Friday, June 10, 2011

The First Commencement

A painting of a seated Eleazar Wheelock.In 1771 the first group of Dartmouth seniors completed their long, arduous and sometimes tedious studies and were about to graduate from this new institution. Dartmouth was not only new, it was rustic. Eleazar Wheelock had arrived in what is now Hanover in August of 1770. With the help of some 50 devoted followers, and a handful of slaves – we must not forget the slaves – Wheelock managed to carve something resembling a community out of the wilderness in the course of the following year.

From Wheelock’s description of the College that first year, we know that after much labor they managed to build a small one-story structure for Wheelock and his family and another two-story structure to house the students. All, in Wheelock’s words, “in the plainest and cheapest manner.” After several failed attempts, they managed to establish two working wells, but two attempts to build saw mills failed completely.  Some small additions to these buildings were made the following summer. 

By other accounts we know that the town itself was growing up around the College, since there was, by the time of the first Commencement, an inn or tavern nearby. Rough though the town and College still were, Wheelock put a good face on things. In a letter to a friend he wrote that Hanover was beginning to become a “habitable world.”

Somehow, in the midst of all this building, well digging and sawing, Wheelock managed to hold something resembling classes. In August of 1771, he was ready to graduate four students (no, they were not necessarily geniuses; they had been studying with Wheelock prior to his arrival in New Hampshire). 

A painted portrait of John Wentworth.
John Wentworth

Courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art

Currently on view
at the Hood Musuem of Art
in the American gallery
Wheelock called together the Board of Trustees to grant these first students their degrees. Invitations also went out to John Wentworth, the Royal Governor of the colony then in residence at Portsmouth, the New Hampshire Executive Council and many members of the clergy in New England.

In those days, travel to the Upper Valley was a somewhat arduous affair. Roads were, in Wheelock’s words, “new and bad.” Thus it should have come as no particular surprise that only one of the Trustees managed to show his face. Interestingly, an article in the Boston Evening-Post describing the affair noted that the audience included “a concourse of other persons beyond all expectation.” Of course, this might just have been a nice way of saying more people managed to make the journey than could have been expected under the circumstances.

But the poor showing by the Trustees was just the beginning of the problems that would beset this first of many celebrations. Governor Wentworth, clearly a hardier or more devoted soul than many of the Trustees, may have been the person who coined the good Yankee phrase “Ya can’t get thar from here.” The Governor and his retinue, numbering sixty or more by some accounts, were forced by the lack of roads running east and west in New Hampshire—a problem that persists into our own time—to travel by a wildly circuitous route. They began by going north to Wolfeboro and then through Haverhill, camping by the open road several nights in a row. Frustrated by this trip, Wentworth would later build an almost direct route from Portsmouth to Hanover that came to be known—fittingly—as the Governor’s road. Parts of this ancient highway still exist today, but alas, for those of us traveling east, much of it has returned to its original state—forest.

Once all were assembled, it was found that because they were lacking a quorum of the Trustees, they could not actually award the degrees. Instead, each graduate was issued a simple piece of paper in place of a formal diploma until such time as a proper vote could be taken.

From here, things went from bad to worse. The only thing that seems to have cooperated was the weather. “There was a stand erected… from which each graduate presented the assembly with an oration. The graduates then performed an anthem that they had composed and set to music.” Following the ceremony there was a meal. Unfortunately Mrs. Wheelock was “sick in bed and wholly confined to her chamber” and thus unable to participate in any of the proceedings. This was particularly unfortunate, as Wheelock explained later, because “the chief cook I had depended upon for the College was laid asleep it was said, by making too free with the bottle.” In the same letter Wheelock notes, “We were indeed in very trying circumstances.” All in all, it was pretty rough affair and some of the finer gentry in the crowd “turned up their noses at the plainness of the surroundings.”

A silver bowl with scalloped edges and extensive text engraved on its side.
The Wentworth Bowl
After his return to Portsmouth, Governor Wentworth sent Wheelock a gift. This gift was no small piece and carried a great deal of symbolism. He sent a large silver bowl, weighing, by one account, sixty-six ounces or just over four pounds. But this was not just a bowl, or as some have called it, a “punch-bowl with a movable crown”; it was a monteith. A monteith, for those who don’t have one of these at home—or have never heard of this article—is a bowl for chilling wine glasses. The crown is for holding the stems so that the cup of the glass can rest in the cold water inside the bowl. 

What is significant about this gift is that a monteith is something that only a gentleman of high station would have in his house—a member of the nobility as Wentworth was. Remember that Wheelock lived in a rude log cabin in the midst of a wilderness that had only recently been shaped into something resembling a settlement. The gift of the monteith can be seen as symbolic gesture. Though the College was a crude and rough place where an elegant silver monteith would serve little or no function, Wentworth’s gift showed that he hoped it would grow to be a place where such an item was not out of place – in short, that Dartmouth would become a shining, elegant and revered thing in time.  Wentworth gave this bowl as something for the College to grow into.

So, at each Commencement, as we look back on and celebrate the rough beginnings of the College, we should also remember the monteith as a symbol of what Dartmouth must always strive to be.

Ask for:

A Continuation of the Narrative of the Indian Charity-School, in Lebanon, in Connecticut: From the Year 1768, to the Incorporation of it with Dartmouth-College, and Removal and Settlement of it in Hanover, in the Province of New-Hampshire, 1771: DC Hist E97.6.M5 W55 1771

Eleazar Wheelock, Hanover, NH to Moses Peck, August 5, 1771, regarding conditions in Hanover: DC Hist Mss 771455.3

Aaron Storrs, Portsmouth NH to Eleazar Wheelock, August 10, 1771, regarding roads: DC Hist Mss 771460

Eleazar Wheelock, Hanover, NH to William Patton, September 2, 1771, regarding success of Commencement: DC Hist Mss 771455.3

Vertical Files: Commencement 1771-

The Wentworth Bowl, Realia 109

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