The Doctress: Mary Southwick Hemenway Trask

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by Laurie D. T. Mann, her great-great-great-great granddaughter

Mary Southwick was born in the fall of 1765, and was baptized on November 18, 1765 in New Salem, Massachusetts. The Southwicks had emmigrated from England to Salem, Massachusetts over 100 years before. They were Quakers.

When she was almost 19, she married Lt. John Hemenway (on August 11, 1784). Their daughter Polly was born on June 4, 1785 and son John was born on August 22, 1786. John Hemenway had already died, on June 30, 1786, aged 34.

Nearly two years later, on April 9, 1788, Mary Southwick Hemenway married Dr. Retire Trask in New Salem, MA. Dr. Trask had served during the Revolution, and had settled in New Salem after he left the Army. Their son Benjamin was born on November 25, 1789. Mary's son John died that same year.

Sometime in 1790, they moved from Massachusetts to "the frontier," a tiny town in central Vermont called Rochester. During that year, they also welcomed a daughter, Sophia, who was born on July 11, 1790.

Rochester is an isolated town even now, in a small river valley surrounded by the Green Mountains. The town sometimes has snow for six months of the year. You can guess what it must have been like to be the only doctor for, perhaps, fifty miles. So Retire trained his wife to be his assistant. And even though she had no formal education, she was well-regarded as a doctor and midwife.

From History of Rochester, Vermont:

The first physician or physicians were Drs. Retire Trask and his wife who practicied successfully together, and in deed there were some who preferred the doctress to the doctor. Dr. Trask and family moved into town in 1790, and he afterwards built the old Webber house at the top of the hill in the south part of the village and kept a tavern for a while. They were the principal physicians in town for nearly 25 years.

From Genealogy of the Descendants of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick of Salem, Mass. by James McCaller and Mrs. M. A. Ober, 1881 (page 203):

Mary Southwick (wife of Retire Trask) was a remarkable woman of education and force of character; she showed her courage in encountering the many privations of a pioneer life. Her husband was a physician and his practice became so great and having such long journeys to attend the sick that his wife studied and became fitted to practice under her husband's instruction and became a noted physician. She and her husband were often called ten or twelve miles, and had to mark trees to find their way to and from their patients. Their hospitality was known far and wide by travellers and friends.

Mary and Retire had three other children together:

They owned a tavern for a time in the town, and some of their descendents lived in Rochester the early 1970s. One of their sons, John, was a successful businessman who also served as a state representative. I have never seen a painting of either Mary or Retire, but I have seen a pseudo-Gilbert Stuart-style portrait of their son John, who had large black eyes and dark hair.

From Rochester Town Records (Book 4, p.327):

Retire and Mary Trask deed to John Trask - they are to be taken care of in respects to food, spirits, water, fire wood and all other necessaries both in health and sickness as may be necessary for their support, to accomodate their visiting friends, furnish them or either or them with a horse and wagon or either of them as their convenience may require, to provide and keep for them one cow, to treat them in every respect with kindness and show them all necessary and proper attention, and to save said Retire harmless from all debts by him contracted. Dated 27 July 1827.

Dr. Retire Trask died on November 7, 1837, aged 86 years, 8 months, and Dr. Mary Trask died February 14, 1838 aged 74 years.

This page is linked from the Notable Women Ancestors - Pioneer Women page.