so strongly with this woman.
Both sets of grandparents had homesteaded. My maternal grandmother died when I was too little to know her. But my paternal grandmother, Grandma Thatcher, had 12 children in a little homestead. It was in a different part of Idaho, in a town named after my great-grandfather: Thatcher, Idaho. I heard stories, frontier stories, from my dad as well as from my grandparents. There was something about being in a period of pioneering that was familiar.
Interested in reading the diary online? DoHistory.org has digitized the entire diary. You can read by topic, try your hand at transcribing a page, see maps and pictures of Martha Ballard’s World and more. PBS made a film titled A Midwife’s Tale with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich narrating. Part of its American Experience series, this is a wonderful introduction to the book. The opening sequence of the movie gives just a hint at the life of Martha Ballard and Professor Ulrich’s work in bringing her diary to life.
Reading A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 will transport you to another time and place. One that your ancestor might have inhabited. Come join me in the journey!
¹ Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812, (New York, Alfred A. Knopf : 1990).
² Corydon Ireland, “I Had the Advantage of Disadvantage,” Harvard Gazette, (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/10/i-had-the-advantage-of-disadvantage/ : accessed 27 February 2017).