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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1821 Letter

Zenas Morse

Delivered: 1871

As early as 1750, the Scotch Presbytery organized a Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts. The fruit of its labors was the establishment of what became Dartmouth College, with funds set apart for the education of the Indians. By the same, or a kindred society, the Rev. Samuel Kirkland was sent to labor among the powerful Six Nations of New York. Here the missionary conceived the idea of establishing an institution of learning, not only for Indian but for English youth. Little did he then imagine that he was laying the foundation for the spacious buildings that, surrounded by beautiful grounds, now adorn College Hill. Little could he realize the advantages for a liberal education, which the place now affords.

The first time the writer was in Clinton, in 1815, he attended the funeral service of Shenandoah, whose advanced age was indicated by his answer, now familiar to every schoolboy, "I am an aged hemlock; the winds of a hundred winters have whistled through my branches." The funeral eulogy was pronounced by President Backus. He sketched the character of the missionary who had been the instrument of the chief s conversion to Christianity, and the character of the chief, uniting the virtues of the Indian stoic with ready adaptation to the higher grades of thought that distinguish the Caucasian. The address was interpreted to the Indians present by Judge James Dean, who, having been given to them when a child, was familiar with their language. Young Dean was sent to Dartmouth College by the Indians, and supported from the fund above mentioned set apart for their use.

Afterward, the Oneidas donated a tract of two square miles, a short distance west of the College, to the judge, on which he spent his days, and from whom the writer learned much of his life and of the character of the Indians. Judge Dean was ever a firm friend to his benefactors and to Hamilton College. His son, James, was at one time a member of the faculty and also treasurer of the College.

In 1816, the forest, interspersed with Indian habitations, extended from Oriskany Falls to within a few miles of the College, and the castle of the Oneida chief was in the adjoining town of Vernon. In 1816, Dr. Backus died, and Professor Seth Norton was appointed president pro tem. He was an excellent linguist, and zealous to promote the best interests of his pupils, and worthy of the good name he bore. Had he been elected permanent president, he might have been a good disciplinarian; but the pupils took advantage of his temporary position, and his successor found the College in a disorderly condition.

In 1817, Dr. Henry Davis, then president of Middlebury College, Vermont, and just previously elected president of Yale, accepted the presidency of Hamilton College, to the great joy of both trustees and students. The first time the writer saw Dr. Davis was the morning after his arrival, when he was busily engaged in throwing wood into his shed. He not only practiced economy himself, but urged his pupils to avoid all unnecessary expense to save their health and pecuniary means, by preparing their own firewood even from the log — advice especially acceptable to those who were deficient in funds to complete their education. Dr. Davis was a strict disciplinarian, severe toward willful offenders but indulgent to those disposed to do well— perhaps better qualified for president of an eastern college than for the more democratic latitude of New York. His strict rules of economy extended to time as well as money. His predecessor had given Christmas to the students for a holiday. This custom had not been generally observed in New England, whence the president came, but the new president compromised by giving them the day after the eleven o'clock recitation. The sophomores, an influential class, supposing they could control the president as they had the president pro tem, rebelled, and not one of them appeared in Tutor Robinson's recitation room. A confession was drawn up, each member was required to sign it, and the document was read in open chapel by one of the recusants (a sophomore, now Dr. Avery, who has ever since been prominent in important enterprises), while all stood up in their places. This decisive action caused great dissatisfaction among the students, and for a few days the College was in commotion. But the storm soon subsided, and the president, contrary to the expectation of the students, found his authority greatly strengthened. The president, though administering strict justice, had a kind heart, and was compassionate to the sick and afflicted. The writer was frequently a recipient of his kind words and deeds.

One of Dr. Davis' habits was to visit, unexpectedly, the students' rooms during the hour of study. Another of his habits was the excessive use of snuff. His nose was as colored and as capacious as that of the writer. His lungs were strong, and when he came upon the steps of Hamilton Hall, with bandanna in hand, he invariably gave a blast that both relieved his nose and put the scholars on guard. But he never seemed to realize that the blast upon his bugle defeated the whole design of his visits.

There were 27 different members of the Class of 1821. Only 18 of these were graduated, of whom it is believed seven became clergymen, six lawyers or judges, three teachers, one physician, and one banker. Of these at most only six are now living.
While this class cannot be said to have been distinguished for brilliancy of genius, it can be said that they possessed that talent which, with industry and perseverance, always achieves an honorable success. Perhaps no class of graduates, in proportion to their number, has added more to the welfare of the community. At this time, the President's house, the boarding hall, the old Oneida Academy, and Hamilton Hall comprised all the College buildings. In the second story of Oneida Academy was the public chapel, and Dr. Noyes' laboratory was in the room below, where the doctor was wont to entertain his class, for he was an enthusiastic chemist, a genial man, abounding in interesting anecdotes. The grounds around the president's dwelling, Hamilton Hall, and the old Academy were leveled, but unadorned. The road east of the College buildings was in a rough state. East of this road, the grounds now so beautifully adorned with trees, shrubs, and flowers, and where stands the Perry H. Smith Library Hall, were then rough pasture grounds enclosed by a primitive fence.

In 1823-24, the prosperity of the College began to decline. It would not be proper hereto discuss the different reasons assigned. In 1828-29 there were but nine scholars left, and when the writer attended chapel exercises in 1829 there were but 16 present.
About this time strenuous efforts were made by the friends of the College to resuscitate the institution. The writer united with them in their efforts. He remembered the pleasant hours he had spent on College Hill, and sympathized with his former instructors, and at the Commencement of the next term, he brought to the College eleven scholars, prepared by himself — five sophomores and six freshmen. Past grievances were forgotten. Harmony was restored, and the institution recovered its pristine vigor and has increased in numbers and reputation to the present day.

In 1833, President Davis resigned, and retired to his quiet home, a little distance north of the College, where he spent the remainder of his life. In 1852, having attained the ripe old age of 82 years he gently passed away, respected by all and venerated by many, and by none more than the writer of this sketch.