Hugh D. Vail was born to Nathan Vail and Anna Webster on April 12, 1818, in Plainfield, New Jersey. He was raised Quaker, a lineage that went back several generations to some of the founders of his hometown. Plainfield was, at the time, a small farming community inhabited by fewer than 200 people (A History of Haverford College 188-189). Many of the Plainfield residents, including the Vail family, belonged to the Society of Friends and the Plainfield Monthly Meeting.
Vail was the youngest of nine children, all of whom helped perform various jobs around the family farm. Because of the small size of the Plainfield community, Vail attended several schools run by different local Plainfield families until the age of 15 (189).
At 15, Vail was sent to the well-known Westtown Boarding School in Pennsylvania. This school, still operating today, was and remains a Friends institution. Vail studied mathematics at Westtown from 1833 to 1834. After this time he continued to pursue his education independently by exploring the expansive collection of books and lectures available at the Mercantile Library in New York, including those by prominent chemist and geologist of the time, Benjamin Silliman, a professor at Yale (190). Vail writes in his notebook that Silliman "delivered a long course on Geology, then almost a new science, and by many considered heteredox." It was this general interest in learning that helped Vail later grow into his role as a professor at both Westtown and Haverford.
Due to the Panic of 1837, a serious economic recession that deeply hurt much of the country, including the dry goods store in New York City where he was working, Vail was forced to return home and work on his father’s farm once again. In his own words from page 1 of his notebook, the "business convulsion in New York" uprooted his life, though he nonetheless maintained that the education he received in New York was useful. He stayed in Plainfield for a year and in 1838 was offered a position at his own alma mater, the Westtown School (190). He was appointed as a professor of mathematics following the resignation of former professor, Enoch Lewis.
After working at Westtown for nine years, Vail was then offered a position at Haverford College where he taught for seven years before resigning to become Director of the Observatory (193).
Haverford College Alumni Association. A History of Haverford College for the First Sixty Years of its Existence. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1892.
Hugh D. Vail's notebook of autobiographical information, pages 1-2.
Genealogical record of the Vail family.