Above the Smog and Beyond the Known: Louisa Clark Trask Mitchel

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.

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.”

They called on friends and contacts from years past, who were now living in this burgeoning, promising city. Edward Deering (E.D.) Mansfield was one. It was through the persuasion of his first wife Mary Peck Mansfield that Ormsby got his first opportunity to be law partners at an office on Third, near Main. It wasn’t lucrative because the partners’ passions led them elsewhere. With Thomas, two-year-old Harriet, and a baby on the way (who would be named Virginia), Ormsby knew he had to move on. With no money coming in, that was a problem for the Mitchels. Ormsby quit law and began working as an engineer on the Little Miami Railroad and as a professor of mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy at Cincinnati College.

Ormsby’s foray into astronomy fueled his desire to build the first observatory in the United States. For Ormsby, his interest in astronomy and science was simply getting closer to God in seeing all His creations’ beauty—a sort of Enlightenment. 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.

Soon they would also be the pillars of science. In the winter of 1841-1842, Ormsby began public lecturing on astronomy, sponsored by the Cincinnati Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and it was so popular that it was made into a series of regular lectures. Backed by the support of the Semi-Colon Club, politicians, and business moguls, Ormsby trained and purchased instruments in Europe to build the first Observatory in the U.S. while Louisa remained in Cincinnati, caring for the family.

Ormsby only got the opportunity to train as an astronomer because of Richarda Smith Airy, the wife of Britain’s Royal Astronomer George Biddell Airy. While Ormsby served as George’s assistant, Richarda, as a business administrator, taught him the practical details of maintaining an observatory. Unfortunately, they could never travel to the States to see what they helped create. Mt. Airy was possibly named after them, and I’m working on that thread.

Back in Cincinnati on top of Mt. Ida, the observatory cornerstone was laid by John Quincy Adams, who was advised against making the trek, on 09 November 1843. It was his lifelong passion to see an observatory in the U.S. and 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.

Tasks at the observatory were too divided for Ormsby and Louisa that they could not keep up with requests from international astronomers as an Observatory of two people. Five nights of the week would be for the Astronomical Society and public and one night for work sent to him by the global scientific community. Louisa would mastermind social functions, be a mother, assist Ormsby at the observatory, and temper her husband’s vanity. While Adams thought Ormsby was annoying in his vanity, he thought Louisa was courteous. Unfortunately, that’s all he noted of her because his diary of the trip was heavily logistical, but, fortunately, it was much better than anything he wrote of Ormsby!

When guests came to visit the observatory, the Mitchels would host and entertain them. “They usually preferred to spend a quiet afternoon and evening with Professor Mitchel and his family, rather than to have their visits attended with form or ceremony,” their son noted. World renowned scientists and artists were hosted in such an intimate manner. Though it fell on one day that the most significant and beautiful event was a hosting for Louisa’s niece from her closest sister, where the whole city contributed to a giant celebration at the observatory, a gesture that meant how much the Mitchels, especially Louisa, had meant to the public.

Though we don’t know much about Louisa because history’s focus was more on Ormsby, we do know that Louisa was not simply a woman tied to domesticity. She was an active member of the community and had her own mind and agency. She was known as “a lady of superior intelligence, rare attainments and devoted piety.” In fact, their son credited her with orchestrating Ormsby’s career. 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.

Like Richarda Airy, Louisa took an active role in the daily functions of the observatory, often functioning as Ormsby’s assistant and probably operating it behind the scenes, as Ormsby was busy being the public figure for the observatory. Their son Frederick reveals: “Professor Mitchel was obliged to do his work alone. Whenever two persons were required,—the one to observe and the other to record,—Mrs. Mitchel would be called in either as observer or recorder, and very few of the early important observations made at Mt. Adams were made without her assistance.” Louisa was indeed credited with the advancement of the observatory with her invaluable assistance, given the constant interruptions by the public, one of the drawbacks of a public science lab.

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.”

As children were swarming around the Observatory while their fathers were away in the Mexican-American War, Ormsby had pulled strings to ensure that Thomas would be a lieutenant in the war, following in both fathers’ footsteps. But he was not long for life. Louisa lost her own first child Thomas, 22, from “consumption,” which was likely yellow fever (as many had succumbed to during that war) or Tuberculosis on 26 February 1851. This was a stark reminder for her of the child she lost and the happy children she gained. 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. “Professor Mitchel, from the moment of her affliction, made her comfort his first object,” wrote Frederick. “All scientific work become secondary to her wishes.” She wasn’t demanding that; Ormsby was simply doing it for her, as she had done for him for their entire marriage. He would serve to make her happy and comfortable.

The pollution of Cincinnati grew as industry and expansion did, so regulations would need to be implemented or the observatory would need to move. Ormsby was unsuccessful in the attempts to get the observatory moved. The Mitchels now had no income, and the opportunity offered to Ormsby sounded perfect. 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. That summer was the last time their entire family would be together, except for one son who died young and Thomas.

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?

  • Teak: Craving some Thai? Try Teak in Mt. Adams for lunch!

  • Chelsie channels Louisa Mitchel
    Chelsie channels Louisa with the Merz and Mahler telescope, the same one Louisa used, at our first Cincinnati Observatory visit!

    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.

  • Mt. Lookout pubs: Before you go to the Cincinnati Observatory for some star-gazing, have dinner at Forno Osteria+Bar and after-dinner drinks at Hap’s Irish Pub!

  • 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!

Photo Gallery

We apologize for not having a photo of Louisa. Portraits of her exist (one being at the observatory), but permission hasn’t even been granted to the Cincinnati Observatory for use. I’ll work on 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:

Quick Facts

  • Name: Louisa Clark (Trask Mitchel)
  • Birth: 09 November 1809 in Cornwall, New York
  • Parents: Judge William A. and Sarah Selick Clark
  • Known for: Being the first woman to see Neptune in the U.S. and possibly the world, running the observatory while her husband was the face, hosting observatory visitors
  • Husbands: Lieutenant Thomas Sterne Trask (working on finding a first name), Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel
  • Connections: (All are assumed via Ormsby’s mentions and relations) Harriet Beecher Stowe (friends), Catharine Beecher (friends), Alice Cary (friends), Phoebe Cary (friends), Mary Peck Mansfield (friends), Margaret Worthington Mansfield (friends), Salmon P. Chase (friends)
  • Time in Cincinnati area: Nov 1832 – Spring 1860
  • Places Lived: Cornwall, NY; St. Louis, MO; Ft. Marion, St. Augustine, FL; Cincinnati, OH; Albany, NY
  • Death: 20 August 1861 in Albany, NY
  • Burial: Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York at Lot 13045, Section 149 (To note, the Cary sisters are also buried there)

Bibliography

  • 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.
  • “Louisa Clark Mitchel.” Find A Grave. Retrieved from Find A Grave.
  • “Mary Peck Mansfield.” Litchfield Historical Society, 2010. Retrieved from 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.
  • “Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel.” Find A Grave. Retrieved from Find A Grave.
  • 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.

Notes

S.E.’s Note: 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.

Concerning photos: All photos are taken/owned by Queens of Queen City or given permission for use here only and are indicated when originating elsewhere. Please do not reproduce without our consent or the originators’ consent, respectively.

This page is composed by S.E. Andres.

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