Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Dr. E. P. Miller’s

37, 39 West 26th Street

New York, Ap. 16 {1881}

My dear Matthew {Barney},

I am glad you are getting along decently well.  I am very much better than I was and begin to enjoy life again.  Lydia Dame is with me for a few days.  Anne you probably see; she left Thursday.  I enjoyed her visit very much . . . .

Yesterday (Good Friday) the city was packed and crammed and I suppose it will be on Sunday . . . .

Tomorrow (Sunday) Lydia expects to go to Trinity {Church}; probably she will have to stand.  After Easter has passed, I mean to buy Easter Eggs.  I suspect they will be cheap.  The streets are exceedingly pretty; some of the Easter cards are very pretty and the roses beautiful.  You pass thousands of them on Broadway.

Matthew Barney was the husband of Maria’s older sister, Sally Mitchell Barney, who died in 1876.  By this point, Matthew was remarried.  He is buried on Nantucket with his second wife and her family.  It is nice to see that they still remained close – he was, after all, her brother-in-law for thirty-eight years before Sally died – a death not unexpected as her health had been poorly much of her life.  Lydia Dame, was a daughter of Maria’s youngest sister, Eliza Katherine (Kate) Mitchell Dame and Anne is of course a younger sister of Maria’s.

What I find funny is Maria’s frugal nature coming out in her note about buying Easter candy AFTER Easter.  Such a Maria thing.  She was not poor by any means, leaving a decent estate to her family when she died in 1889.  But her Nantucket and Quaker-self shine through in this comment – as too does the over-crowding.   In this date of COVID-19, it immediately makes me think of “social distancing.”  Maria might find it amazing to see shots of what were once crowded areas of NYC and Boston –  all now empty because of this virus pandemic.

Maria was in NYC for the Easter parade – this was at its beginnings – and went on for decades though it began to fizzle out in the last decade or so.  If you have never seen “Easter Parade” with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland it really is a must no matter what your religious belief – it is not a religious-based movie and it has one of the best dance and song scenes in a musical – “A Couple of Swells” – (says this movie musical nut) and “Stepping Out With My Baby” is  fantastic – can’t go wrong with Irving Berlin!  And if you have never seen Anne Miller tap dance, this one is even more important to watch!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

July 15. {1863}

My dear Sally . . .

            I think Mitchell is all right in his algebra.  He can’t stand an examination in Trig but I don’t believe he will have a rigorous one.  Father has seen the Prof. and will give him a letter to them.

If you can’t be honest with your sibling, who can you be honest with?  Apparently, Sally Mitchell Barney’s son, William Mitchell Barney – known as Mitchell as his cousin William Mitchell Barney was known as Willie (how is that for honoring your father?!) – was visiting his aunt Maria and his grandfather, William Mitchell, at their home in Lynn, MA.  Sally still lived on Nantucket and I suspect Mitchell was not only visiting but getting some much needed help with his mathematics by his aunt Maria.  As always, she is brutally honest – he won’t pass a test in trigonometry (but, neither would I!).


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

June 21, 1883. I set out on the Mary Power on June 18th for Boston, got to N.Y. at 11a.m. and went on board the boat at once.  I disliked my stateroom and decided to go by land as it stormed.  I left N. Y. at 10:30 and worried half-sleeping through a hot night.  I reached Kendall’s just as they were at breakfast.  How glad I was to find them all well, and the same at the Dame’s and the Barney’s the next day.

Today I have been at the Bond’s to look at chronometers want one at $200 which has been tested and is only about 6 years old.  Its rate is remarkably steady even when at sea.  Also, I bo’t a mantle, a head dress and a fancy pink shawl . . .

As I have noted before, though born on an island, Maria did get seasick on occasion.  I too – even though I have travelled between Hyannis or Woods Hole and Nantucket since I was 1 ½ years old – get sick as well in rough seas.  Thus, I am not surprised she changed her mind.  The rough seas added to her distaste for the stateroom that she would stare at for a day or so seasick.  Why not go by land?!  Upon reaching Boston, she arrived at the Kendall household – the home of her sister Phebe and her husband Joshua.  The Dames and Barneys were family as well.  Her oldest sister, Sally, had married Matthew Barney.  With Sally now long deceased, this reference to the Barneys may be Maria’s nephew William Mitchell Barney, Sally’s son.  And the Dames refers to Maria’s youngest sister, Kate, and her family who lived in Lynn, MA.

A trip to Boston was to see family but also to make purchases in a place that was slightly more familiar.  A place where she knew the telescope and chronometer makers and had a relationship with them.  A chronometer was a clock that could be taken to sea and not be affected by the roll of the ship – thus she notes how “remarkably steady” it is.  Something that would be quite important for a chronometer.


Missing Pieces

Sally Mitchell Barney is seated lower right. Image from collection of MMA Archives and Special Collections.

Sally Mitchell Barney is seated lower right.
Image from the collection of the MMA Archives and Special Collections.

Unfortunately, and frustratingly, in history we will always have missing pieces.   In particular, about daily life, the details of a person’s life, and about the average person who went unnoticed as she/he did her/his work and lived her/his life.

On occasion, we get a better glimpse into daily life when we come across a person’s personal journals and letters, account books, even photographs if it is late enough in time.  It still doesn’t tell you every last detail, but it does help.

