The exceedingly well-dressed citizens of Amherst agree on a college
The exceedingly well-dressed citizens of Amherst agree to found a college

Last week Peter Nelson wrote about Samuel Williston, who provided funds to Amherst College in 1840 when the institution was in danger of financial ruin, and who continued to donate to the College over the course of many years. Because of Williston’s timely donations, the College considered whether it should change its name to Williston College.

However, before Amherst had to make that decision, it had already confronted more than one identity crisis.

Amherst Academy
Amherst Academy

Those who have read a little about the College’s history know that it began in 1817 with the modest-sounding idea of securing funding for a professorship at Amherst Academy, the school that stood across from the Jones Library and functioned as a middle school and high school between 1814 and 1868. The idea behind the professorship was that the man holding the position would be able to train young men in the Greek and Latin that they would need to enter the ministry. The professorship was the idea of Colonel Rufus Graves (1758-1845), a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Dartmouth in New Hampshire who had deep ties to both states. In 1817 he was living in Hampshire County – first in Leverett and later in Amherst – where he became involved with Amherst Academy. Graves attempted to raise funds for the professorship but found little enthusiasm and even fewer contributions. When he reported the failure to the trustees of Amherst Academy, they agreed that a larger enterprise – a college – was a better idea. The group reasoned that contributions for an institution would be a more inspirational and therefore more successful fundraising endeavor than was the professorship. It was a big idea for a big country. Colonel Graves again took up the challenge and labored for some two years, begging and beseeching citizens in at least three states for money for the institution. It was not an easy task, but by 1820 he managed to raise about 2/3 of it and the remainder needed was pledged by some of the Academy trustees.

As plans for the college progressed, people talked of joining forces with Williams College and having it move from what was a very hard to reach location to a more centrally located site in Hampshire County. The town of Amherst was considered for the purpose; so, too, Northampton. Williams preferred Northampton. If things had gone in one direction, we could be Noho College, or the College at Hamp. But after several years of great difficulties and much effort, Amherst was founded where it is now — the “College on the Hill,” “our city of Zion that overlooks the Promised Land.”

Amherst College in 1821. Oil painting by Orra White Hitchcock. Mead Art Museum.
Amherst College in 1821. Oil painting by Orra White Hitchcock. Mead Art Museum.

But I digress. The complicated history mentioned above in what is in fact frightening brevity is readily obtained at even greater length in several published works. What I really want to touch on in this post is that before any of these events happened, there was a moment in time when Colonel Graves considered starting a charity fund to benefit a school in Amherst, New Hampshire — that is, an academy in that town, rather than “Amherst Academy” in New Hampshire (there being no such animal). The project was conceived with the same purpose as that which was tried later in Amherst, Massachusetts — again, a professorship to train young men to enter the ministry. Graves deliberated over the proposal but decided that it would be difficult to raise funds in Massachusetts for a professorship in a New Hampshire school. A short time later, he presented the idea to the trustees of our Amherst Academy. And the rest is as we know it to be, “more or less for sure” (it’s always advisable to keep an open mind where details are concerned).

This matter of New Hampshire is nowhere mentioned in our established documentation of the history of Amherst College. It is not in alumnus William S. Tyler’s magisterial work “The History of Amherst College,” nor in Frederick Tuckerman’s “Amherst Academy” or Stanley King’s “A Consecrated Eminence.” I first came across the story in a fourteen-page letter in Tyler’s biographical file from George Washington Graves, the son of Rufus Graves, writing to Tyler in 1871. At the time Tyler was assembling material for his “History,” and he wrote to anyone and everyone who had been involved with the College from its inception, or to their children, to early alumni, etc. His book contains many anecdotes from the responses he received. G.W. Graves’s letter was a long description of the work his father had done to bring about Amherst College. The letter is energetic and impressive – his memories flood onto the pages, with many details of his father’s labors that have made it into the historical record and many that have not. The letter’s contents clarify the extraordinary contribution in time, energy, and resources that Rufus Graves committed to the founding of Amherst College. I took the time to read the entire letter and had Colleen O’Connor ’11, our dedicated archives assistant at the time, type a rough transcription. And I continued to wonder about the New Hampshire story. Where would Amherst College be — would it “be” at all? — if Graves had been successful in this enterprise for New Hampshire?


First page of G.W. Graves letter. Transcription below!
First page of G.W. Graves letter. Transcription below!

Curiously, although in his “History” Tyler gives Rufus Graves his due, he does not quote from the son’s letter, and he certainly doesn’t mention New Hampshire. Since Tyler is generally scrupulous in his reporting, I wondered why he didn’t include the son’s anecdote. It isn’t because he automatically dismissed the memories of people who had been young at the time of the founding. On the contrary, Tyler mentions many other letters, and he singles out the recollections of another Amherst person, Sarah Strong, who was a teacher at Amherst Academy in its earliest days and who was about the same age as George W. Graves. In this case, however, Tyler must have entirely approved of her facts, for he writes, “ To this lady…I am indebted for the many facts in the early history of Amherst Academy, which but for her extraordinary memory must have perished with the fire that consumed the Records in 1838” (“History,” n., p. 35). So, why the omission of any direct quote from or even mention of the letter from George Washington Graves? Was it just happenstance, just the way Tyler happened to write it, or was the omission intentional?

