I learned something new as I was poring over some 19th-century college records last week: that in 1847, and again in 1869, Amherst College briefly but seriously considered the idea of changing its name to Williston, in honor of its generous trustee and benefactor, Samuel Williston.

The Trustee minutes of July 7, 1847 record that the idea was to be formally proposed and voted on at that meeting.  However, as it came up at the end of a long, arduous agenda (actually extending over two days), such a momentous decision was deferred to the next meeting. But inexplicably, the idea wasn’t reconsidered until more than a year later.  Jump ahead to the Trustee minutes of August 8, 1848:

Voted: That in the opinion of this Board it is expedient to change the name of Amherst College & to affix to it the name of its liberal Benefactor; Samuel Williston.

Voted: That President Hitchcock, Dr. Packard & Mr. Vaill be a committee to apply to the Legislature for leave to make the alteration.

Voted: That the foregoing votes be submitted to Mr. Williston previous to their taking effect.

Samuel Williston (1795-1874), Easthampton (Mass.) button manufacturer, philanthropist, Amherst College trustee, and founder of Williston Academy.

Amherst’s debt to Samuel Williston is clearly not to be underestimated; in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that its very survival rested on his support.  When it faced serious financial difficulties in 1840, Williston pledged $1,000.  Over the next thirty years, his financial gifts to Amherst amounted to more than $220,000. (In all, his donations to various charities amounted to more than $1.5 million.)

1847 was a particularly precarious time for the College. It was deep in debt and faced the likely prospect of financial ruin. But Williston, seemingly finding faith in the financial realism and ingenuity of the new president Edward Hitchcock, came forward repeatedly with large gifts to establish several endowed professorships.

Of this critical juncture in Amherst’s history, Stanley King, in The History of the Endowment of Amherst College (1950), wrote:

Never again was the College in such desperate straits; financial problems it was to continue to have; other presidents would operate for years with mounting deficits; other treasurers would borrow money; vigorous pruning of expenses would often be necessary; but never again would there be grave doubt as to whether the College could go on. In 1847 the future of Amherst College was assured. Hitchcock saved the College from certain extinction. A new era opened. [41]

We can now see the Trustees’ reasons for wishing to offer Mr. Williston the greatest honor it could bestow: the very name of the college.  Their July 1847 meeting, when all were giddy with relief realizing such a dramatic turn-around in their finances, was described by W.S. Tyler as “the most delightful Trustee meeting I had ever attended” (History of Amherst College During Its First Half Century, 321).

And yet – to change the name? Not all were in agreement that this was a wise decision. Ebenezer S. Snell, professor of mathematics and natural philosphy and one of the first graduates of Amherst College (1822), felt dismay and was not shy about expressing it to Williston himself, as seen in this letter:

E.S. Snell (AC 1822) to Samuel Williston, August 13, 1847. [transcript] In: Early Trustee Records, box 1.
E.S. Snell (AC 1822) to Samuel Williston, August 13, 1847. [transcript] In: Early Trustee Records, box 1.
It is unknown whether Snell’s letter influenced Williston to decline the honor, but decline it he did. By the time the proposal came around again the following summer, it took no time at all for him to reject it, as seen in this news report from the Hampshire and Franklin Express, dated Aug 17, 1848:

Amherst College. We understand that the Trustees of Amherst College at their late meeting voted to apply to the Legislature for leave to change the official name of the Institution to Williston College as an expression of gratitude to its most liberal benefactor; one who has given it $50,000, who has expended more than $100,000 on Literary Institutions in New England; and who in proportion to his means, still remains the prince of benefactors to American schools and colleges. It is well known that the names of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Williams College were given for sums scarcely a tenth part as large. We learn, however, that Mr. Williston has put the matter at rest for the present, at least, by requesting that the application may not be made, chiefly, it is said, lest the public should be led to misconstrue the motive of his benefactions.

Jump ahead twenty years, and add a new character in the form of Alpheus Hardy, who became an Amherst trustee in 1855 (so some time after Amherst’s initial offer to change its name to Williston). Hardy, a wealthy Boston businessman, wrote the following letter to President W.A. Stearns on May 11, 1869, urging the very same idea, which he intended to bring before the board at its next meeting:

We’ll never know whether Alpheus Hardy actually got to the point of presenting his (unbeknownst to him) not so original proposal to the Board: a great fire in Walker Hall in March 1882 destroyed almost all of the minutes for meetings held between 1868 and 1881. But it’s a fair bet that President Stearns nipped it in the bud. In any case, we do know how the story ended – Amherst retained its name. Aside from an endowed professorship and a prize, all that bears the name of Amherst’s greatest benefactor is a dormitory on the freshman quad, Williston Hall, built in 1858.

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