People think I know everything about Maria Mitchell.  I do not not.  I know a great deal but not everything and not how she felt about everything.  We don’t have details about her life as a child besides the few things that were written as an adult or remembered by others.  We certainly have large holes of information about some of her siblings, even her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell.  And these holes are always something I try and keep filling.  I will never fill them all in but little pieces do help to paint a picture.

This fall, I and the Mitchell House, had the good fortune of meeting a couple from New Mexico who were on a New England tour.  The wife is from an old New England family – ancestors on the Mayflower (says I, the descendant of late 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy) – and ancestors who lived on Nantucket, including her great grandmother, Eliza Gardner Heaton, who was born on Nantucket to Prince and Mary Gorham Gardner in 1816.  Eliza was a friend of Sally Mitchell’s (also born in 1816), the oldest sister of Maria Mitchell, and friendly with Maria as well.  Even better, Eliza attended William Mitchell’s schools.  This couple very kindly provided me with the recollections and notes of Eliza as they reference Sally and William and Maria as well.

I awaited the copies in the mail, and still having to close up Mitchell House for the winter, I was only recently able to begin reading the documents though I have been hankering since they came in the mail (I allowed myself a cursory look then).  And they have proved more than useful as they have provided me with information to fill a few holes not just about Sally, but William’s school as well – even a tidbit or two about Maria!

So, a few holes have been filled with many more gigantic ones to slowly fill in.  Maybe someday they will get filled to some extent.  But for now, I have some more pieces to use to tell the Mitchell story and also to put into our archives for future reference and for others to use to fill other holes!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

June 1851

My Dear Sister . . . . Mrs. Dassel has painted me kneeling at my telescope. It looks like Adeline Coffin and is of course not handsome. If thee was here thee would have Mitchell’s {William Mitchell Barney, son of Sally and Matthew Barney} painted at once. She has a head of a child N. P. Willis that is very lovely. She has taken a room at the Atheneum and put up about a dozen pictures – very beautiful – Isabel is lovely. She has not tried to make a portrait, but a very pretty picture . . . . She is now engaged on Abra’m Quary – he is much flattered by it and it will be a fine portrait. I think we shall buy it or a copy for the Atheneum . . . . She will paint father also for herself – having made a pencil sketch . . . .We like her very much . . . .

The above is from a letter sent by Maria Mitchell to her eldest sister, Sally Mitchell Barney. In it, Maria details what everyone in the Mitchell family is up to. She includes some details about Herminia B. Dassel, an artist who came to Nantucket to paint the last Native Americans and also took an interest in the famous Mitchell family. This was of course four years after Maria’s discovery of the comet. At the time of this letter, Maria was still the librarian for the Atheneum and the portrait of Quary that she mentions possibly buying for the Atheneum, she did buy as it hangs in the Atheneum by the front door today. Opposite it, on the other side of the entry, is a portrait of Maria herself. Another Dassel portrait of Quary is in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association. And the portrait Maria states she posed for is in the collection of the MMA. It was given to us in the early 1990s by Sally’s great granddaughter – the granddaughter of Mitchell whom she mentions above as well. Maria and Dasssel would become good friends – Maria was named the godmother of Dassel’s daughter. And the sketch of William made by Dassel that Maria states would become a portrait? It likely did come to fruition. It made its way down a side of the family but was unfortunately lost, likely sold as part of a family estate though we do have a photograph of it and one can tell it is the brush work of Dassel.


Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria MitchellJuly 15 {1863}

My dear Sally,

I am very glad to have the pattern for the drawers. I shall return the specimen by Mitchell {Sally’s son William Mitchell Barney} as I understand how to make them.

{Niece} Maria’s little dress fits nicely and I tell Kate the two children won’t suffer, if they have no other dress for the winter. All that Maria’s is wrong, is in being too large around the waist. I am sorry to hear that Aunt Maria’s cough has not gone. Father thinks he has the whooping cough. He coughs incessantly, but is pretty well. He has been to Boston today.

Tell Aunt Maria to stick to the doctor’s medicine and use a plenty of it. I am ready to pay the bill. I wish I could send you some currants as I have a great many. We have very few cherries . . . .

I think Mitchell is alright in his algebra. He can’t stand an examination in Trig but I don’t believe he will have a rigorous one. Father has seen the Prof. and will give him a letter to them.

When this letter was written by Maria Mitchell to her eldest sister, Sally Mitchell Barney, William and Maria Mitchell were now living in Lynn, Massachusetts near the youngest Mitchell child, Eliza Katherine Mitchell Dame or Kate as she was called. Sally still lived on Nantucket and she and her husband had sent their son, William Mitchell Barney, to visit his grandfather and aunt. Maria also talks about the price of cherries, other family members suffering from whooping cough, and the fact that she and her father plan to attend the Harvard College commencement. “Aunt Maria” was Maria Coleman, Lydia Mitchell’s sister whom she and William named Maria after. I myself remember trying on winter clothes that my grandmother was making for me in the summer – oh that itchy wool! I am sure that Maria’s two nieces felt very much the same.

If you have been enjoying these posts, I am now also writing for “Nantucket Chronicle,” an online magazine − My column will be about Nantucket history – with a focus on island women – and the column is called “Nation of Nantucket.”