A Brief History of Natives at Dartmouth

Indian history at Dartmouth is anything but concrete and indisputable: it is riddled with questions, contradictions, falsehoods, and surprises.

Indian history at Dartmouth is anything but concrete and indisputable: it is riddled with questions, contradictions, falsehoods, and surprises.

Editor’s Note: This piece is intended as an historical exploration of the facts pertaining to the early history of Native American students at Dartmouth. Many conflicting views are explored, and none should be taken as the explicit views of the authors or of The Dartmouth Review collectively. This publication is proud of the College’s native heritage and wishes only to increase awareness and discussion of this vital history.

Worse than the many uninformed opinions on Native American issues here at Dartmouth College is the ignorance of the fact that these issues exist. In past controversies regarding such heated topics as the “Indian mascot,” campus has been crucially divided between two groups: those who have strong opinions based off of minimal knowledge of Dartmouth’s Native history and those who have no knowledge or interest in it at all. In order for discussion to commence on this topic so dear to Dartmouth’s core, we as a community must acknowledge two truths. First, Dartmouth has a history founded in and fundamentally inseparable from the history of the Native American. Second, this history is anything but concrete and indisputable: it is riddled with questions, contradictions, falsehoods, and surprises. It is the goal of this article to lay out the history of Native Americans at Dartmouth in an objective manner, as well as expose the community to the vital debates contained within it.

Essential to the understanding of the founding of Dartmouth is knowledge of Rev. Eleazar Wheelock’s previous academic endeavors. Wheelock, a Congregationalist minister, first founded a private “Latin” school, aimed at educating both colonists and natives in the classics, including a young Samson Occom, a Mohegan who became trained as an excellent minister. In time, Wheelock realized his passion, founding Moor’s Charity School in Lebanon, Connecticut. The sole purpose of this small school was to prepare students to become Protestant missionaries, including Natives among their own tribes and colonists where Native numbers were lacking. This school was open to male and female students of many ages and was free to attend, operating upon donations (both monetary and farm product-based). Despite English being the only language necessary to preach, Wheelock insisted upon teaching his pupils Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well. The Reverend also taught his charges farming and agricultural skills, despite complaints from some students’ parents, who were themselves farmers. Underlying the obvious paternal motivations behind these curricular choices, we can see the nucleus of what would become a liberal arts curriculum.

Though the school graduated a significant number of Native youth to proselytize to their home tribes, Wheelock was disappointed to note that, “I don’t hear of more than half who have preserved their characters unstained either by a course of intemperance or uncleaniness, or both; and some who on account of their parts, and learning, bid the fairest for usefulness, are sunk down into as low, savage, and brutish a manner of living as they were in before.” Wheelock had had to “beg” for donations to the Charity School, which never seemed to make ends meet, given the amount of care he had put into it and the students (“procuring Cloathing, Governing the Boys out of School … forming their Manners … taking care of their Diet, and other things to preserve their Health … Catechising them … taking Care of them when they are sick,” in his words).

Upon one suggestion of Rev. Charles Jeffrey Smith, a trusted advisor, Wheelock sent Samson Occom and Reverend Nathaniel Whitaker (a Connecticut minister who ended up on the journey by default) as emissaries to Britain to “beg” for money in 1765.  The two went throughout England and Scotland, displaying Occom’s erudition as an example of how Wheelock’s efforts had edified Indians throughout New England, collecting about eleven thousand pounds from both common people and such figures as King George III and William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth.  This so-called “bushel of money” allowed the school to operate in the black, but Wheelock soon had bigger dreams.

Yale College as well as numerous smaller educational institutions contributed to a sense of shrinking room to maneuver in Connecticut.  Though Wheelock treated his charges with compassion and empathy, those friends he tasked with recruiting students for the Charity School were less than tactful. These ambassadors (especially his son, Ralph) were often rude and coercive, giving the good reverend an unduly harsh reputation among Native American tribes, and alienating the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Due to a lack of retention among his pupils, a need for more advanced education, and a perceived lack of spiritual preparedness of his native missionaries, Wheelock become dissatisfied with the status quo. He was determined to both move the Charity School to a better location and to found a third institution, one that would fulfill his dream of “civilizing” the natives through Christianity and agriculture. To accomplish this feat, the reverend needed land, and a lot of it. After weighing various options, such as Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, Massachusetts’s Berkshire County, and New York’s Albany, Wheelock chose Hanover, New Hampshire. (The Wyoming Valley people responded too late to Wheelock’s overtures; Berkshire had too small a donor base and too little land; Albany scared him off because of the inhabitants, in his words, “Corousing frolicking Cursing and Damming their own Souls and Sutch Great wickedness I Never Saw In my Life Before”). The area called “Hanover Plain” fulfilled Wheelock’s criteria — there was plenty of space with good soil and the location was a wilderness far from “the Temptations to the Vices.”  Theodore Atkinson, secretary of the Province of New Hampshire, had written that the region was the “main passage made use of by [Coos] Indians from Canada to this country.”  Best of all, fourteen inhabitants of Hanover pledged subscription payments in January 1769.

