America’s first university – almost
Varina site can make historical claim
Students and alumni of the College of William & Mary take pride in the fact that theirs is the second-oldest college in America, pre-dated only by Harvard.
Those in the know – and with a competitive bent – like to point out that when it comes to vision, forethought, and planning for the university, W&M beat Harvard to the punch by decades.
The first university in America actually was chartered in 1618, and slated for construction on 10,000 riverfront acres in what is now Varina.
Enthusiasm for the project ran high in England. London Company records from the time state that King James authorized bishops and clergy in England to make a collection of 15,000 pounds “for the college and university of Virginia.” Among early donations to the cause were 1,500 pounds, altar cloths, books, communion silver, a damask tablecloth and “a carpet of crimson velvet.”
In Jamestown, members of the first session of the Virginia Assembly voiced their support for the school and requested workmen to be sent to the colony. Within three years, construction of the college was underway, a small Indian school was operating, and more than 100 tenants had settled on college lands to support the school with agricultural work.
The Rev. George Thorpe, a gentleman of the king’s Privy Chamber and member of the Council for Virginia in England, had been elected deputy and superintendent of the college.
But for an Indian uprising and the abandonment of the Citie of Henricus in 1622, the college might have gone on to thrive – and students at America’s oldest colleges would hail today not from Harvard or William & Mary, but from the University of Henrico.
Though the school did not materialize, plans for its creation – and the college that later resulted in part from them – rank 15th on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the most significant moments in Henrico’s history.
Laying a foundation
While the Colledge of Henricus may eventually have developed into an institution that served the colonists, it was founded more to christianize the Native Americans than to educate the English.
Just days after the Virginia Assembly acted to create the Colledge, it noted as an objective “laying a surer foundation of the conversion of the Indians to Christian Religion.”
Each city, borough, and plantation was required, said the Assembly, to “obtain unto themselves by just means a certain number of the natives’ children to be educated by them in true religion and civile course of life.” Ultimately, it was hoped, the educated natives would return to their own people and convert them as well.
Perhaps the most likely inspiration for the college, historians say, was Pocahontas’ conversion to Christianity some years earlier.
Captured by the English and held in captivity, Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, learned the English language and ways of life and was baptized as a Christian. John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas and took her to England, wrote that the marriage was “for the good of the colony and the glory of God,” and suggested that it might help bring peace between the Indians and English.
After the marriage, relations between the colonists and the Powhatan Confederacy were briefly more peaceful. But after Powhatan died in 1618, his brother Opechancanough took over; that same year, Pocahontas died while preparing to return to Virginia.
Within two weeks of her death, the Church of England began a fundraising campaign to support a missionary college in Virginia.
When Thorpe arrived in the colony in 1620, he did his best to win over Opechancanough -- even to the point of building an English-style house for him in the forest. The house apparently delighted the Indian chief, who was fascinated in particular by the lock-and-key mechanism and would lock and unlock it dozens of times a day.
Attack ends plans
John Daniel Pagano, who presented a program about the Colledge at a March event in Henricus Historical Park, reports that among the English George Thorpe was known as “a very pious man with a good reputation. Everyone trusted him.”
Creating “a school for the infidels” was, Thorpe believed, a noble mission that justified any means for removing the savages from their ignorance and bringing them to Christ.
But while Thorpe saw his mission as beneficial and viewed himself as the Indians’ friend, he never won the trust of Opechancanough.
Although Opechancanough played along with Thorpe’s plans and even visited the site of the Colledge, he saw the fledgling Indian school as a threat. From the Powhatans’ perspective, says Pagano, educating the Indian children meant one thing: uprooting them from native ways and assimilating them into English culture.
In the spring of 1622, after a settler had killed his adviser, Opechancanough struck back. In a series of surprise offensives, all coordinated to take place at the same hour, the Powhatan tribes attacked a number of smaller English settlements and plantations that included Henricus and the Colledge.
“When the Indians attacked,” says Pagano, the historical interpretation supervisor at Henricus, “they selected symbolic targets.
“They wanted to let [the settlers] know they didn’t approve of the cultural conflict.”
Seventeen men were killed on college lands. Thorpe, who lived at Berkeley, was warned of the attack by a servant but refused to believe there was danger. His body – one of 347 casualties – was later found mutilated. Survivors fled to Jamestown and, despite efforts to revive the projects, Henricus and the Colledge were never rebuilt.
But even without the massacre, says Pagano, it’s hard to say whether the Colledge would have survived. Considering the ambitious scope of the project, it may well have failed on its own.
“It was a great idea,” says Pagano of the college, “but the money wasn’t being raised. . . There was no guaranteed cash in Virginia.”
Who was first?
In the coming years, officials at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College hope to revive Henricus Colledge, in one sense at least, by developing a Varina campus on some of the same acres designated for the 17th-century school.
Meanwhile, it might be said that William & Mary – chartered in 1693 and considered the direct-line descendant of the 1619 Colledge – went on to fulfill part of the promise foreseen by George Thorpe, Virginia Company members and early settlers.
As for the bragging-rights debate between Harvard and William & Mary alums, one need only consult the W&M website for an arsenal of arguments.
As one page carefully notes, “[W&M] was the first college planned for the United States. Its roots go back to the college proposed at Henrico in 1619.”
More than one observer has pointed out that, traditionally, W&M bills itself as “America’s second-oldest college,” inserting the Henrico connection to provide historical perspective and making no claim as to institutional continuity.
But in discussions with a Harvard grad, it is said, the W&M attitude shifts. Since W&M’s charter or foundational concept was established years before Harvard’s founding, the argument goes, William & Mary is actually the nation’s oldest college – in its “antecedents.”
And considering its well-documented antecedents in Henrico, it would not be at all inaccurate to describe William & Mary as America’s “first college in its roots.”
For more about Henricus Colledge, visit http://henricus.org or http://firstcolledge.us.
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