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A Midwife's Tale | Article

Building Frontier Communities


When Martha Ballard arrived on the Maine frontier in 1777, she was 42 years old. She had grown up in a "settled" town in Massachusetts. The 100 families who initially settled Hallowell, Maine came from 30 such communities, mostly in New England. Historian Alan Taylor points out, "Except for the first colonists in the early 17th century, neither before nor since has such a high proportion of America's population lived in newly settled communities." Gregory Nobles has observed, "Settlement everywhere on the colonial frontier involved clear attempts to transplant familiar forms of family and community life." Martha Ballard's frontier was not the breeding ground of individualism or of self-sufficiency, in which people quickly succumbed to the lure of the wilderness. Instead, they clung tightly to the elements that bound community life together. Her diary reveals the crucial role that women played in that process.

The sources that social historians have generally used -- account books, tax lists, and other public records -- obscure the activities of women. Martha's diary records the activities of women and men, allowing us to see her community as a whole: men interacting with each other and with women; women interacting with each other in barter and trade, in healing activities, and in constant visiting among households.

From the start, we see Martha Ballard engaged in what Laurel Ulrich calls a "web" of interpersonal relationships -- endless, tiring rounds of visits to households for miles around. She delivered babies. And she sold and purchased various goods and services. Martha did not usually collect money on the spot, but recorded debts for future collection (in cash, goods, or services). All this created networks of mutual obligation, networks that spawned lingering loyalties and kept people bound together.

What Martha Ballard did was not simply to use these networks, but actually to create them through her work. It is here that "A Midwife's Tale" reveals the process of community formation on the eastern frontier: for Hallowell was not a settled community with long-established networks of obligation. In doing these things, Martha was not improvising -- nor were any of the inhabitants of Hallowell. Rather she was acting in such a way as to recreate a pattern she had already come to know well in Massachusetts. She already knew what her "web" would look like, and how she had to spin it out. But the work of spinning -- figuratively and literally -- was hard and almost unceasing.

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