Cincinnati would come to play one of the most significant roles in American scientific advancement, astronomy being a large part. Louisa Mitchel would pave the way for the first Observatory in the U.S. and would be the first American woman involved in an astronomical discovery with it.
By Sean E. Andres
Originally from Cornwall, New York, near West Point, Louisa Clark Trask Mitchel (born 09 November 1809) came to Cincinnati in November of 1832 with nothing but support and devotion to her husband Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel and his passionate whims…and the ability to load and shoot a flint-lock musket. By this time, Louisa had gotten married to Lieutenant Thomas Sterne Trask, moved to St. Louis, had a son named Thomas Sterne, became a widow, married Ormsby, and moved to Ft. Marion. Louisa was described as “a graceful figure of medium height, a complexion ruddy or rosy, hair and eyes jet black, — the eyes especially large and expressive.”
Louisa held off for as long as possible during Ormsby’s failure as a lawyer with his friend E.D. Mansfield. During the early years in Cincinnati, the Mitchels became good friends with the Beechers, joining Dr. Lyman Beecher’s congregation and the Semi-Colon Club, to which the Beechers, Footes, Stowes, Cary sisters, and E.D. Mansfield belonged. The Mitchels then became pillars of faith and the arts, not just in Cincinnati but in the world. Louisa was known as “a lady of superior intelligence, rare attainments and devoted piety.” In fact, their son credited her with orchestrating Ormsby’s career, so we do know that she had some sort of agency. Surely, she intervened in his decisions when the law firm was failing and continued to guide him along the way, providing structure to an erratic, energetic, and flighty Ormsby.
Soon they would also be the pillars of science. Backed by the support of the Semi-Colon Club, politicians, and business moguls, Ormsby trained and purchased instruments in Europe so as to build and operate the first Observatory in the U.S. while Louisa remained in Cincinnati, caring for the family.
Back in Cincinnati on 09 November 1843, on top of Mt. Ida, John Quincy Adams laid the observatory cornerstone. It was Adams’ lifelong passion to see an observatory in the U.S., and he lived long enough to see it. Mt. Ida was renamed Mt. Adams in his honor.
The Cincinnati Observatory was one of value and pride to the Cincinnati public, along with its other scientific, literary, and artistic pride. Being a public observatory, it was filled with people at all times. The observatory certainly helped Cincinnati grow into a major destination and a city of interest in the 1800s. Much of that can be attributed to the multi-talented Louisa. Louisa would mastermind social functions, host famous guests, mother her children, assist Ormsby at the observation, and temper her husband’s vanity. While Adams thought Ormsby was annoying in his vanity, he thought Louisa was courteous.
In late 1846, after Johann Gottfried Galle found something new in space, Ormsby asked Urbain Le Verrier for the specific instructions he gave Galle. However, he heard nothing in return and decided to ballpark it, as Cincinnati would provide advantages with the best telescope in the world and one of the best locations. Ormsby moved the telescope into place, while Louisa looked through the lens. As he moved it into the third location that he suspected the discovery might be, Louisa exclaimed, “There it is: there’s the planet, with a disc round, clear, and beautiful as that of Jupiter.”
“There it is: there’s the planet, with a disc round, clear, and beautiful as that of Jupiter.”
Louisa very well could have been the first woman to set eyes upon Neptune.
Louisa soon lost her own first child Thomas, 22, from “consumption,” or Tuberculosis during the Mexican-American War, on 26 February 1851. I’d like to think that Louisa and Harriet Beecher Stowe watched the stars together in joint grief over the loss of their sons so close to each other.
In the summer of 1857, Louisa had a stroke, and Ormsby devoted all his time and efforts to her, as she had done for him previously. They moved to Albany, NY, so that Ormsby could be director at the Dudley Observatory and teach. They tied up loose ends in Cincinnati and left for Albany in the Spring of 1860.
