In 1650, the General Court of Massachusetts chartered Harvard College because “many well devoted persons have been, and daily are moved, and stirred up, to give and bestow, sundry gifts, legacies, lands, and revenues…that may conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness…” [Emphasis added]
By 1656, Harvard had constructed an “Indian College” which could accommodate up to twenty Native American students. This was largely because of the successful evangelistic efforts of John Eliot, who had seen large conversions among the Alonquian-speaking peoples of New England.
The first two students were Wampanoag converts from Martha’s Vineyard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Hiacoomes. Although there are few records of the two, it is known that they studied under Peter Folger (Benjamin Franklin’s grandfather) while still on Martha’s Vineyard. In 1657, they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they attended Elijah Corlett’s “lattin schoole” – what is now Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. After completing their grammar school education, which included both English and Latin training, they entered Harvard’s “Indian College” in 1661.
Over the course of their academic career, both young men excelled. By 1665, they were set to graduate, with Hiacoomes in position to receive the valedictory honors. Sadly, he died in a shipwreck off the Massachusetts coast. Cheeshahteaumuck therefore became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard . Until Cheryl Andrews-Malthais graduated in 2011, Cheeshahteaumuck was the only Wampanoag to graduate. In the same year, Harvard posthumously awarded Hiacoomes with his diploma.
The “Indian College” was never financially viable, and there were few students who could stand up the rigorous academic standards. The autumn after Cheeshahteaumuck graduated, a Nimuc man named John Wampus joined the student body. But after a year, he left for a maritime career. By the 1670’s, Wampus was living in Boston and using the surname White. He often served as an interpreter for the native Christian community of Natick, who were under considerable pressure from the encroachment of their English neighbors.
The breakout of King Philip’s War in 1675 put an end to the cordial (if strained) relations between the Native Americans and English. Considered the bloodiest war to ever occur on American soil when assessed by casualties per capita, this war fueled a cottage industry of tales about Native excesses in the capture of English women and children, conveniently ignoring the indentured servitude and slavery to which many natives were subjected in English homes. The Christian Native American communities were persecuted and eventually forcibly removed from their homes. The General Court ordered the disbanding of their villages; and many who were living lives virtually indistinguishable from the English except in the matters of skin color and language died.
Still, the “Indian College” building continued to be in use at Harvard. Although there were no longer Native American students attending the college, there was a printing press there under the stewardship of Samuel Green. It produced materials in several Algonquian languages, including Eliot’s Massachusetts-language Bible, until 1680. The chief typesetter at the printing press was James Printer, a Nipmuc convert to Christianity.
When Green died in 1692, the press ceased operation completely; and the following year, the “Indian College” building was torn down so the bricks could be reused in a new building. Although there was a provision made for Native Americans to continue to attend Harvard (rent-free), there were few who took advantage. Another Nipmuc, Benjamin Larnell, attended the college as a young man but died of fever in 1714 before graduating. There were no self-identified Algonquian language natives at Harvard until Andrews-Malthais began attending in 2007 – 293 years later.