It is also important to note that Wheelock’s desire to place the school amongst the Native people he sought to educate was a reversal of his previous thought. When he established Moor’s Charity School, he decided that, according to James McCallum in his collection of the letters of Wheelock’s students, “…if  established among the Indians, [it] was likely to fail because of the attendant temptations. Dishonest and rum-selling traders, the lure of the hunt or of warfare or of roaming, and the scoffing of unconverted savages always tended,” he argued, “to frustrate discipline.” This calls into question Wheelock’s motives in moving the school. While there is no doubt that the Reverend had a sincere desire to convert the Natives (he was a minister greatly influenced by the First Great Awakening, after all), his decisions reflected a disillusionment with his dream of Native missionaries. It was his original intention that Christianized Natives would be the principle harbingers of the gospel, with his English students providing critical oversight of their work. Despite the move to the wilderness to be closer to the Native tribes, he continued to place emphasis on the education of these English students while noting the declining will of the Natives to attend his school. It is even possible that the move represented not a desire to be closer to the Native populace of the colonies, but to distance him from the established colleges in the colonies in order to compete more effectively for the enrollment of non-Natives.

The move to New Hampshire was all well and good, or it would have been had Wheelock been more open to his backers about his plans to found a college.  He sent letters to his English supporters only after the charter for what became Dartmouth College (not an “Academy” as was originally drafted, and named after Lord Dartmouth, head of the English trustees, to try getting on his good side) had been approved in December of 1769.  The overseas trustees had donated to educate Indians, not establish a college, writing that the move was “certainly a very wrong Step for you to take without Consulting us — it is the sentiment of us all that by lodging the Power in other hands, it has Superceded the Trust here.”  This dissension came too late, as by July 6, 1770, New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth transferred five hundred acres to the new College, which had been teaching classes to sixteen students since April 12 of that year.  The founding had been relatively uneventful; apart from a mix-up in which Wheelock could not get a quorum of trustees to show up initially (someone had forgotten to send out an advertisement for the event), the group made several pertinent yet mundane decisions: for example, approving the appointment of tutors for the College.  Wheelock’s students built huts for themselves, while hired teams began constructing what is now Dartmouth Hall (although it was not complete until 1791, twelve years after Wheelock’s death, and the original burned down in 1904).

While this early history of the College and the events preceding its founding are largely unknown to many students, the Charter of Dartmouth College has become such a part of Dartmouth legend that its content is relegated to the status of kitsch. If a student took the time to stop during his busy day, pause for a moment beside the small room in Baker Library, decipher the elegant script of the old parchment hanging there, and locate the actual content of the charter amidst its lines of 18th century legalese, the student would find the Charter a charming and dated yet interesting read. The following passage serves as the definitive statement establishing the College:

“KNOW YE, THEREFORE that We, considering the premises and being willing to encourage the laudable and charitable design of spreading Christian knowledge among the savages of our American wilderness, and also that the best means of education be established in our province of New Hampshire, for the benefit of said province, do, of our special grace, certain knowledge and mere motion, by and with the advice of our counsel for said province, by these presents, will, ordain, grant and constitute that there be a college erected in our said province of New Hampshire by the name of Dartmouth College, for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land in reading, writing, and all parts of learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and christianizing children of pagans, as well as in all liberal arts and sciences, and also of English youth and any others.” Dartmouth College Charter.

At this point it is necessary to remark that Wheelock’s primary aim was “Christianising,” or in a broader sense, “civilising,” those he saw as savage pagans. Though Wheelock wished to educate them in the liberal arts as well, the Charter specifies that the Natives to be educated are those who have not already accepted Christianity and Western ways. It also includes English (colonist) youth in its targeted student pool, with stated aim of using them to aid their Native fellows in missionary work, and the possible tacit goal of expanding Dartmouth to be a college in the more traditional sense. In a remarkable show of acceptance for that period, the Charter adds to this latter group “any others,” a phrase that may have led to Dartmouth’s status as the first of the Ivy Leagues to graduate a black student. The question that derives from this passage and that has caused debate into modern times is whether the Native youth, born into a Christian and educated family, fell into the former group of “Native youth” or the latter group of “any others.”

Curious is the passage of the Charter in which religious freedom among the student body is provided for. As the Charter gives the College the right and duty to outline a set of internal laws, it specifies that these rules will be set out, “not excluding any person of any religious denomination whatsoever, from free and equal liberty and advantage of education, or from any of the liberties and privileges or immunities of the said college, on account of his or their speculative sentiments in religion, and of his or their being of a religious profession different from the said trustees of the said Dartmouth College.” Perhaps no single passage in the charter is seemingly more contradictory to the stated goals of the new college. With an understanding that Wheelock’s America was ripe with hatred for Catholics, including their French, Spanish, and recently deposed Stuart enemies, did Wheelock truly intend to found a school in which Catholics were given the same treatment as Protestants? For that matter, did Wheelock even entertain the idea of admitting the few Jews resident in the colonies or Muslims who surely seemed a world away?