Louisa’s health fell drastically, but Louisa, having relied on Ormsby to keep her spirits up, ordered him to serve the Union in the Civil War. She knew she wouldn’t survive but sent him away. “That period called out many instances of woman’s fortitude,” writes Frederick, “but none more marked than that of this wife, expecting the summons of death at any moment, sending her husband out to encounter the dangers of war.” She probably couldn’t bear to have him stay and see her die.
So he left her on 18 August 1861 to go to Washington for a few days to prepare for the war. A day after his departure, Louisa had a third stroke and died the following day. She was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, beside her first son Thomas and later Ormsby.
Knowing her influence and guidance throughout his life, surely, that same influence was instilled in Ormsby after her death as he fought in the Civil War and helped establish the first self-governed settlement of freedmen Mitchelville. He might have heard her say, trying to temper his vanity with her knack for hosting: “Ask them what they want, what they need. Let them distance themselves from the master’s tools. Let this be theirs, not yours.”
Want to take a Louisa pilgrimage in Cincinnati?
Holy Cross Monastery and Chapel in Mt. Adams: This is where the Observatory first stood. There’s nothing of the original observatory there, but it’s a neat view!
A leisurely stroll: Take a leisurely stroll through Mt. Adams. There a few independent shops and lots of drinkeries.
Blind Lemon: Have a pre-dinner drink at the Blind Lemon, tucked away in an alley, with a delightful NOLA-like courtyard.
The Cincinnati Observatory: Though Louisa never saw it, the relocated observatory is in Mt. Lookout, where it stands now. There, you can look through the telescope that Louisa did in seeing Neptune. It also has the first memorial to Neil Armstrong with personal meaning to his family and friends. Check out their website for upcoming events, and please tell John Ventre and the rest of the team that we sent you! We love them!
- Follow the stars: Tag us in your adventures on instagram, twitter, or facebook with hashtags #queensofqueencity and #LouisaMitchel. We want to see you follow Louisa’s footsteps and be inspired to discover your own planets! Tag us in any other women-centric adventures, too!
There is one suspected portrait of Louisa from the Mitchel family, but we do not have permission to use it.
For the entire 1848 daguerreotype, visit the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s virtual display.
One of the songs Ormsby sang for Louisa with his guitar when courting her:
- Adams, John Quincy. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, Ed. Charles Francis Adams, Vol. XI, J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1877, Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved from Google Books.
- Cincinnati Observatory, 2017. Retrieved from the official website.
- Clark, Edgar W. “Hon. Wm. A. Clark.” History and Genealogy of Samuel Clark, Sr., and His Descendants from 1636 – 1891 – 255 Years. Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1891, St. Louis, MO, p. 24. Retrieved from Internet Archive.
- Clark, Rufus W. “Maj. Gen. O. M. Mitchel.” Heroes of Albany: A Memorial of the Patriot-martyrs of the City and County of Albany, who Sacrificed Their Lives During the Late War in Defense of Our Nation 1861-1865, with a View of what was Done in the County to Sustain the United States Government; and Also Brief Histories of the Albany Regiments.* S. R. Gray, 1866, Albany, NY, pp. 53-64. Retrieved from Google Books.
- Find A Grave
- Litchfield Historical Society
- McCormmach, Russell. “Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel’s Sidereal Messenger, 1846-1848.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 110, No. 1, American Philosophical Society, 1966, pp. 35-47. Retrieved from JSTOR.
- Mitchel, Frederick Augustus. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, Astronomer and General: A Biographical Narrative, Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1887, Boston, MA, and New York, NY. Retrieved from Google Books.
- Mitchel, Ormsby MacKnight. Astronomy of the Bible, Blakeman & Mason, 1863, New York, NY. Retrieved from Google Books.
- Smith, Elliott. “Historical Background of the Cincinnati Observatory.” Popular Astronomy, Vol. 49, 1941, pp. 347-354. Retrieved from Harvard.
*Seriously…that’s the entire title.
Some dates are inconsistent among biographies and even within an individual biography, so I took the dates that made the most sense within the historical contexts and physical evidence.
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