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

Edinburgh, Sept. 30 {1857}

My dear Father,

 . . . Nothing is more provoking than the ignorance of the English about Americans.  I really doubt if they would know who Benjamin Franklin was, if I should speak of him.  They are really too full of their own greatness to perceive that there is another great nation.  Mr. Airy understands that the Bonds are astronomers, but I dare say Mrs. Prof. Smyth never heard of them, tho’ of course Prof. Smyth has the transactions.  And yet, no observatory has such instruments as Harvard . . .

Despite the fact that the Bonds and the Harvard College Observatory really were among the best in the world, their counterparts in Europe barely knew them – o rat least barely acknowledged them.  Such a factor played a large role in how long it took for Maria to be recognized as indeed the discoverer of her comet in 1847.  The Bonds were among the first to photograph the stars and they entrusted Maria with such a glass plate photograph to bring on her trip to Europe.  She would give this plate to Sir George Airy on her visit to him.  Airy was the Astronomer Royal of England (Charles Piazzi Smyth was Scotland’s Astronomer Royal) and though her first impressions were somewhat strong as you have noted above, she would carry on  a lifelong friendship with Sir George Airy and his wife, Richarda.

JNLF

Spring Has Sprung

Or at least the tulips and daffodils have!  I planted these in the fall and while tulips do not seem to have been in William Mitchell’s list of garden plants – I think he may have had them.  The list, which I have mentioned before, was written in summer by John Quincy Adams – the season after that of daffodils and tulips.  I am particularly fond of the ones I planted this fall – “Beauty of Spring.”  While not a historic variety, tulips are an incredibly old bulb.  Are you familiar with the Dutch craze for tulips in the 1600s?  At its high point, some tulip bulbs sold for more than some people earned in a year!  There are numerous books written about the history of the tulip, including some fictional accounts for children, and it’s an incredible tale.  Tulips were supposedly first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire in the tenth century.  By the 1600s, during the “craze,” some of the bulbs were used as money until the craze crashed later in the 1630s.  Today, tulips are still synonymous with Holland.

Daffodils are ancient flower – older than the tulip. My favorite variety which I have planted in the past at Mitchell House is “Poeticus” or Pheasant’s Eye – it is white with a dark ring at the very center – sort of looking like an eye – and it has the most wonderful scent of any daffodil.  They come out later in May or early June.  But this year, I opted to add in some of the big bright yellow daffodils that everyone thinks of.  Why?  Because William Mitchell, though a Quaker, loved bright colors and I think he would love to see this shocking yellow on Vestal Street.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Observatory
Oct 22, 1869
Chs. B. Trego, Esq.
I have your circular of Oct 15, informing me of my election as a member of the American Phil. Society of Philadelphia. You will please accept my thanks for the honor conferred upon me. Will you have the goodness too inform me if a complete set of the publications of the society can be obtained?
Maria Mitchell

 
Maria Mitchell was one of the first women to be inducted into the American Philosophical Society. At the time she was inducted, Mary Somerville (one of Maria’s heroes) and Elizabeth C. Agassiz were inducted. Before that time, only one other woman had become a member – Ekaterina Dashkov in 1789. While she had asked her father, William, to write her letter accepting her membership as the first woman at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Maria wrote her own letter as seen above. By this time, she was at Vassar College and as an older woman and Vassar’s professor of Astronomy, more independent, comfortable, and accepted as a woman acting alone. Times had also changed – it was twenty years since the AAAS induction and while a very few things had changed for women – at least writing a letter for herself and not asking a man in her family to do so!

JNLF

The Tallest of Us All

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My Dad, decorating the table for Easter 2014. About a week later, he was hospitalized for a massive infection, a side effect of his chemotherapy, that almost killed him.

