Traditions Not Taught at Orientation

Editor’s Note: The following are obscure aspects of Dartmouth history and tradition that have an observable impact on the College in the present day. It is in no way a comprehensive list. Rather, the select few following episodes are designed to entice students to learn more about their institution’s extensive history.

The Lone Pine

The Lone Pine is an enduring symbol of the College. The first report concerning the old tree was an improbable legend. In 1833, undergraduate Jacob Gale recounted a story about three Native Americans singing a farewell song around an ancient pine. However, later investigations showed that three Indians never graduated at the same time in the early history of the College. Jas. F. Joy, (18)’33, later reminisced that there were stories circulating in his day about a graduating class singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ around the tree before leaving the College. These occurrences likely evolved into the legend.

Ten years later, the Pine was widely known and respected. An alumnus of the class of 1840 said “Some of us would occasionally, when out for recreation, sing a hymn which tradition told us the three Indians composed and sang.” A member of the class of 1845 wrote “We, like other classes, had many meetings around the ‘Old Pine’ for gossiping, story-telling and music and some other exercises. One of these ‘other exercises’ was a tarring and feathering of a man charged with crime.” After General Winfield Scott’s nomination, the class of 1852 celebrated with a cannon salute. They were stopped by Professor Hubbard, who complained that his house had been struck by a stone the students fired. A few years later, the tradition developed that graduating classes would celebrate under the tree. From 1854 to 1895, with few exceptions, students would celebrate by singing, giving speeches, smoking a peace pipe, and laying mementos around the Old Pine. Even in the early eighteenth century, though, the tree was old. Records indicate it likely dated back to 1783 in origin. In 1887, the Old Pine was struck by lightning, and in 1892, its main branch was broken in the wind. Finally, in 1895, the tree was cut down. Its stump remains there to this day. In 1967, the tradition was revived in a different form. The Class of 1927 planted the Dartmouth Pine near the entrance to the BEMA. They transferred stewardship to the Class of 1967, who later passed care of the tree to the Class of 2007.

A student holds a cane at Dartmouth's Commencement.

A student holds a cane at Dartmouth’s Commencement.

Dartmouth Canes

Canes have a long history at Dartmouth. In the eighteenth century, canes were a status symbol among students. Only sophomores and upperclassmen were allowed to carry them. But freshmen would frequently try to assert themselves by flaunting their canes. In response, older students would wrestle them and seize their canes in a tradition that came to be known as cane-rush. Cane-rush reached its greatest proportions in 1883. That year, freshmen took off their shirts and covered themselves in olive oil for a pitched battle with the sophomores. The freshmen stationed themselves on the Green in a protective formation around their prize: a hickory cane. The sophomores rushed from their base in Reed Hall, which began a two-hour battle. A student at the time wrote that freshmen who had been knocked unconscious were dragged from the fray by juniors and revived with buckets of cold water. Undeterred, many ran back in. The class of 1887 eventually lost when the sophomores dragged the prized cane back to Reed Hall. Over time, the brutal tradition fell out of favor and cane-rush died out.

As one cane-related tradition died out, however, another began. When the class of 1887 graduated, they bought or made canes to commemorate the occasion and encouraged their friends to carve their names into them. In 1899, Charles Dudley crafted the first Indian head cane, which became the predominant senior cane until 1974, when the Indian head symbol was banned.

Secret society canes are the last vestige of Dartmouth’s long history of cane-related traditions. Every year, approximately twenty percent of graduating seniors carry canes to represent the secret societies with which they are affiliated.

The Ledyard Bridge

John Ledyard came to Dartmouth in 1772. Ledyard loved theater and was a good student, but he was restless; he found the pace of college life too slow. Seeking adventure, Ledyard cut down a tall tree on the banks of the Connecticut River and made it into a log canoe. With his newly made vessel, Ledyard set out to explore the world with only four items: a huge bearskin, a poem by Ovid, the New Testament in Greek, and some bread. One hundred and fifty miles downstream in Hartford, Ledyard called on a relative, who was surprised to find his nephew not quietly studying to become a missionary. He studied theology in Hartford for a time, before his boredom overcame him again. He became a common sailor on many different voyages; he travelled to Gibraltar and London. After a few years, Ledyard entered the British naval service and sailed under Captain James Cook. However, he always remained loyal to his native land and refused to fight against the U.S., and after many years, Ledyard returned home.

John Ledyard was never any good at staying in one place, and just a few months later he was plotting his next adventure: a trading journey to the northern Pacific. The venture failed to attract sufficient funding. But he succeeded in attracting the attention of Robert Morris, a prominent Philadelphia merchant, who gave Ledyard money and letters of introduction. Eventually, the explorer ended up in Paris, where he met Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France. For his next feat, John Ledyard decided to journey around the world on foot. He arrived in St. Petersburg just seven weeks later. His journey was cut short while traveling across Siberia, on suspicion that Ledyard was an American spy. When he returned to London, Ledyard found employment on a journey to explore Africa, but died of an illness in Cairo soon after, in 1788.

The Ledyard Bridge was first built in 1859, near where the explorer cut down the tree to start his first adventure. One Dartmouth tradition related to the bridge is the so-called Ledyard Challenge, where students attempt to swim across the Connecticut River naked and streak across the bridge as they return to their clothing. In some ways, the tradition is an appropriate one for John Ledyard, who consistently flouted convention through bold adventures. 

The Senior Fence

In the early nineteenth century, the Green was primarily used as a football field for students. In those days it was enclosed by a set of flimsy railings, which the townspeople would remove to let their cattle graze on the field. The students resented the practice, however, because the cattle made their field a far worse playing area. The College informed the townspeople the practice must stop. The next time cattle were caught grazing in the field, infuriated students drove them into the basement of Dartmouth Hall and sealed the entrance with stones and dirt. The townspeople formed a mob and advanced on the College to demand their cattle returned. The ensuing standoff was perhaps most damaging to the cows, who were trapped in confined quarters on a hot September day; one report describes them as “wet with perspiration and crowding as if they had been in a mill-pond.” Eventually, the students let the cattle go.

In order to deter future grazing episodes, the campus set up a sturdier fence, which bordered the Green until it was torn down in 1893. In response, the class of 1897 sponsored a Senior Fence, which runs to this day along parts of the southern and western borders. Only Seniors were allowed to sit on the fence; when younger students tested this policy, they were soaked with water from a nearby trough. These privileges began to erode during World War II, and by 1960, they had disappeared entirely. Today, all students are free to sit on the fence, without fear of water-based reprisal.