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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1869 Letter

S.N. Dexter North

Delivered: June 1919

At the last commencement the Alumni Association honored me with the appointment as the half-century annalist for the Class of 1919, the 50th anniversary of the biggest, brainiest, and most remarkable class that ever left these classic halls.

At once I recalled that several years ago, Elihu Root, Hamilton’s chairman of the board of trustees, placed in my hands a transcript of the records of the Board of Regents of the State of New York, remarking that there was much needed a documentary history of Hamilton College — not a big book, he said, but big enough to stand on its hind legs in a book case. I concluded that the best service I could render our Alma Mater would be to compile and publish this documentary history.

I arranged with William L. Downing, emeritus professor of the Utica Academy, the beloved and devoted secretary of our class since its graduation, to prepare the annalist’s letter, and set myself to collect the materials for this history.

Through the scholarly and enthusiastic cooperation of your accomplished librarian, Professor Ibbotson, it has been possible to make this collection complete. It has grown by accretion beyond the simple documentary history Mr. Root had in mind, and become an attempt to gather together the scattered materials which embody the history of Hamilton Oneida Academy and Hamilton College which sprang from it, and I venture to describe it as a “Centennial History of Hamilton College.”

Its only predecessor was the memorial of the Semi-Centennial Celebration of the Founding of Hamilton College, compiled and published by my father, Dr. Edward North, in 1862.

I had hoped to bring it in printed form for presentation to the alumni today. Circumstances called all my official associates in the Carnegie Endowment to Paris, to aid in the work of the Peace Conference, and devolved upon me additional duties which have required all my time and strength. So I come to you today with the book, but with an apology. But the volume should be ready for distribution before another commencement.

It has been a surprise to many that the proceedings of the centennial anniversary of the college, so worthily celebrated in 1912, have never been published. It seems worthwhile to mark the half-century anniversary of the Class of 1869, by supplying the omission.

Hamilton’s 50th anniversary was most happily celebrated in a great tent in that former park of Clinton at the head of Williams Street, opposite the once famous White Seminary, since destroyed by fire. I can remember how I stood, a boy in roundabouts, among the throng that filled the tent and wondered what it was all about. The chief feature of the celebration was the historical address by Rev. Dr. Samuel Ware Fisher, which is here reproduced.

The 100th anniversary was celebrated under conditions equally favorable, on the college campus, when the historical address was delivered by Elihu Root, the chairman of the board of trustees. On numerous intervening occasions important historical addresses have been made, many of which will be here preserved.

The volume is not in any sense that narrative history of Hamilton which some devoted alumnus will someday write; but it contains the raw materials with which he will build, inspired by the devotion, the self-sacrifice and the scholarly enthusiasm of the professors and instructors who kept the College alive through the dark and trying days of which many hints appear in these records, and whose lives and services will constitute the soul of the history. (John King Lord’s History of Dartmouth College, 1913, is an excellent sample of the sort of book that ought to be written about Hamilton.)

Hamilton College has a background at once romantic, pathetic and inspiring. How little do we realize in these days the significance of its historic environment! This institution is planted in the very heart of the original Tryon County, erected in 1772, which included the vast empire running from Schoharie County on the Hudson, as far into the unknown west as imaginary lines then carried the State of New York. Oneida County was erected out of it in 1789, and right here in the Mohawk Valley was determined the future destiny of the North American continent.

Hither penetrated the earliest of the Jesuit missions, under the lead of brave fanatics, whom no danger  nor hardship could deter. Here passed and repassed along the water courses, over the Indian fords, through the trackless forests the military expeditions of French and English, each determined to control this vast American empire. Here were located the frontier defenses, forts and castles of the French, the English, the Indians and the colonists – Fort Bull, Fort Plain, Fort House, Fort Hill, Fort Hunter, Fort Dayton, Fort Schuyler, Fort Stanwix and Fort Osewgo. Here were the hunting grounds of the Five Nations of the Iroquois. We are at the center of their famous “long house,” and within 50 miles of the spot where their council fires were held. The home of the Iroquois covered the watershed between the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic; from this watershed, the streams and rivers run north, south, east and west into the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the Delaware, the Susquehanna and the Ohio; and with this geographic vantage, the Iroquois warriors penetrated and conquered the vast territory through which these rivers run.

