The Founding of Dartmouth College

The founding of Dartmouth College at Hanover in 1769 was an event of great interest and importance to the early settlers of Norwich. Besides the advantages it promised for the convenient higher education of their children, advantages to which they were fully alive, as shown by their liberal subscriptions in land and money to its endowment, the building up of such an institution in the immediate neighborhood created an instant demand for labor and supplies of every kind. The president, Doctor Wheelock, through his Indian pupil, Samson Occum, and other agents, had collected in England and Scotland several thousand pounds to be expended in the establishment and support of a new college in the wilderness. The effect of this expenditure could not fail to make money more plenty and to contribute in various ways to the material prosperity of the vicinage. The conversion and education of the Indians was the leading purpose that animated Doctor Wheelock in thus setting up his college on the very borders of civilization. And surely no pious brotherhood of priests, no lonely mission of French or Spanish Jesuits, by western lake or river, ever planted an institution of learning or religion into wilder scenes and surroundings. The location of the college at Hanover was decided upon early in the summer of 1770, after Doctor Wheelock and two of the trustees from Connecticut had made a tour of several weeks exploration along the river and through the northern part of New Hampshire. A tradition in the Burton family asserts that the location was finally fixed at a conference held at the house of Jacob Burton in Norwich, in June, 1770, between Doctor Wheelock and his associates and some of the leading men of this and neighboring towns; a tradition by no means improbable, and it may also be here said, incidentally, that the location might probably have been placed at Norwich rather than Hanover, had not New Hampshire a short time before, in compliance with the royal decision of July 20, 1765, formally renounced her jurisdiction over all territory west of Connecticut River, in favor of New York, thus leaving Norwich just outside the domain of the authority (Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire) which had granted the college charter. To many of the inhabitants of Norwich and adjacent towns, Doctor Wheelock was then personally well known as a favorite preacher and for many years the preceptor of Moor’s Charity School at Lebanon, Conn., in the very neighborhood from which they had themselves lately come. And while Norwich was at this time thickly dotted with clearings and contained nearly 200 people, her sister township of Hanover across the river was still, in all the western portion at least, an almost unbroken wilderness. Hanover Plain was a forest of gigantic white pines, some of which reached a height of more than 200 feet. 1 The stalwart sons of Jacob Burton, with other young men from Norwich, helped to cut down these monarchs of the primitive forest in the early summer of 1770, so that when Doctor Wheelock came on with workmen and teams in the August following, a beginning had been made and sunshine admitted to a few acres of ground where the village of Hanover now stands.

A few weeks later when the family of President Wheelock and students to the number of about thirty arrived, a log hut eighteen feet square was the only building ready to receive them. A house for the president, and a college building 32×80 feet, both of logs (?) had been commenced. A unique spectacle it must have been when the straggling procession of Moor’s Charity School and Dartmouth College made their debut into Hanover, as they emerged slowly from the surrounding forest into the little clearing on some September afternoon in 1770, the students on foot, driving before them a few cows and pigs belonging to the college, the whole equipment and endowment of the institution loaded into a few ox carts, and Madame Wheelock and the females of the Doctor’s family bringing up the rear in the family carriage, the first four-wheeled vehicle, assuredly, that ever rolled into this part of the country. Until the last of October, when the college building was made fit for occupation, the students camped out in booths which they made for themselves of boughs and bark, in true Indian fashion.

The journals and correspondence of President Wheelock, in these first years following the establishment of the college at Hanover, are curious and instructive, as affording some insight into the manner of life and the difficulties and trials experienced in making new settlements at that period. Writing to Doctor Erskine Dec. 7, 1770, he says: “My nearest neighbor in town is 2½ miles from me; I can see nothing but the lofty pines about me.” (There were about twenty families at that time living in the east part of Hanover, three or four miles back from the river.)

The difficulty of procuring provisions compelled the sending of part of the students back to Connecticut, at the beginning of the first winter. Breadstuffs were brought chiefly from Northfield and Montague, Mass., for the subsistence of the settlement and school. For two years the larger part of the supply of food for the support of the school was transported from one to two hundred miles, over bad roads, from the older settlements of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Doctor Wheelock writes that the cheapest fodder he had for his teams and a few cows the second winter after coming to Hanover, was brought forty miles on sleds by oxen. Active and persistent efforts were at, the same time put forth to make the colony self supporting. A saw and grist mill was built on Mink Brook in 1771, seventy acres of land cleared and twenty cropped with wheat, and about fifteen tons of hay cut and stacked. In September, 1773, he reports about thirty tons of hay cut that summer, reaped twenty acres of English grain, and twenty acres of Indian corn on the ground; fifteen acres fenced and sowed to winter wheat; 500 acres had been cut and girdled for future cultivation, and about 2,000 acres of “wilderness” enclosed with fence, “so that oxen, cows, horses, etc., may be restrained from rambling beyond my reach.” He employed from twenty to thirty men laboring for the college in his farming and building operations. His livestock consisted of seven oxen and twenty cows. Whole number of students during the year, about eighty, including sixteen or seventeen Indian boys. “A little more than three years ago,” he adds, “there was nothing to be seen here but a horrid wilderness. Now there are eleven comfortable dwelling houses, besides one for the students, built by tradesmen and others, who have settled within sixty rods of the college.”

Our Norwich settlers, as already intimated, sympathized keenly with Doctor Wheelock, their venerable friend and former neighbor at Lebanon, Conn., in his benevolent designs and self denying labors to remove his charity school and set up a college at their very doors. And they testified their sense of the importance of his undertaking to themselves by contributing liberally from their slender means for its endowment. Besides labor and materials which, in the general absence of money in the new settlements, were most readily afforded, a list of subscribers which has been preserved shows that nearly every adult male person then living in town gave the infant college some pecuniary help in its day of small beginnings.

Previous to its location at Hanover in 1770, a subscription paper had been circulated through the towns along both sides of the river, which were the only towns that then contained any considerable population. The Norwich subscribers to this paper were thirty-four in number, and their subscriptions amount in the aggregate to £35, 10s in money and about 600 acres of land given to the college. This amount was probably largely increased in the years immediately following 1770.Citations:

  1. One tree was found to be 270 feet by actual measurement. An acre of land could be enclosed; it is said, by four of these monsters properly felled. The white pine is one of the longest lived of our native trees. Doctor Williams says that some of the largest pines on Connecticut River, of the original growth, were ascertained to be between 300 and 400 years old, by count of their concentric rings when cut. []

Education, History,


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