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A Midwife's Tale

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The Struggle Over Land

When ordinary settlers poured into the Maine back country after 1763 to take up land made newly accessible by the defeat of the French and their native allies, they found that much of it had already been claimed by absentee developers. The first incorporated towns along the Kennebec were named for wealthy Boston merchants -- the Pownals, Gardiners, Hallowells, Winthrops, Vassals, and Winslows -- men who did not themselves live in the region but professed to own it. As an employee of such men, Ephraim Ballard surveyed new lands, identified merchantable timber, and tried to ascertain the boundaries of conflicting claims. Several times, he was shot at for doing so. Angry squatters adopted the guise of Indians in their efforts to repel writ servers and surveyors from their newly cleared farms. Historian Alan Taylor notes, "nowhere else in the world, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, did laboring families create so much new property. The conflicts over the distribution of that new property would determine what sort of society would be reproduced over time as Americans expanded across the continent."

These conflicts stretched the boundaries of community and of kinship. In 1809, the squatters' revolt climaxed in Maine, and Martha Ballard's family was at the center of the drama -- this time on the side of the rebels. Martha's nephew, Elijah Barton, was accused of murdering a surveyor's helper. And the "white Indians" marched on Augusta to break him out of jail.

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