There are many ways to interpret this passage. A narrow reading would write off “any religious denomination whatsoever” as either referring to denominations within Christianity or allowing for “pagan” Natives to be admitted before their eventual conversion. This view is naive, as the Charter has already spelled out in definite and clear terms that the school was to admit Native students for the purpose of converting them, and Wheelock, however single-minded, was not so ignorant that he would use this language and think it only applied to Protestant or even Christian sects.

If this is not the case, the passage can have a number of important meanings. It would suggest that a non-Christian student could attend and graduate from Dartmouth College without converting in any way to Wheelock’s faith. The implications of this concept are radical. In one fell swoop, it manages to obliterate any notion of Dartmouth as a purely religious institution, completely wiping away the lengthy diatribes the Charter uses to spell out Dartmouth’s role as a training ground for missionaries. While a Dartmouth that trained missionaries and simultaneously educated students in secular liberal arts could exist, this is not what Wheelock’s personal history and writings or the Charter would lead one to believe. Of greater importance, we know that this is certainly not what the trustees who funded the college believed when they donated money. As previously posited, could it have been Wheelock’s aim to found a college not “simply” to educate and “Christeanise” Natives, but to rival the contemporary institutions of higher learning?

Wheelock repeatedly justified the move to the New Hampshire Grants as being closer to Native tribes, though we know this was not always his design. Considering that this motivation may be false, the following Charter excerpt seems to support the idea that Dartmouth was intended not just as a school for Natives but as a rival to the other Colonial Colleges:

…and especially by the consideration that such a situation would be as convenient as any for carrying on the great design among the Indians; and also, considering, that without the least impediment to the said design, the same school may be enlarged and improved to promote learning among the English, and be a means to supply a great number of churches and congregations which are likely soon to be formed in that new country….Dartmouth College Charter.

This passage reinforces the suspicion that Wheelock’s motives for moving the school were to create breathing room for his fledgling “Great Design” and to create an institution on par with his previous neighbor, Yale. If this is true, then the place of Natives as students becomes all the more important.

As previously stated, the passage of the Charter regarding religious freedom seems to suggest that “heathen” Native American students could attend Dartmouth without converting. While any person who has read Wheelock’s rants and the Charter is skeptical of this notion, it raises the more important question of the role of Native Americans at Dartmouth. If Natives could attend and not convert, then, contrary to the previous theory proposed here, it was the Native American and not the “heathen” or “pagan” status of a student that made a young man suited to attend Dartmouth. Taken down this shaky yet intact train of logic, the Charter seems to say that Dartmouth is meant to educate three types of students. Primarily, the College would be to educate non-Christian Native Americans as missionaries, a task that met with limited success due to a general animosity among the predominantly Catholic and French-sympathizing Natives of the region (though there were many exceptions). Its secondary role would be as a liberal arts institution for “English youth and any other.” In this latter role, the “any others” would specifically include and emphasize Native American students, regardless of their status as pagan or Christian and civilized or savage. It is this secondary role, which Dartmouth continues to play, and it is this interpretation of the role of Native Americans at Dartmouth which the College has adopted as official policy.

Unfortunately for the logically-minded, the Charter does not end there. Supporting the differentiating of “pagan” Natives from Christianized Native students in regards to their role at Dartmouth, the following passage comes near the end of the Charter and is designed solely to confuse the reader, “And this to continue so long as they shall perpetuate their board of trust, and there shall be any of the Indian natives remaining to be proper objects of that charity,” (emphasis added). The majority of this sentence seems to be straightforward, stating that the College will continue to educate Native American youth as long as they continue to exist (which, despite the worst intentions of  many historical figures, they thankfully have). It is the second part that causes us to call into question what once seemed so clear. What does it mean for Native American students to be a “proper objects of that charity?” Wheelock intended that his Native graduates would go back to their respective tribes and convert their fellows. He also intended that they would follow his example and teach other Natives, civilizing them and gradually turning all Native American tribes into Christian, Westernized farming communities, much like a huge paternalistic pyramid scheme. In that case, it could be easily argued that this passage means that those Natives who had already been Christianized and taught by missionaries were not the target pupils for Wheelock’s new college. While this certainly would not preclude Native students from attending the College, this interpretation would suggest that once a youth fit Wheelock’s image of a civilized man, he was no longer in a category of his own when it came to his matriculation at Dartmouth.

Having presented what we hope are two compelling yet vastly different historical perspectives on the role of native Americans in the early history of our Dear Old Dartmouth, we hope we have not turned anyone away from this interesting and rewarding field of history. The Charter is a complex thing, and we urge anyone looking to procrastinate to go online and read this fascinating and seemingly hypocritical document. This article is intended not as a definitive answer to any debates. We hope it is rather a starting point for future inquiry. Aside from myriad primary sources available at the Rauner Special Collections Library, there is a plethora of sources on Native American history at Dartmouth, including two excellent tomes which were consulted for this article, Eleazer Wheelock and the Adventurous Founding of Dartmouth College, by Dick Hoefnagel, and The Indian History of an American Institution, by current Dartmouth professor Colin G. Calloway. The Review would like to thank Rauner Special Collections Library as well as authors of these two books for opening the door to academic study of our beloved Dartmouth College.

Charles C.W. Jang also contributed to this article.