A short time ago, my nephew finally talked about my Father who died on February 13th this year. He had not mentioned him before that. As my Mother was putting him to bed he said, “Grandpa was the tallest of all of us in the family, right Nana? He had to bend to get under some doors.” He is right. My Dad was the tallest – in many ways. He always stooped or bent his head a bit to the side when he went through a doorway. It was something he did automatically. And living, in a 1750s tavern, reinforced that habit. But he was the tallest too as the heart of our family. He and my Mother together. I love that in his mind’s eye, my nephew sees him as a giant because he was. A giant in our life; a giant in the lives of everyone he touched. You can’t say that about everyone. He was a protector; a quest stable force that so many relied upon, that we relied upon. But he taught us well; I think he gave us a very good map to follow. His guidance is there.

Maria and Father, William Mitchell (Photo)

William and Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

The Mitchell family had the same in their father and mother as well. When Lydia Mitchell died in 1861, Maria and her father, William, were just about all that was left on island of the immediate Mitchell family. They could not take it; they could not remain here without her. It was too painful. And so, in a way, they fled their island home to a small city where they were close to family and friends, but where every turn did not remind them of what they had lost. When she lost her father, she was even more adrift. Maria cared for both of her parents but her father was also her mentor and in many respects a “co-worker.” She felt even more abandoned when she lost him.

Everyone reacts differently. I think that fleeing is just burying your head in a way, but I certainly understand it. I live in the house that my Father designed and that my parents built and it is painful. But I am removed from the Town in which my parents live and our family house and the reminders at every turn – though there are many here on island as well since my time here goes back to the age of one and a half – my Dad to 1964 and my Mom to the 1950s.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

{March 1858} I am working to get admitted to see the observatory, but it cannot be done without special permission from the pope, and I don’t like to be “presented.” If I can get permission without the humbug of putting on a black veil and receiving a blessing from Pius, I shall; but I shrink from the formality of presentation. I know thou’d say “Be presented.”

The above is from a letter written by Maria Mitchell to her father, William Mitchell. Never much for pomp – but also raised within the Quaker faith where one of the tenets was that everyone was on equal footing – I can see why Maria balked at having to go through such formalities for Pope Pius but also to gain entry to the Vatican’s observatory. I have written about the fact before that she was the first woman to gain entry and the fact that it took at least a fortnight. Can you believe that? Well, if you lived in that time and earlier, yes you could. But it seems so alien and foreign to us now – though we all know this continues to happen in our world today – for females and males.

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

A Star of One’s Own for Maria Mitchell and her Father, William Mitchell

Maria and Father

Standing under the canopy of the stars you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought. — Maria Mitchell

One of Nantucket’s most famous Daring Daughters – and her astronomer and teacher father as well – could get a star (MariaMitchell) and a planet (WilliamMitchell) named after them with your help! Now, how exciting would that be for Nantucket!

The International Astronomical Union (IAU), the largest organization of professional astronomers in the world, is sponsoring a contest to rename twenty stars and their associated planets. The IAU is the official naming organization for astronomical bodies, and the public gets to vote on the names. A star currently known as Andromedae 14 could be renamed “MariaMitchell” and its accompanying planet named “WilliamMitchell” should we get enough votes!

Voting began online the week of August 10, 2015 and will continue until October 31st. PLEASE encourage everyone you know – from Nantucket and beyond – to vote in support of renaming the Andromedae 14 system as “MariaMitchell” and “WilliamMitchell.”

Here’s a link where you can vote to rename Andromedae 14 in honor of Maria and William Mitchell: http://nameexoworlds.iau.org/systems/110

There is still time so vote! This would be an incredible honor for these two remarkable astronomers – and Nantucket’s own!

JNLF

A Pony in the Pony Lot

Ham Pony Field

This is the Eleanor Ham Pony Field on Mill Street; sometimes referred to as the Ham Pony Lot (at least in my book – not literal book mind you). What struck me as nice when I saw this is that horses had a stop-over there one morning as I was heading in to work. Horses and ponies and other farm animals do not frequent this lot much anymore. The land was given to the Nantucket Historical Association about 1979. At one point around Town, there were open spaces that were communally used for grazing. William Mitchell had a plot of land further up Vestal Street near the Quaker cemetery on what is now Quaker Road. There he kept his horse and did a small bit of farming; though the family joke was that he grew more flowers than edibles because he loved bright colors and as a Quaker, bright colors were frowned upon.

JNLF