Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

March 16, 1885. In February, 1831, I counted seconds for father, who observed the annular eclipse at Nantucket. I was twelve and a half years old. In 1885, fifty-four years later, I counted seconds for a class of students at Vassar; it was the same eclipse, but the sun was only about half-covered. Both days were perfectly clear and cold.

In the 1850s, this eclipse observation was “documented” post-eclipse by Herminia B. Dassel, an artist who had come to the island to paint Abram Quary, the last male Wampanoag on the island. One of the portraits is at the Atheneum, the other at the Nantucket Historical Association. The interesting thing about the Mitchell eclipse double portrait is that it is not Maria posed with her father but instead the youngest Mitchell sister, Kate (Eliza Katherine). Maria refused to sit for the portrait. The artist would take many liberties in her interpretation of the event, the equipment, and Kate’s appearance (she looks like her eighteen year old self, not twelve year old Maria, and is not dressed as a Quaker would be). William Mitchell and the artist were finally able to convince Maria to sit for a portrait. You will find this portrait on our website, the more recognized one of her peering through a telescope and dressed as a Quaker. Maria would become close to the artist, becoming the godmother of the artist’s daughter. Dassel would also paint a portrait of William Mitchell. We have a photograph of the portrait but sadly the portrait was lost within the family.

JNLF

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.

JNLF

Ah, To Be In the Third Grade!

Ah, to be in the third grade again! And, I have. In November and again this spring, I have been spending some time with the four Nantucket Elementary School (NES) third grade classes working in the fall on Wampanoag legends and again this spring helping the children to learn about Maria Mitchell and what life was like in her time. We have read stories and discussed them, looked at artifacts from the Mitchell House trying to figure out what some of them might be – oh, the ideas of a third grader! – and created some fun crafts that reinforce what we learn as a group. After a discussion of Maria Mitchell’s and her father’s role in whaling, we talk about how far the whalers traveled from Nantucket, how they navigated (William and Maria rated their chronometers), and their stops during the voyages that allowed them to bring back some really interesting souvenirs – including sailors’ valentines. Children then make their own valentines for a loved one.

When we delve deeper into life in the nineteenth century, we compare our time to that of Maria’s and sometimes it takes a bit of a discussion to get to the lack of electricity! Our craft: we create tin lanterns with candles – something that Maria’s Uncle Peleg Mitchell Junior once did – he was a tinsmith. We have a lot of fun punching the “tin” and sometimes I get my fingers whacked a bit as I hold the punch for them to hammer in the holes. You should see their expressions and hear their apologies when this happens – they are so very sweet (and a bit mortified and worried!). But it brings us together, and for the few for who English is their second language, we find some unique ways to talk about what we are doing – and for me to warn them to watch my fingers!

This is our second year of the program. It is a way for me to bring the Mitchell House to them because we cannot fit twenty-five third graders in the Mitchell House at once – let alone the 100 who comprise this year’s third grade. And this year, we were funded by the Community Foundation for Nantucket – and we owe them yet another big thank you! I hope to continue this program with the NES for many years. It is a great way for them to learn about Maria Mitchell and life in the nineteenth century, as well as the place of women in America and Nantucket for that matter, but also for them to get to know someone else in their community.