Early American Colleges, 1636 – 1860: A Timeline

Early American Colleges: A General Timeline to 1865




1636 Massachusetts General Court grants charter to a new college to be located in Cambridge; acquires the name of Harvard College in honor of its first substantial benefactor, the reverend John Harvard (1607-1638) in 1638, when it commenced instruction. Direction initially concentrated in the hands of local Congregational clergy. English America’s first institution of higher learning.
1693 James Blair secures a royal charter for the College of William and Mary, to be located in Williamsburg under the auspices of the Anglican Church. English America’s second college. Blair presides until his death in 1743.
1701 Connecticut Presbyterians secure charter from Connecticut legislature to establish a college; intended as a Calvinist response to an increasingly Arminian Harvard. Eventually settles in New Haven upon Elihu Yale naming gift.
1746 “New Light” Presbyterians of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania secure a charter for the College of New Jersey. Founders critical of “Old Light” Yale for its opposition to the Great Awakening.  Eventually settles in Princeton.
1754 October —  King’s College secures a royal charter and opens in New York City under Anglican auspices and its first president, the Rev. Samuel Johnson.
1755 College of Philadelphia opens; earlier proposed but Benjamin Franklin but secures its charter months after King’s College to become the 6th of the colonial colleges. Its first provost was the Rev. William Smith.
College of Rhode Island opens in Providence. Under Baptist auspices and the first presidency of    Manning. Seventh of the Colonial Nine.
1766 Queen’s College opens in New Jersey, under auspices of the Dutch reformed Church. Located in New Brunswick. Later Rutgers University. Eight of the Colonial Nine.
1768 Dartmouth College founded in Hanover, New Hampshire by Congregationalists unhappy with Harvard. Last of the Colonial Nine.
1774-75 Yale and Princeton active in the resistance to British rule, while King’s College especially accommodative. Harvard and the College of Philadelphia have a fair share of Loyalists in their alumni ranks.
1776-1781 Most of the colonial colleges disrupted by events of the Revolutionary War. The College of Rhode Island occupied by French allies; Yale bombarded by British navy; College of Philadelphia and College of William and Mary closed briefly; King’s College building in the hands of the British army from 1776 to 1783; Dartmouth largely escaped disruption.
1776 July 4 – The xx signers of the Declaration of Independence included xx graduates of colonial colleges.
Several colleges founded in the midst of  the Revolution:
Hampden-Sidney, in Virginia (1775)
Transylvania University, in Kentucky (1780)
Washington College, in Maryland (1782)
Liberty Hall (later Washington & Lee, Virginia (1782)
Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania
1779 The College of Philadelphia becomes the University of the State of Pennsylvania when it swaps its 1755 royal charter for one granted by the state legislature. Name shortened to the University of Pennsylvania in 1791.
1784 King’s College resurrected as Columbia College  by the New York legislature. Initially assumed to be a pulic institution for the entire state.
1785 The University of Georgia becioomes the first chartered state university  
1787 Columbia becomes “Columbia College in the City of New York,” reverting to its previous status as a college under private governance by a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees.  
1787 May – September — Among the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were 27 graduates of American colleges and 9 graduates of British universities.  
1789 Jesuits found the first Catholic university in the United States, Georgetown  
1789 The University of North Carolina becomes the second state university to open.  
1790s Several more colleges founded;
The University of Vermont (1791);
Hamilton College, Clinton, New York (1793);
Williams College, Williamstown, Mass (1793);
Bowdoin College, Maine (17940;
The University of Tennessee (1794);
Union College, Schenectady, NY (1795)
1800 2nd Federal census reports a population of 5,000,000; 22 colleges operating in the United States, including Middlebury College, Varmont (1800)
1801-10 South Carolina College (1801) ;
US Military Academy, West Point, NY (1802);
Ohio University (1802);
Washington & Jefferson, Virginia (1802)
Davidson College, North Carolina (1806)
Miami University, Ohio (1809);
Hamilton College, Clinton, NY (1810)
1806 Six students at Williams College participate in “Haystack Prayer Meeting” which sparks interest in collegians embarking on careers as foreign missionaries.
1807 President Jefferson signs legislation creating the Coastal Survey of the United States, the country’s first federally supported scientific agency.
1810 3rd federal Census reported a population of  7 million.
1810 American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) organized n Boston to administer the placement of American missionaries throughout the “heathen world.”
1816 University of Virginia receives state charter under a plan devised by Thomas Jefferson. Opens in Charlottesville in 1825. Five separate student disruptions in the next fifteen years.
1811 Columbia College seniors and alumni in audience disrupt commencement ceremonies over dispute with faculty disciplinary actions. Arrests follow.
1820 3rd Federal census reports population of 10,000,000; number of colleges in operation estimated in the 30s
1821-1830 Amherst College, Amhrst, Mass.;Geneva College (later Hobart), Geneva, NY ;

Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY – first US technical institute US (1824);

Lafayette College, Pennsylvania (1826);
Illinois College (1829)

1828 Yale faculty mount a spirited defense of the classical curriculum in the face of the Connecticut legislature’s  criticism of its impracticality.
1830 4th Federal census reports population of 13,000,000; something on the order of 56 colleges in operations.
1831 University of the City of New York (later NYU)
1833 Oberlin College opened in Ohio by mid-west Congregational and Presbyterian evangelicals; inaugurates co-educational instruction in 1837 and enrolls black students in numbers.
1833 Haverford College opened in suburban Philadelphia; the first Quaker-sponsored college in US.
1834 Harvard students force the closing of the college over a dispute with faculty and President Josiah Quincy. Most of the sophomore class rusticated.
1836 Mount Holyoke Female Seminary opens in South Hadley, Mass.; becomes Mt. Holyoke College in 1888
French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville tours America for several months, but his subsequent Democracy in America has little to say about its colleges or its intellectual prspects.
1836 Georgia Female College opens in Macon, Georgia; the first women’s college in US
1840 5th Federal Census reports US population at 17,000,000; number of colleges in operation approaches 100
1841 Fordham University founded by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York
1841 Harvard begins experimenting with elective courses as alternative to the traditional fixed curriculum at the urging of President Quincy and his science faculty.
1842 French Catholic priests of the Order of the Holy Cross found Notre Dame University, in South Bend, Indiana.
1843 Holy Cross College opened in Worcester, Massachusetts, the first catholic college in New England.
1845 The University of Michigan opens in Ann Arbor, Michigan
1845 The US Naval Academy opens in Annapolis, Maryland.
1847 Massachusetts industrialist Abbott Lawrence gives $50,000 to Harvard to open the Lawrence Scientific School, intended to provide expanded instruction in applied science and engineering.
1847 Joseph Sheffield gives the first of several gifts to Yale College to expand its instruction in applied science and engineering,  later named the Sheffield Scientific School.
1847 The Free Academy of New York opens (later City College of New York)
1848 University of Wisconsin opens in Madison
1848 University of Mississippi opens in Oxford
1850 6th Federal Census with US population at 23,000,000. Perhaps 150 colleges in operation, including the just opened University of Rochester (1850)
1850s Several dozen American college graduates taking advanced studies in German universities, returning to the United States as holder of the degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Many seeking faculty positions in American colleges.
1860 7th Federal Census with US population at 32,000,000. Perhaps 200 plus colleges in operation; of these, 182 survived into the late 20th century.
By auspices:
Presbyterian – 49
Methodist – 34
Congregationalist — 32
Baptist – 25
Public – 21
Catholic – 14
Episcopalian — 11
Lutheran (6); Disciples of Christ (5); German reformed (4)
1861 Massachusetts legislature grants charter to what becomes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which begins instruction in engineering in Boston in 1865.
1861 Yale becomes the first American institution to award the PhD for advanced studies; done in part to stem the tide of Yale graduates going to Germany for advanced studies. Remains alone in doing so for a decade when it awards only a dozen such degrees.
1862 Congress passes what comes to be called the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, which provided all 16  Union states with federal lands which they could sell and use the proceeds to support colleges that would focus their instruction on agriculture and the mechanic  arts.  Overall, the 1862 Morrill Act allocated 17,400,000 acres of  land, which when sold yielded a collective endowment of $7.55 million. Most of the funding went to already established state universities but some found its way to the private Yale, Cornell University and MIT.
1863 President Lincoln signs legislation creating the National Academy of Sciences, to which the country’s leading  scientists will be elected.
1864 Columbia College opens a School of Mines, the first such school in the US. It soon broadens into a school of engineering, while retaining the name until the 1890s.
1865 The Civil War ends with Lee’s surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse.

Last updated: January 8, 2014


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