Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Wherefore Dartmouth College?

On this day, 247 years ago Dartmouth College was officially chartered. But how did a charity school housed in a poor minister's house grow into something so grand as a college?

The story begins in the winter of 1766 when Eleazar Wheelock sent Samson Occom and Nathaniel Whitaker to Great Britain to raise funds for Moor’s Indian Charity School. In their absence, Wheelock was in Connecticut attempting to get a charter for the school to improve its legal standing.

At first, Wheelock was stymied because the colony of Connecticut was itself incorporated. Under English law at the time, one corporation could not charter another. Because of this, Wheelock began to look further afield. He considered sites in New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The officials from all of these colonies were more than interested in hosting Wheelock’s school and they plied him with offers of money, land and prestigious positions.

William Smith, Jr. to Eleazar Wheelock, May 26, 1767
In 1767, William Smith, a prominent New York lawyer and a member of the Governor’s Council, wrote to Wheelock in an attempt to persuade him to locate his school in Albany. In his letter, he mentions that the people there will give £2,300 and would be pleased to see the school made into a university or college, with Wheelock at its head. This appears to be the first mention of the possibility of the school becoming a college. Wheelock turned this offer down because his relationship with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had soured, and he could not anticipate many Indian students coming to the school from the Albany area. But, one has to wonder if this did not alter his aspirations.

Wheelock to Woodbridge, November 12, 1768
The next prominent offer came from Massachusetts in 1768. In his letter to Wheelock, Timothy Woodbridge suggested that the Governor of Massachusetts would be interested in making the school a college. In his response Wheelock noted his reasons against locating the school in Massachusetts, chief among them is that there was already a good college in the colony. This appears to be first time there is an indication from Wheelock that he had ambitions to make his school into something greater.

Wheelock, always a bit of a wheeler-dealer, had been corresponding with the newly appointed Governor of New Hampshire, John Wentworth, throughout his negotiations with the other colonies. Wentworth was as anxious as any to locate an institution of higher learning within his colony. When Wheelock first proposed using the term “college” in a draft of the charter in 1769, Wentworth did not balk. He readily added the wording to the Royal Charter he granted for the founding of Dartmouth College in December of 1769.

Charter Draft, December 13, 1769
However, this change in the school’s status flew in the face of Wheelock’s stated intentions. Occom was less than impressed when he returned to the colonies to find that his efforts to raise money to save the souls of his native brethren had been hijacked. In response he wrote Wheelock a scathing letter in which he pointed out that Wheelock’s school had become too grand for the poor Indian.

While the two men patched up their differences in the long run, Occom never set foot on the Dartmouth campus. Eventually Occom came to the conclusion that Native Americans and European Americans could not coexist and he devised a plan to move his family, and many Christian Indian families, to Oneida country. In 1789, just three years before his death, Occom and his wife finally moved to the newly formed Brothertown community in upstate New York.


  1. If the Colony of Connecticut lacked the legal authority to charter a corporation, how did it charter Yale College in 1723?

  2. Correction, either 1701 or 1745. See http://www.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/University-Charter.pdf

    I believe Wheelock's problem with state chartering was not with the power of the colony to charter but rather with the limitations on the authority of a colony's charter. Wheelock knew Yale had been challenged on its authority to own land outside Connecticut. A royal charter would avoid that uncertainty.

  3. "high jacked"? You must mean "hijacked," no?

    1. Yeah, that would be what we meant. It'll be fixed in a jiffy. Thanks!

  4. @biggreen2000 I thought I replied to your astute observation regarding Wheelock's seeking the Charter outside of Connecticut, but it does not seem to have posted. You are absolutely correct. When I went back to my source I noticed that I had conflated a comment about his reason for not seeking a charter in Massachusetts with his reason for not seeking a charter in Connecticut. We will amend the post. Thank you for pointing this out.