Lives of Girls Who Became Famous
In the quiet, picturesque island of Nantucket, in a simple home, lived William and Lydia
Mitchell with their family of ten children. William had been a school-teacher, beginning
when he was eighteen years of age, and receiving two dollars a week in winter, while in
summer he kept soul and body together by working on a small farm, and fishing.
In this impecunious condition he had fallen in love with and married Lydia Coleman, a
true-hearted Quaker girl, a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, one singularly fitted to help
him make his way in life. She was quick, intelligent, and attractive in her usual dress of
white, and was the clerk of the Friends' meeting where he attended. She was enthusiastic
in reading, becoming librarian successively of two circulating libraries, till she had read
every book upon the shelves, and then in the evenings repeating what she had read to her
associates, her young lover among them.
When they were married, they had nothing but warm hearts and willing hands to work
together. After a time William joined his father in converting a ship-load of whale oil into
soap, and then a little money was made; but at the end of seven years he went back to
school-teaching because he loved the work. At first he had charge of a fine grammar
school established at Nantucket, and later, of a school of his own.
Into this school came his third child, Maria, shy and retiring, with all her mother's love of
reading. Faithful at home, with, as she says, "an endless washing of dishes," not to be
wondered at where there were ten little folks, she was not less faithful at school. The
teacher could not help seeing that his little daughter had a mind which would well repay
all the time he could spend upon it.
While he was a good school-teacher, he was an equally good student of nature, born with
a love of the heavens above him. When eight years old, his father called him to the door
to look at the planet Saturn, and from that time the boy calculated his age from the
position of the planet, year by year. Always striving to improve himself, when he became
a man, he built a small observatory upon his own land, that he might study the stars. He
was thus enabled to earn one hundred dollars a year in the work of the United States
Coast Survey. Teaching at two dollars a week, and fishing, could not always cramp a man
of such aspiring mind.
Brought up beside the sea, he was as broad as the sea in his thought and true nobility of
character. He could see no reason why his daughters should not be just as well educated
as his sons. He therefore taught Maria the same as his boys, giving her especial drill in
navigation. Perhaps it is not strange that after such teaching, his daughter could have no
taste for making worsted work or Kensington stitches. She often says to this day, "A
woman might be learning seven languages while she is learning fancy work," and there is
little doubt that the seven languages would make her seven times more valuable as a wife
and mother. If teaching navigation to girls would give us a thousand Maria Mitchells in
this country, by all means let it be taught.