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

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

July 29 {1873}. En route to St. Petersburg and we are told that we keep this car right through. We have sleeping car thus. The lady’s toilette is round and into that the Conductor locked me this morning . . . . I found I could open the window and get air and there was a very comfortable arm chair, but I was distressed about Willie who could not know where I was.

After an hour I put my head out of the window just as Willie did the same. He was delighted as I was. When the next stopping place came the Conductor was at hand at once and let me out. Willie had been much alarmed . . . .

On her second trip to Europe in 1873, Maria traveled with her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall, Phebe’s husband, Joshua, and their son, William Mitchell Kendall – the family always referred to him as Willie. At one point, Maria and Willie struck out on their own, visiting the Observatory at Pulkova. I came across this amusing entry that I had not read before and laughed as I imagined Maria stuck in the bathroom – haven’t we all been there before – but also her sixteen or seventeen year old nephew panicked that his aunt was missing and in a foreign country and on a train to boot!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

May 27. {1857} There is this great difference between Niagara and other wonders of the world, that is you get no idea from descriptions or even from paintings. Of the Mammoth Cave you have a conception from what you are told, of the Natural Bridge you get really a truthful impression from a picture. But Cave and Bridge are in still life, Niagara is all activity and change. No picture gives you the varying form of the water of the change of color; no description conveys to your mind the ceaseless roar. So too the ocean must be unrepresentable to those who have not looked upon it.

Maria Mitchell would tour the Mammoth Cave and the Natural Bridge during her trip to the southern United States as Prudence Swift’s chaperone – I have written of these travels and Prudence before. Niagara Falls is a place she likely saw on her way to visit her younger sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who once lived with her husband in Pennsylvania. I was a bit surprised that she feels the way she does about the Cave and Bridge being well-represented by images but I do kind of see her point. However, Niagara, the ocean, any moving body of water – she is right. You don’t fully comprehend it until you hear it, touch and taste it, see its colors, and feel it splash, sprinkle, or mist across your face. Niagara certainly mists across your face – sort of like a breezy day at the beach and the salt mist that slowly builds across your face and coats the beach grass so that it shimmers in the sunlight.


Update from the MMA Biological Collections

The MMA Biological Collections date to the late 1800’s. Our oldest specimen is a fernwood fern (Dryopteris spinulosa) collected in 1879 by Maria Louisa Owen (1825-1913). Ms. Owen was an expert in mosses and other moss like plants. Interestingly, she collected the fern specimen in the midst of the Pteridomania, or fern craze, sweeping Europe and America at the time. Many books have been written on Pteridomania and this blog gives a nice overview of one.

catfishWe continued adding to the biological collections in 2013. This summer we collected and preserved the first scientific specimen of a bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosis) from Maxcy Pond. Most certainly introduced for fishing adventures, catfish seem to inhabit Maxcy Pond and Washing Pond. We also added a variety of marine fish including a barrel fish, a shark sucker, and a small blue fish. These are now preserved forever to be used by current and future researchers.

This December we are looking forward to depositing extra specimens with Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. We will be dropping off several fish, about 300 spiders, and several bird specimens. Sharing specimens makes them more accessible to researchers and it is also a precautionary measure in case any one set of specimens is lost or destroyed (every curator’s worst nightmare!).

If you would like to visit the collections to learn more about ongoing work, please contact Andrew Mckenna-Foster, Director of Natural Science. We hope to have the digital data from the collections available on line within the next year!