And it so happened that to their military prowess is due the fact that the English race, language, institutions and jurisprudence dominate the continent, and not the French; for it was due primarily to Sir William Johnson, the most prominent figure in American colonial history, whose baronial home still stands on the banks of the Mohawk, that the Iroquois were allied and held to the British cause in that supreme struggle.

From this hillside above the Oriskany, we look down upon that section of the country in which the free and independent United States of America was made possible; for in the battles of Saratoga and Oriskany, the victories of the Americans made rebellion a successful revolution.

And here were founded the second and third oldest collegiate institutions within the borders of the Empire State – Hamilton College and Union College, twin sisters under the joint charter of the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York. Hamilton College and Dartmouth College are twin sisters also; for the founders of these two institutions conceived and attempted the plan to solve the problem of the future relations of the English settlers to the Indians by affording them the opportunities for education, civilization and Christianization.

This Academy, out of which sprang Hamilton College, and the Lebanon-Dartmouth School, were the only institutions of which I can find record, in which any earnest plan was indicated actually and practically to accomplish the education and Christianization of the aborigines.

Dartmouth was born of the Indian school established as Lebanon, Connecticut, by Eleazer Wheelock, in 1761, from which the Oneida Indian, Samson Occum, went as a missionary among his own race, and later to England in search of funds, where he elicited the interest of the Earl of Dartmouth, thus leading to the transfer of the Lebanon school to Hanover, and from this seed sprang Dartmouth College.

In the same year, Samuel Kirkland, son of a Connecticut minister, became a student at Lebanon, where he learned the Indian tongue, and whence he followed Samson Occum as a missionary to the Oneidas. What happened has been eloquently set forth by Elihu Root:

Patient, enduring, persistent, through perils of river and perils of forests, amid cruel and savage foes, enduring the heats of summer and the deep snows of winters, living in a log hut, traveling through the vast and trackless wilderness, one by one he gained the friendship and the confidence of those fierce warriors, until he became the friend and the father of them all. War swept to and fro in the valley of the Mohawk; but in due time, when peace had come, when civilization had approached near enough to the wilderness, he in turn put into practice the lessons he had learned from Wheelock.

Out of these conditions sprang the inspiration which led to the founding of the Hamilton Oneida Academy. “At length undaunted Kirkland came and reared God’s altar in the woods.”

The original Academy building, standing between the present South College and the Chapel, was ruthlessly torn down in 1829. The only physical structure in any way recalling Kirkland’s life and labors is the cottage in which he lived at the foot of College Hill — happily rescued in 1877 and removed to its present place on the campus.

Some of the trials which overtook the institution in the earlier years are revealed in the annalist’s letter of President North, in 1879, with the gentle hand which avoids all criticism of those responsible. Other addresses preserve details of the gradual emergence from these trials, and the slow but steady progress which has since marked the growth of our Alma Mater.

The men who laid the foundation for this institution were hard working, self-sacrificing men, devoted to an ideal, forgetful of self, under conditions which try men’s souls. In all justice they may be described as heroes who rendered enduring service in the cause of education in Central New York. They established its rank as one of the very best of the smaller American colleges, which have maintained themselves successfully side-by-side with the big universities with their omnivorous curriculi and their hoards of students.

That the smaller college is desired to survive in the face of this competition, that it offers some things worth having which are strikingly lacking in the larger aggregations is increasingly shown in the more recent history of Hamilton.

This writer believes that the best education, under the best conditions, is obtained where a comparatively small body of students are carried through their college course with a common goal before all of them; in close relationship and rivalry with each other; in daily intimate contact with a body of enthusiastic and sympathetic professors; in touch with the traditions of the institution they will call Alma Mater; and inspired and guided by its historic ideals. So may Hamilton remain!

Editor's Note:  The above letter was prepared by S.N. Dexter North, Class of 1869, and presented at his class semicentennial celebration. An additional letter may have been delivered by Annalist Wiliam L. Downing, however no record of it exists in the College archives.