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Newspaper editorial, 1997


Harvard's Native American program

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A plaque commemorating the Indian College is mounted on Matthews Hall in Harvard Yard.

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Ceremony Honors Early Indian Students
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On This Day... 1997, over 300 people gathered in Harvard Yard to commemorate a long forgotten part of the college's history. A plaque was unveiled that read, "Near this spot, from 1655 to 1698, stood the Indian College. Here American Indian and English students lived and studied in accordance with the 1650 Charter of Harvard College calling for 'The Education of the English and Indian Youth of this Country.'" During the four decades of the Indian College's existence, the building housed one of the first printing presses in the colonies. The press issued 15 books in the Algonquin language and 85 in English. The Indian Bible printed there in 1663 was the first Bible in any language to be printed in British North America.

Harvard College has a long and rich history, dating back to 1636. But one of the oldest stories associated with the college had been long forgotten until the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s brought it to light again.

In a 1997 ceremony in Harvard Yard, sponsored by the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), a plaque was unveiled marking the spot of the ancient Indian College, one of the earliest buildings on the Cambridge campus. The plaque, and HUNAP, speak to one of Harvard's original goals: to educate Indian youth.

One of the reasons the Puritans gave for coming to the New World was to bring Christianity to the "heathens" here. Anxious not to have to rely on ministers educated in England, they established Harvard College within a few years of settling in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In the mid-1640s, word reached England that some natives were indeed becoming Christians; money flowed into the coffers of the "Society for Propagation of the Gospel in New England." Established in 1649, the "New England Company," as it was called, generously supported the work of missionaries.

Just one year later, when Harvard College received its official charter, the document called for "the Education of the English and Indian Youth of the Country." Henry Dunster, Harvard's first president, eyed the money collected by the New England Company and proposed that some of it be directed "to the enlargement of the College at Cambridge whereof there is great need," although he admitted that it was not directly related to what he called "the Indian Designe."

The New England Company agreed to fund the construction in Harvard Yard of an Indian College large enough to accommodate six Indian students. President Dunster requested a larger building, and by the time the structure was completed in 1656, it could house 20 scholars.

In 1675 a visitor observed that the Indian College had still not "been much improved for the ends intended, by reason of the death and failing of Indian scholars. It hath hitherto been principally improved for to accommodate English scholars, and for the placing and using a printing press belonging to the college."

The exact number and names of Indian scholars are difficult to document. The records show that "hopeful young plants" — that is, young Indian boys — were sent to Cambridge, where they entered the Cambridge Grammar School to prepare for Harvard. According to one early historian, few of them survived "tuberculosis, 'hecktick fevers,' and other ills consequent on the change in their diet and mode of living."

Only four native students can be traced during the period of the Indian College. One left the school to go to sea. Another died before graduating. A third, Joel Iacoomis, completed his studies but was lost in a shipwreck while visiting his home in Martha's Vineyard just before receiving his degree.

It appears that just one Indian, Caleb Cheesechaumuk, graduated from Harvard during these years. The governor of Connecticut sent the New England Company a speech Caleb had written in Latin, and informed them that the young man "had ready answers . . . in latin to many questions. . . propounded to him in that language," and could "express severall sentences in Greek also." Cheesechaumuk graduated from the college in 1665 but died of TB the following winter.

A more lasting legacy of the Indian College was the output of its printing press. In 1659 the missionary John Eliot requested a printing press that could be used to publish a Bible and reading primer in the Algonquin language. The New England Company shipped one from England. Housed at the Indian College, the press began by producing an Indian Bible. James Printer, a Nipmuc Indian whom Reverend Eliot had converted to Christianity, did much of the translating and typesetting.

When a more convenient printing office opened in Boston in 1675, the Cambridge press began to lose business. By 1680 the printing room of the Indian College was abandoned; Harvard officially closed the press in 1692.

When the first Harvard Hall was completed in 1677, the English students moved out of the Indian College. Empty except for the press, the building fell into disrepair and according to one historian, "became merely a deserted and unsightly reminder of a noble experiment that failed." In 1693 Harvard decided to tear it down, since it "is gone to decay and become altogether Uselesse." The bricks would come in handy for a new building. The New England Company asked only that any Indians who enrolled in the future "should enjoy their Studies rent free in said building."

When the Indian College disappeared from Harvard Yard, its story faded from history. Then, in 1970, Harvard established a Native American Program to recruit and support Indian students. HUNAP seeks to "build viable programs of research, teaching, and outreach on issues affecting the lives of indigenous people." As Harvard renewed its commitment to Native American education, it also sought to recognize the story of the Indian College.

At the 1997 ceremony, President Neil Rudenstine said, "The native community here at Harvard is a vital one — it has responded to difficult challenges with a constructive spirit of generosity and with a will to create something for the days and years to come."


The Boston Globe, May 18, 1997.

The Founding of Harvard College, by Samuel Eliot Morison (Harvard University Press, 1935).

The Harvard Book: A Series of Historical, Biographical, and Descriptive Sketches, 1875.

Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century, by Samuel Eliot Morison (Harvard University Press, 1936).

Harvard Gazette, May 8, 1997.

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The Indian College and the War dwight 2803 6 05/04/2016 08:16
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Another Harvard indian lost, about to graduate. RCG 1060 0 05/03/2015 07:07
by RCG
ALquonquin language Marcia 2648 2 04/24/2011 23:03
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