After putting myself and Colleen to the trouble of transcribing the letter, I almost immediately found that it had already been transcribed and published in the Amherst Graduates Quarterly in 1921 (link provided below). The transcription is faithful – it includes the New Hampshire story – but what fascinated me about the published account was the editor’s note.

The editor, George Frisbee Whicher, Class of 1910 and about 32 years old at the time of the AGQ article, does not credit the New Hampshire story. In fact, he goes to a little trouble to discredit it and its author. He says, in essence, this writer is an old dude and he doesn’t remember things accurately, so don’t believe everything he says.  Whicher also begins his editorial comment with this line: “No one man founded Amherst College.” This statement may be true, but there is emphasis in its placement here that strikes me as a clue to why Tyler did not mention the letter in his book and went to great lengths to avoid giving too much credit for Amherst College’s founding to one man. Instead, Tyler sought to make the founding of Amherst College a religious act where citizens worked together to build what was viewed as a very special institution with a divine charge to aid “indigent young men of promising talents and hopeful piety, who shall manifest a desire to obtain a liberal education with a sole view to the Christian ministry.” It is perhaps for this reason – the importance of the group effort — that the College would later avoid renaming itself after one man, such as Williston, or Graves, or Hitchcock, or Dickinson, all men who gave much to the College, and would stick with the name of the town. In this determination one may also see why the College has repeatedly said that it is named after the town rather than Lord Jeffery Amherst: if the trustees would not name the College after someone like Graves, who had given so much in time and effort, then it certainly would not name it after someone who had been born and died before the College was even an idea. The 1st Baron Amherst would have seemed irrelevant to what these citizens were about.

So, Whicher provides a disclaimer about the reliability of the Graves letter and then proceeds to provide a transcription of the document in its entirety. He inserts one more little note about the New Hampshire story, this time saying specifically that Graves had confused Amherst, New Hampshire, with Amherst, Massachusetts, in HAMPSHIRE county. You know how the old folks forget stuff.

But when I read Graves’s letter in the original, it didn’t seem to me that he was muddled in his facts, or if he was, it would take someone well versed in the history of Amherst College to pick out his errors. On the contrary, I thought the letter showed a steady stream of memories from someone who was documenting events he witnessed as a young man. He was 12 when his father was approached about the idea of a professorship for New Hampshire and about 20 when South College went up on the hill in Amherst, Massachusetts.  In fact, he’s so specific in his memories, so deliberate in his writing, that we can say that the Trustees agreed on Thursday, July 27, 1820, to lay the cornerstone on Wednesday, August 9, and George went with his father directly after the July 27 meeting to “engage the brick” and on the following morning (Friday) to Pelham for the stone and the next morning (Saturday) to survey the land.  A week later, he helped start digging the trench for the foundation. If he is mistaken on this or that point, as he very reasonably could be, he is probably accurate on most details – including, very possibly, the New Hampshire detail.

His account of the New Hampshire story comes first. And if he was mistaken about it, then it was no slip of the tongue and he was very determined in his mistake, for he mentioned New Hampshire specifically three times, and the third time he noted that it “was the last of New Hamp.” Remember that George Graves grew up in Massachusetts, not in New Hampshire – he knew Amherst, Massachusetts well. He lived through all of the College’s history. It seems very unlikely to me that he would make a mistake of this nature.

I have no evidence for the story outside the son’s letter. Still, the letter is so extraordinary that it seems worthwhile to put it here and to let readers decide for themselves whether George Graves sounds muddled in his facts. If he is not – if the anecdote about New Hampshire is true – then it’s an interesting detail to add to the history of Amherst College.


Link to full article HERE.

Whether the New Hampshire enterprise would ever have gotten to the college stage is another question. Given Graves’s zeal, one can’t rule it out – in which case our College on the Hill might be a College on the Green at 42°51′41″N 71°37′31″W

By now it may have occurred to the reader that there are no known images of Rufus Graves or they would have been displayed earlier to break up this text… However, in 1946 Curtis Canfield (AC 1925 and later Professor of Dramatics) produced a play, “The Seed and the Sowers,” about the early years of the College. Many of the scenes included Rufus Graves, a major character. Since there are no images of the real Graves, here are several photographs from the play, which is well documented in our Dramatic Activities Collection. Graves was played by Herbert Miller Magram, Class of 1947. The captions with the photographs include lines from Canfield’s play and do not necessarily match the scenes below exactly.  In 1955 Canfield published the play and a series of Chapel talks about Amherst’s early history under the same title.

Click on the first image to view the photographs as a slideshow.

One thought on “Amherst College, Amherst…New Hampshire?

  1. Peter, Just found this. A wonderful, thoughtful piece. It teaches a lot even to some one who thinks he “knows about” the College’s history.

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