Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

. . . I am having a very good summer; doing nothing . . . . Whittier is lovely! He is seventy-six years old, and his friends say he fails neither outwardly nor inwardly. When I came away, he came out to the wagon and said “When thee sees the 400 Vassar girls, give them all the love of an old bachelor.” What a pity the 400 girls cannot see him!
I try not to look far ahead. The changes at Vassar are very trying . . .

The above is from a letter that Maria Mitchell wrote to Mrs. Raymond – the wife of the former president of Vassar College. President Raymond died fairly suddenly in 1878 much to the shock and sadness of many. While he was officially the second president of Vassar College, the first president had not made it to opening day. Maria Mitchell kept up her relationship with the family and it is evident from this letter that the Raymonds were familiar with the Mitchell family as Maria refers to the first names of her nieces throughout the letter. Her familiarity with John Greenleaf Whittier I have noted before in this blog; many of the Mitchells were friendly with Whittier.


Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria MitchellJune 18, 1876. I had imagined the Emperor of Brazil [Dom Pedro II] to be a dark swarthy tall man of 45 years; that he would not really have a crown upon his head, but that I should feel it was somewhere around … and that I should know I was in Royal presence. But he turns out to be a large old man, say 65, broad-headed and broad shouldered, with a big white beard and a very pleasant, even chatty manner … . As he entered the Dome, he turned to ask who the photographs of Father and Mother were. Once in the Dome, he seemed to feel at home. To my astonishment he asked me if Alvan Clark made the glass of the Equatorial … I remarked, “you have been in observatories before,” and he said, “Oh yes, Cambridge and Washington.” He seemed much more interested in the observatory than I could possibly expect … .

Maria had the opportunity to show many well-known people through the Vassar College Observatory which was not just her place of work, but her home as well. Throughout her life, Maria met with and maintained friendships with some of the well-know scientists and other luminaries of her time including, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir George Airy, Sir John Herschel, Harriet Hosmer, Dorthea Dix, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Susan B. Anthony to name just a few.

Red Rose from Whittier

William Forster Mitchell, daughter Anne Maria Mitchell, and Charlotte Coffin MitchelIt used to be that in schools children were asked to memorize significant portions of famous speeches, poems, plays, or other well-known written pieces. It seems that this is not as popular as it once was although I think it helped students on many levels – from memorization skills, to recitation, to public speaking, and more. My great-grandmother, even in her later years, remembered many of the pieces she had memorized, reciting them aloud to my mother to help her fall asleep. My mother remembers many of those herself, in part because of hearing them so often, but also because in high school and college, she also memorized many pieces. An English teacher, my mother always has a poem or a quote at her lips to respond to a situation or a word or phrase someone may mention. It is something of which I am envious – most of my teachers never had us memorize anything. One piece my mother learned from her grandmother is “The Barefoot Boy” (1855) by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892) so imagine my surprise – on a multitude of levels – when I came across what you see above.

Red rose from WhittierIn the MMA’s collection, we have John Greenleaf Whittier’s autograph, as well as letters he wrote to Maria Mitchell. What a surprise then to find this single rose inserted into a book of pressed seaweed created by Charlotte Coffin Mitchell (1823 – 1901), the wife of Maria Mitchell’s younger brother, William Forster Mitchell (1825 – 1892)! A treasure! I was so stunned to see a rose inserted in a book of seaweed and more stunned to see that Whittier gave it to Forster (in August 1880 – Forster’s birth month). Forster was named for the famed English Quaker who visited Nantucket around 1824. Like the Mitchells, Whittier was a Quaker and an ardent slaves’ rights supporter. Forster had for many years worked for the Freedman’s Aid Society, as had other Nantucketers including Anna Gardner (1816 – 1901) who went into the South to establish schools and teach the children of newly freed slaves. Forster also was the superintendent of the Quaker college, Haverford, and once the war was over he helped to establish the Industrial Arts program at Howard College, teaching the craft of tinsmithing which he had learned as an apprentice to his Uncle Peleg Mitchell, Junior.

While more research needs to be completed to understand the Whittier-William Forster connection, I think the rose itself illustrates a close connection. There was a great deal of overlap in whom Whittier knew and worked with and whom Forster and the Mitchell family knew and worked with. The Quaker connection is a step but also the anti-slavery connection. Nantucket also serves as a connection since Whittier, a descendant of Nantucket Coffins, wrote at least one poem about the island – “The Exiles” in 1841. Another research project to add to the list!