William Mitchell and Lydia Coleman Mitchell

My whole life has been a struggle, subjecting thy patient mother to much endurance.

–  William Mitchell in his autobiography, 1868

Born to longtime Nantucket Quaker families, William Mitchell (1791 – 1869) and Lydia Coleman (1792 – 1861) first met as young teenagers.  William was sent by his father to Lydia’s home to retrieve pumpkin seeds brought back from Patagonia by Lydia’s father, Captain Coleman who would be lost at sea soon after this meeting.  In the words of William Mitchell in his autobiography – written at the insistence of daughter Phebe Mitchell Kendall – it was love at first sight and it was his love for Lydia – starting when he was 14 and she was 13 – that kept him from attending Harvard College.  The paths were prepared for his application but he could not follow through and leave Lydia behind.  Instead, he would join his father in his whale oil and soap business which, with the War of 1812, quickly put the island into an economic freeze, especially with the halt that came to whaling.  The two married in December 1812, and like many newlyweds and islanders confronted with the war at their shores, they struggled financially.  The newlyweds eked out a living in Siasconset, where William farmed and Lydia ran a small library in this fishing village at the eastern end of the island.

In his autobiography, William compiled a list of all his occupations, which included: schoolteacher, state senator, soap boiler, cooper, schoolmaster, farmer, surveyor, chronometer rater, and astronomical observer for the United States Coast Survey.  William appeared to be most fond of teaching and astronomy – perhaps not just because he was from a sea-going family and community that relied on celestial navigation to travel – but also because he was close to his much older cousin, Walter Folger Jr., the renowned scientist and island clock and telescope maker.  William would also serve as the Pacific National Bank’s cashier – essentially being in charge of the entire bank – from 1836 until 1861.

Of her mother, Maria Mitchell once wrote that she never saw her sit with a book when the children were young.  With ten in all, she likely had no time.  But it was Lydia who examined every book they brought into the house, looked out for their educations, and knew, as one daughter wrote, their “every fault and every merit.”  Quite, dignified, and a woman of strong character, she played the foil to William’s gregarious and fun-loving behavior.  According to the same daughter, Lydia was, “honest almost to an extreme, and perfectly self-controlled.”

 

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Feb. 18, 1854.  If I should make out a calendar by my feelings of fatigue, I should say there were six Saturdays in the week and one Sunday.

I sort of laugh when I read this – different century, same feeling.  Though in Maria Mitchell’s day, the only day of rest was Sunday – to some degree and depending on where you lived, what you did for a living, and your religion.  For Quakers, it was a day of rest.  Sometimes, people had half a day of rest on Sunday, if that.  Also at this time, Maria was caring for her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, an illness that would take a toll on the entire family – physically and emotionally but more so on Maria as her main caregiver.

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She Floats!

On Saturday, June 3, 2017, Finger Boatworks launched a Haven 12 ½ christened Hijinks.  This is the first boat that Finger Boatworks has built and the lionshare was completed by Tyler Winger.  Finger Boatworks does of course have a connection to me – its owner is my husband, Eric, a former U. S. Coast Guard officer who is also a naval architect.  Finger Boatworks (FBW) also maintains many island wooden boats and a few others as well.  Currently, FBW is building an Alerion – a boat originally designed by the “Wizard of Bristol” – Nathanael Herreshoff – in the early twentieth century.  Herreshoff designed the Alerion so that he could sail the boat himself – this in the day when they wore suit and tie, and hat of course!  By then, Herreshoff was an older gentleman who had designed many boats.

Boat building on Nantucket is now few and far between.  There are a few who have built for themselves, but very few who now build for specific clients or to sell.  Boat building did happen historically on Nantucket.   A large boatyard located in the area of Brant Point with a marine railway existed – even building a few whaleships.  Whaleboats were also built on the island.  In fact, in the early eighteenth century, they lifted the laws banning the cutting of trees on the island so that men could head out to Coatue to cut cedar for the whaleboats.  The issue with building on Nantucket was that it was too expensive and boats could be built more easily and cheaply off-island since that is where all the wood to build island boats was coming from to start!

I like to think of Maria, and her brothers and sisters, wandering around the yards, picking up shavings, smelling the fragrance of wood shavings, specifically the cedar, and listening to the rhythmic noise of the saw.  Just around the corner from them was a small boatshop – likely whaleboats – and up the street, a cooperage.  The eldest Mitchell child, Andrew, would run off to sea at a young age and found himself on a naval ship during the Civil War.  He later left the life of the sea and became a farmer – not the first time we had heard that one.  He could have been greatly influenced by the boats surrounding him and the sailors and officers of whaleships and merchant and fishing ships.  He could have also been influenced by his father with his rating of the chronometers and his work with the US Coast Survey.  The Mitchell family had many ship captains through their front sitting room.  He could have been influenced by spending his time in a boatshop.  And, he could have been further influenced by the fact that his maternal grandfather, a whaleship captain, was lost at sea when Andrew’s mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, was just fourteen years old.

Boat building is an ancient craft.  Whether it be small or something like a freighter, it is still a craft that we rely on for multiple purposes whether it be transportation, pleasure, livelihood, food.

Look for Hijinks in the harbor this summer.

JNLF

Superstars

William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell

There are two quotes of Maria Mitchell’s that I deeply love. The first one is, “Standing under the canopy of the stars one can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.” The other is, “The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands.”

I have literally looked up at the stars on an evening and said that first quote aloud to myself. I like to think that everyone is looking down on me from above, keeping me in check, and keeping me on the straight and narrow path in some ways. I have been influenced by, taught and mentored by, and loved by so many people – and I have loved them in return. They have carved out a path before me; guided me on my way, and they are the stars who shine over me.

