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

May 6, 1878 Between the clouds, Miss Spalding obtained 7 photographs of Mercury on the Sun.  It is a comfort to me to be able to plan and do a new kind of work.  The large telescope worked better than usual, Clark having just been to the Observatory.

Maria Mitchell and her students photographed the Sun on every clear day and as such were able to photograph the transit of Mercury and the rarer transit of Venus – the planet for which Maria had calculated the ephemeris for the US Nautical Almanac for many years.  She was the first woman computer for the Nautical Almanac and likely, the federal government.  In its archive collection, the MMA has several images that Maria and her students completed of transits of the sun, including the one of Venus which was taken by Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, an artist of some renown and also a child of two Nantucket Quakers.

Apparently, Alvan Clark had recently visited Maria and the Vassar College Observatory and made some adjustments to the telescope.  He was the premier telescope maker in America – and the man who made Maria’s five-inch – monies for it were a gift from the Women of America – a subscription overseen by Elizabeth Peabody.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 30.  {1881} Our new Doctor says she has known Professors who are appointed by the Corporation of a Medical College to Lecture to the women, who have complied with the requirements but who have lectured with their backs turned to the women!

I will assume these are male doctors noted above though until quite late, only men lectured to men and women to women though we all need to remember that there were not a large amount of women doctors at this late date in the nineteenth century!  In fact, the first American-born medical doctor, Lydia Folger Fowler, was born on Nantucket and raised, like Maria, in a Quaker family.  She would become a doctor of what is today gynecology and lectured at the medical colleges she taught at but was only allowed to teach physiology to women – the classes were kept separate for “obvious” reasons!  (Read: nineteenth century reasons.)


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov. 24, 1854.  Yesterday, James Freeman Clarke the biographer of Margaret Fuller came in to the Atheneum.  It was plain that he came to see me and not the Institution.  I was a good deal embarrassed and made such an effort to appear as if I wasn’t, that I was almost ready to burst into a laugh at my own ridiculousness.

Maria, as was her way, always assumed that she was not important.  She did not believe she was important.  That people would not care about her work or who she was.  Very Quaker.  Very Maria.  She was certainly not full of herself that is for sure.  But people did seek her out while she was librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum.  By the time of Clarke’s arrival, her comet discovery was old news” but her fame was not – that would continue on well beyond her lifetime as we all know.  Her fame faded to some degree but well into the early twentieth century she could still be considered a household name.  The fading has more to do with the place of women in history than Maria herself – women were buried.

It’s also important to note that the Nantucket Atheneum was not just a library but a place of learning for all beyond just books – as it still is today.  It helped to attracted literary stars, great thinkers, and other luminaries of the nineteenth century – yes, even this far out to sea – who came to lecture and speak and take part in conventions like the anti-slavery conventions.  The Quaker belief in education and life-long learning was something that influenced all parts of island life; certainly its library.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Nov. 23 {1870}

My dear Lizzie {Williams, Vassar Class of 1869},

 . . . And you are so all over a radical, that it won’t hurt you to be toned down a little.  And in a few years (as the world moves) your family will have moved one way and you the other, a little and you will suddenly find yourselves in the same plane.

It is much the way it has been between Miss Lyman {Vassar’s Lady Principal} and myself.  Today she is more of a Women’s Rights woman than I was when I came here, while I begin to think that the girls dress better at tea time . . .

I have learned to think that a young girl better not walk to town alone even in the day time.  When I came here I should have allowed a child to do it.  But I never knew much of the world, never shall, nor will you . . .  we are both a little deficient in worldly caution and worldly policy . . . .

Lizzie is Elizabeth Williams Champney, a Vassar College student of Maria Mitchell’s who would become a close friend.  Her artist husband would paint a portrait of Maria later in her life – the couple had named a daughter after Maria Mitchell – and at least one of Lizzie’s books was dedicated to Maria Mitchell.  While a student at Vassar, Lizzie wrote a mock-biblical account of the life of Vassar’s founder, Matthew Vassar, that was claimed to be “shocking” and banned from the campus by Principal Lyman.

Lizzie was raised in Ohio by abolitionist parents – more than likely Quaker – thus she and Maria  shared a somewhat similar upbringing and also one of some sheltering.  This is noted throughout Maria’s letter to Lizzie – the trusting nature of non-worldly people as Quakers were – their trust for one another and “worldly” people (non-Quakers).  But also the equality factor – that a young woman should have no qualms of walking freely as Maria and other women did on Nantucket; as Lizzie did in her Quaker community at home.

Quakers were not just the leaders of slaves’ rights, they were also the leaders among women’s rights having been raised in families, religious meetings, and communities where women were treated as equals.  But being more radical in one’s views and actions would still bring some consternation among Quakers as no doubt Lizzie’s family was.  And Maria, as she noted to Lizzie, was not so radical nor such a woman’s rights woman.  Her upbringing had taught her that everyone was equal so it was a shock for Maria when confronted with a different way of treating women as she found off her Nantucket home.  This letter to Lizzie seems to serve as a gentle reminder or a gentle guidance to keep that in mind.


A Simple Coat Peg Tells a Story of Nantucket’s Tinsmith

Peleg's coat peg

This was previously published in Yesterday’s Island this summer and on my Nantucket Chronicle column, “The Nation of Nantucket.” If you keep up with “Maria Mitchell’s Attic,” then you should know who Peleg Mitchell Junior is!

It’s small, oddly shaped, has a screw-like quality at one end and a rounded nub at the other, and has a red and white gummed label adhered to it. People often ask, “What is that?” as they peer into the case to see some of the smaller items in the Mitchell House collection.

