HSB41 home
Inventing Harvard home

History of Colonial Harvard
17th Century Harvard

18th Century Harvard

19th Century Harvard
20th Century Harvard
Final Project: Indian College
Final Project: John and Ann

A Brief History of Colonial Harvard

The institution that was to become Harvard College was established in 1636 by the General Council of Massachusetts, the first college to be founded in North America. It was intended to imitate the nature and purpose of many of the first Puritans’ English alma maters. The Council appropriated £400 – almost half the tax levy for that year – to establish a college that would educate the colony’s future ministers, teachers, professionals, and public servants.

The site of the first college building was an old ox pasture in what was to become Cambridge. This secluded address was chosen because Cambridge was free of anti-academicism of the kind that Anne Hutchinson was stirring up in nearby Boston. When a young, undistinguished pastor from nearby Charlestown bequeathed his library of 329 books and half of his estate to the college in 1638, it was named Harvard in his honor.

Stability was not easily assured, however. Within a year of the bequest, the administration had dismissed the first master on charges of “cruel and barbarous beatings” of students and the college was forced to close. The college languished for almost a year before the Board of Overseers appointed Henry Dunster as president, an event that could justly be considered the second foundation of Harvard College.

By the time Dunster resigned in 1654 Harvard had become an internationally-recognized university with several campus buildings and a growing endowment, administered under a legal Charter. By 1650, the year when the college graduated its first American-born student, the class size had risen from a handful to close to fifty students drawn from across New England.

Five years later, buoyed by the college’s success, John Eliot and President Dunster began an ill-fated experiment to bring Native Americans to Harvard in hopes of converting and ‘civilizing’ them. While their efforts produced a Bible printed in the Algonkian language, the Indian College only ever served a handful of students, most notably John Sassamon whose English education cost him his life and initiated King Philip’s War. In 1665, with only one fully-graduated student to its name, the Indian College was disbanded.

For the next one hundred years, the college focused its efforts on educating the colony’s future leaders. Emphasizing the study of liberal arts over theology, the rigorous colonial curriculum (based upon the medieval trivium and quadrivium) offered a progressive schedule that began with Latin, Greek, Logic, Hebrew and Rhetoric and culminated in advanced study of Physics, Philosophy, and Mathematics with the option of studying Divinity at the Master’s level.

Students, however, had other ideas about the purpose of a Harvard education. By the early-eighteenth century, the region’s newly prosperous port cities were sending growing numbers of their sons to Cambridge in the hope of creating young gentlemen. Thinking of their education in terms of fashion, refinement, and proper manners, Harvard students of the new century seemed to place their academic interests second to their extra-curricular pursuits. When a fire destroyed Harvard Hall, a list of claims for replacement items included pipes, tobacco, liquors, punch bowls, glasses, and tea sets. Only one Bible was reported as lost.

Paul Revere. A Westerly View of The Colledges in Cambridge New England, 1767.

The students’ taste for luxury made them vocal opponents of the series of British tax levies that precipitated the American Revolution. In indignant response to the Tea Act and the Townshend duties on paper, seniors voted to abstain from tea drinking and insisted that their degrees be printed on domestically manufactured paper by the patriot newspaper presses.

In October 1775 the students temporarily relocated to Concord so that the college buildings could be requisitioned to provide lead roofing for patriot bullets and billet for more than 1500 continentals. While many students and alumni fought in the conflict, including General Artemas Ward (class of 1748), it was with the pen rather than the sword that Harvard’s sons made the most difference. Men like James Bowdoin (class of 1745) and John Adams (class of 1755) served among the first generation of governors and legislators in the new republic.

The disruptions caused by war served to temporarily depress enrollments through the 1780s, but by then the college was already firmly established. A faculty of nine, a library of 5,000 items, and a continuous building program made Harvard an intellectual institution of imposing stature. In 1780 the authority of Harvard’s administration was guaranteed in perpetuity by the Massachusetts Constitution, setting the stage for the college’s almost unchecked nineteenth-century expansion, during which Harvard became the nation’s university and a serious rival to the European colleges from whose roots it had sprung.


Bailyn, Bernard. "Foundations." In Glimpses of the Harvard Past, edited by Bernard Bailyn, 1-18. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Founding of Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1935.

———. Three Centuries of Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
Rick Bell

John D. Burton. The growth of the Harvard Yard campus, 1638-1835.



Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College