The second quote is something I repeat to myself when I think of certain people. In particular, I think of my parents when I read this quote or repeat it to myself. It means that no matter what you do, no matter how big or small what you do is, it can make a difference and have an impact. My parents are, of course, my stars. But they have also made a difference in my world and the world at large, as I am sure your parents and others have.

Brain: Two very intelligent individuals, they nurture, educate, and expand our minds and help us to better ourselves. They continue to do so and now they also lead the next generation – their three grandchildren. They teach us right from wrong; they are there with wise advice and another way of looking at something. And they put their knowledge and ability to good use, helping others, not just their children and grandchildren. They have taught us well. And, continue to do so.

Heart: They love us unconditionally and they have instilled in us the desire and belief in giving to others and to helping those in need. Compassion, understanding, sympathy, love. Their action of love and support for others has taught us how to be better human beings and better parents. It has taught us that even if we have the last scrap of food on the Earth that there is someone else who needs it more than us and that scrap goes to that person in need. Now, even as my parents suffer, they see others who suffer too and it hurts them even more deeply than what they are going through.

Hands: They have put a roof over our heads. They have wiped our noses, combed our hair, bathed us (sometimes in a small amount of tepid water, Dad!), and hugged us close when we were scared or upset (“The sun is going to burn out, yes, but not for a LONG time, Jascin.” I am sure my Mom wonders why she let me watch “3-2-1 Contact” – so much for children’s science education programming on PBS). They have dug in the Earth and created beautiful life in plants and spent a hot afternoon that was a beach day inside hanging wallpaper – all in order to give us a more perfect surrounding. They have built the world around us.

They have asked for nothing from us is return except that we live our lives to the best of our abilities, help others, and be happy and compassionate individuals.

This is not an easy post to write. Not sure I have done this justice. Words are escaping me. But, I know that when Maria first wrote these lines, she was thinking about her parents, William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell, just as I think about my parents. Thank you, Maria, for putting it so beautifully. And thank you, Dad and Mom, for being incredible role models and such compassionate and loving people.

JNLF

Answer To Do You Know Where This Is?

Image

The image is a portion of the face of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Built by John Deverell in Boston in 1789, the clock was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William Mitchell’s father, Peleg Sr. William and Lydia were married on December 12, 1812 or as Quakers would write it the 12th day of the 12th month 1812. It is a heavy brass works clock that shows the phases of the moons (it rotates with the clock) and the date – useful for a family of astronomers! William and Lydia gave the clock to Phebe Mitchell Kendall, a younger sister of Maria, when she married Joshua Kendall. Phebe then left the clock to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. Willie, as he was called by the family, left it to the Mitchell House in his estate in the 1940s. It still works – I wind it twice per week!
JNLF

Work Has Begun at the Mitchell Lot at Prospect Hill Cemetery!

Stone reset PHC

It will take quite a bit of time but happily, on August 26th, the stone work was begun at the Prospect Hill Cemetery to restore the wrought iron fence at the Mitchell family lot where William and Lydia Mitchell, along with Maria, her oldest brother Andrew, her oldest sister Sally, and her aunt and namesake Maria Coleman are all buried. Neil Patterson and his crew will be re-setting the granite stones so that DeAngelis Ironwork of Boston can restore the wrought iron fence that once ringed the lot. It likely fell into disrepair in the early twentieth century and went for scrap metal, perhaps for the war effort. Many of the lots, if not all of them, were surrounded by fences at Prospect Hill.

Granite with wrought iron fence "ghosting"

Using a historic photo that was found in a Maria Mitchell scrapbook, we are restoring the fence to the best of our ability – the image is a little grainy and blurry so some details have been lost. This work is all funded by a Community Preservation Act grant that Jascin Leonardo Finger, Curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections wrote for Fiscal Year 2013. The grant included restoration of the fence at the Hadwen lot at Prospect Hill, as well as the conservation of the wrought iron fence at the Coffin School on Winter Street. Since the same ironwork and stone masons would be used, a collaborative ask was created. For approximately a decade, the Mitchell House curator has been collaborating with Prospect Hill and its historian, Paula Lundy Levy, offering stone cleaning workshops for the public that illustrate hands-on how to properly clean historic gravestones. The restoration of the fences and the collaborative grant were a natural progression of their work together and long overdue – the family’s deserve to have their resting place restored to what it once was. Stay tuned as we bring you more information and images as the work progresses! And thank you, to the Community Preservation Committee, Neil Patterson and Crew, and DeAngelis Ironwork!

JNLF

Answer to What Is This?

This is a small area of inlay that is found towards the bottom portion of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Made in Boston in 1789, the clock was built by John Deverell and was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William’s parents in December 1812 (or the twelfth month 1812 as they were Quakers). It was then given by them to one of Maria Mitchell’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who then left it to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. It came to the Mitchell House in the late 1940s from his estate. If you follow this blog, you may remember that I wrote a bit about Kendall – he was a senior architect with McKim, Mead, and White.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria MitchellFrom time to time, I will post Maria Mitchell’s own thoughts from her journals, notes, and letters which are a part of the Maria Mitchell Association’s Archives and Special Collections. I will try and make sure that the month she has written in coincides with our present month.

JNLF

From Maria Mitchell’s Journals:

March 21 [1855 Nantucket] … The world is sadder to me than before. I feel as if I must be lonesome, but I thank God that my home circle is still whole. It has been a winter, which I cannot soon forget, for I have lost three friends whom I valued. I feel as if I must cling more closely to those who are left, for how, at my age, can one form new attachments. I have held the tears just behind my eyelids for a month, not being able to cry because of the danger of affecting mother and being ready to do so, at every moment.

Maria Mitchell lost three of her closest friends in 1855 and this during what became a long, and extended illness of her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, which would take life her in July 1861.