“That, is Peleg Mitchell’s coat peg,” we answer. Who is Peleg Mitchell and why do we have his coat peg? Peleg Mitchell Jr, like Maria Mitchell herself, was the youngest of ten children born to Peleg Mitchell Sr and his wife, Lydia Cartwright Mitchell in 1802. Peleg Mitchell Jr (Peleg) lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria Mitchell’s family moved to the Pacific National Bank when she was 18. Her father, as bank cashier, was in charge of the entire bank and housing above the bank came with the position. Thus, when they moved out, William sold the home at 1 Vestal to his youngest sibling, Peleg; the MMA has the original bill of sale.

Peleg was a tinsmith. In fact, he and his partner James Austin were the only tinsmiths practicing at the time so they had a very busy shop. Think of tinware, in part, as the Tupperware of the time – tin was used for all sorts of things – lanterns, candleholders, food containers, colanders, graters, lanterns, boxes . . . it was fairly cheap, easy to fabricate quickly, and just plain ubiquitous. Peleg was a leader within the Friends (Quaker) meeting and with the schisms that occurred in the faith, he would become a Wilburite while his older brother William would become a Gurneyite. As a leader within the meeting, Peleg also hosted some smaller meetings at the house at 1 Vestal Street in the front sitting room. One of his (probably) many tinsmithing apprentices was one of his nephews, William Forster Mitchell, Maria’s younger brother. This tinsmithing background would help – in part – Forster (as he was referred to) assist in the founding of the Industrial Arts Department at Howard College – Howard University today – in Washington, DC. He and his Uncle Peleg must have been close after this apprenticeship as they also corresponded quite a bit when Forester was the superintendent of Haverford College. Their letters can be found in the Haverford archives – it was founded as a Quaker school.

Back to the coat peg. It is small object – but one of many that the MMA has in its collection at the Mitchell House that belonged to the family. Made of whalebone, it likely screwed into a panel somewhere in the house that was strapped to the plaster – serving as a special coat hook just for Peleg. The large gummed label was unfortunately but likely done in the early part of the twentieth century so that it wasn’t misplaced or someone in the family did not forget what it was and to whom it belonged. In any case, it was cataloged as part of the collection in the 1950s. The donor is unknown which may mean that it drifted about the 1 Vestal Street house a bit; the house became a museum in 1903 coming to the MMA directly from the family so anything that was in the house from Peleg’s and his wife’s time in it simply remained. I have a feeling this might have been still in its place in the wall into the 1950s before someone chose to remove it for safekeeping maybe while some conservation work was being done or so that someone didn’t paint over it or forget what it was and to whom it belonged.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

April 21 {1858}. This morning was given to the Pitti Palace and its gallery. I had tho’t the Uffizi must be the finer when I visited it yesterday, but the Pitti is really elegant in its apartments and worthy to be a Ducal residence . . . .

On her European trip, Maria saw many of the sites that were “required” visits for a grand tour of Europe in the nineteenth century, akin to a college education. I often wonder what she would have thought about the works of famous artists she would have seen at the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. I am also curious as to what ran through her mind when she compared the decadent living quarters of the ruling families of Europe to those of the Quaker built and Quaker-influenced homes of tiny Nantucket. It must have been overwhelming, especially in comparison to her Quaker upbringing and relatively simple life, but also even when comparing the age of these sites to the relatively “new” nation of the United States of America.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

1881, Feb. 26.
Miss Whitney reads Frances Power Cobbe’s “Lectures to Women” aloud to me. In the main they are excellent. I agree almost at every point. What she says about the duty of women in veracity, in cultivating both physical and moral courage, etc., in demanding not “favor but justice” . . .
The advice to women to be cheerful and to try to promote cheer around them is excellent. I wish I had thought about that earlier in my life and practiced upon it.

Maria Mitchell had been quite ill for several months prior to this entry, made worse probably by the medicine she was given for her treatment – something she noted. For some time afterwards she had a ringing in her ears. Mary Whitney, her former student and then assistant, would take Maria Mitchell’s place at Vassar and would also serve as the first president of the MMA.

I find the comment about cheer interesting as well. I look at it in light of the fight for women in education – Maria’s main focus – and also women’s rights. How fighting for justice – “demanding” it – and doing it in a cheerful and not angry way might win more. I think of the old adage that one gets more flies with vinegar than honey.

(Note: later in life Maria began to drop the Quaker way of referring to the date, unless she was writing a Quaker elder or Quaker closely familiar to her.)

Answer To Do You Know Where This Is?


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!

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

Sept. 25, 1854. . . . The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

I think of two things when I read this. One is that Quakers believed in being industrious and not wasting time. The second point makes me think immediately of Holden Caulfield – The Catcher in the Rye if you don’t know that character’s name – and his various references and discussions to “phonys” as he refers to them though Maria’s mention here is not entirely in the same vain.

A materially successful Quaker was one who was living “in the light,” as Quakers referred to it. Even if gifted with material wealth, Quakers still lived frugally and were a hard working group of people. As Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur noted, “Idleness is the most heinous sin that can be committed in Nantucket . . . for idleness is considered as another word for want and hunger.” If you were not productive and industrious, you would starve – and it would affect others in the community since isolated Nantucket acted as a corporate family economy – everyone was relying on one another for survival. While Maria is also not necessarily going to this depth of industrious it is a Quaker ethic that was strongly imbued in her. She certainly was a hard worked with numerous accomplishments to her name and many different projects completed even by 1854 at age thirty-six.

And don’t forget October 1st is the anniversary of Maria’s comet discovery – October 1, 1847.