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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

An Astronomer's Boyhood

Dallas Bogan on 19 September 2004
The following was taken from Dallas Bogan's book, "The Pioneer Writings of Josiah Morrow."
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

Sketch of the Life of The Eminent Prof. Ormsby M. Mitchel.

The Son of a Poor Widow in Lebanon, Ohio, He Begins to Win His Way at the Age of 12--The First Cadet at West Point From Warren County.

June 15, 1911

Perhaps a majority even of our most intelligent citizens do not know that Lebanon was the boyhood home of the most eminent of the American astronomers of his day--O.M. Mitchel. Here he received his early school education and here, the son of a poor widow, he began to earn his living by working, first for 25 cents a week and afterward for $4.00 a month. Lebanon men of distinction secured for him an appointment as a cadet at West Point, and he was probably the first youth ever sent to the military academy from Warren county. From various sources I have compiled an account of his early life.
Prof. Mitchel was of Scotch-Irish extraction by both parents. His father at one time possessed a handsome fortune in Virginia, but reverses impoverished him. He is said to have had a genius for mathematics and a decided turn for astronomy. After his reverses he removed in 1804 to the southern bank of the Ohio below Louisville near where Morganfield, Ky., now is. Here on a farm Ormsby McKnight Mitchel was born August 28, 1810.
The spot selected by his father proved unhealthy. He himself died three years after the birth of Ormsby, and the deaths in the family came in quick succession. The widow decided to remove her family to Ohio. The removal was made on horseback, young Ormsby riding behind his elder brother. They crossed the Ohio at the little town of Cincinnati and stopped for a while in Miamiville, Clermont county. They soon after took up their residence in Lebanon where a sister of Ormsby, married to a Presbyterian clergyman, resided.

A Poor Boy.

A biographer of Prof. Mitchel says that Lebanon at this time was a thriving village in the center of a rich farming country. It was the center of trade, of education and talent and a point from which emanated a considerable influence. A number of Ohio's early distinguished were there. Whitelaw Reid in his sketch of Mitchel in "Ohio in the War, pronounces the place a "sleepy old village, singularly prolific in those early days of men that were to be distinguished."
The future astronomer, too young to do much for the support of the family, was allowed to devote himself to books. With imperfect instruction it is said he was reading Virgil before he was nine years old. As he grew older he became a leading member of the Thespian Society and the Debating Society. When he was twelve his mother wanted to apprentice him to a tradesman, but the boy objected strongly and said he would get a place for himself. The first employment he found was clerking in a store in a neighboring town. He worked for 25 cents a week. In the morning before going to the store he cut wood, fetched water, made fires, scrubbed and scoured for the old lady. His clothes were bad and he had no money to buy shoes and so was often barefooted. At last there came a rupture and he left the old lady's house to re-enter it no more. He did not have a cent in his pocket at the time. He soon met a teamster on a Pennsylvania wagon, the freight cart of that time, making twelve miles a day over the muddy roads, and engaged himself as an assistant teamster.

Goes to West Point.

Next he became a clerk in a store at Xenia. The store was removed to Lebanon and he went with it. He accidentally saw a notice of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and was surprised to learn that the government gave the cadets the highest scientific education free of charge, and also furnished rooms, and paid each cadet besides $28 per month. He was getting four dollars a month and no education. He wrote to Judge John McLean, post-master general and Congressman Thomas R. Ross, asking their aid to secure the appointment. He was gratified on receiving an official letter informing him of his appointment and directing him to report at the academy for examination. He lacked a few months of the required age of fifteen but this was passed over. When a friend said: "A good many boys enter West Point who don't get thru." the hopeful lad replied: "I shall go thru sir."
A long journey of hundreds of miles lay before him and he had little money. A small knapsack was packed for him. He walked a part of the way and had some horseback rides from Lebanon to Sandusky, thence by lake steamboat to Buffalo; thence by the Erie canal to the Hudson river. He landed at West Point in June, 1825, with his knapsack on his back and just 25 cents in his pocket. He successfully passed the examination. Fifty boys were examined along with him; of these thirty passed, twenty failed. His government was now to take care of the poor boy from Ohio, clothe and educate him.
For four years he was a faithful cadet. He was the youngest member of his class, but he graduated with an honorable rank. He stood 15th in a class of 46. Among his class-mates were Robert E. Lee, who stood 2nd, and .Joseph E. Johnston, who stood 13th. In the first class above him was Jefferson Davis and he stood twenty-third in his class.

College Professor and Lecturer.

Graduating before he was nineteen little Mitchel, as he was sometimes called, was retained as assistant instructor in mathematics at the academy, and was afterward sent as an artillery officer to Florida. He married at the age of twenty-two and the next year resigned his commission in the army and went to Cincinnati to make his way in the most promising city of the west. Here he had his home for thirty years.
He seems to have had no definite plan of what he was to do for a livelihood, but he had energy and determination. He knew he could teach mathematics and he was at home with the theodolite. He advertised that a graduate of West Point desired to form a class in such branches of mathematics as are particularly important in the mechanics arts. For a short time he was a law partner with Mansfield-E.D.E.D. Mansfield. In 1836 he became professor in the Cincinnati College with a salary of $1500. The next year he spent his vacation in making the first survey for the Little Miami railroad and he became chief engineer of that road.


He taught astronomy in his college and delivered lectures on his science. The first was attended by sixteen persons, the last was repeated to an audience of 2,000. By his eloquence and zeal he induced the hard working practical people of a western city to build a great observatory with the second largest refracting telescope in the world at a time when neither Boston nor New York had a great telescope. The Cincinnati Observatory was the first one in the world built by popular subscription.
He agreed to give his services as astronomer for ten years free of charge expecting his salary as professor to support him. The college was burned down and his salary ceased. Nothing daunted, he determined to deliver popular lectures as a means of support. He began in Boston and was eminently successful, being the most eloquent lecturer on science in America. He lectured on astronomy at Lebanon, his boyhood home. Up to the beginning of the civil war his observatory was the best equipped in this country and Mitchel as an astronomer was known both in America and Europe. His books were reprinted in England.
He died in the second year of the civil war a major general in the union army, but he is famous as an astronomer and an eloquent lecturer. In the army he was called "Old Stars." He was only about five feet, six inches high, erect, slender, wiry and of a dark complexion. He had great will power and nervous energy.
If not a great man, Prof. Mitchel was certainly a great genius. E.D. Mansfield, who knew him intimately said that in all his life he had never known more than a half dozen men of real genius and Ormsby Mitchel was one of them.

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This page created 19 September 2004 and last updated 19 April, 2009
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