America’s first university – almost

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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New conservation easement creates wooded buffer for Bryan Park

Five years ago, members of the Friends of Bryan Park were facing the apparently inevitable development of the Shirley subdivision in Henrico, adjacent to the forested section of the park near the Nature Center and Environmental Education Area.

As part of the Shirley subdivision, the land had been divided into 14 lots in 1924, but had remained mostly undisturbed through the decades. In 2012, however, developers proposed building 40 modular houses on roughly 6.5 acres, clear-cutting the forest there and creating a highly dense neighborhood tucked into a dead end. > Read more.

Meet the men running for governor


Virginia will elect a new governor this year.

The governor’s position is one of great power and influence, as the current officeholder, Terry McAuliffe, has demonstrated by breaking the record for most vetoes in Virginia history.

However, during the last gubernatorial race in 2014, the voter turnout was less than 42 percent, compared with 72 percent during last year’s presidential election. > Read more.

RISC to address reading, childhood trauma, job training at assembly

On May 1, more than 1,700 community members representing Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities will gather at St. Paul’s Baptist Church (4247 Creighton Road) at 7 p.m. to address elementary reading, childhood trauma and job training in the greater Richmond region. Community members will speak about each issue and proposed solution.

For three years, the organization has sought implementation of a specific literacy program in Henrico County that it believes would help children who struggle with reading. > Read more.

Henrico to begin update of zoning, subdivision ordinances April 26


Henrico County is beginning a comprehensive update of its zoning and subdivision ordinances — the first such effort in six decades — and will introduce the project as part of the April 26 meeting of the Henrico County Planning Commission.

The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. in the Board Room of the Henrico Government Center, 4301 E. Parham Road. The ordinance update project will be featured as the final item on the agenda. Project consultant Clarion Associates will give a presentation, and meeting participants will be able to ask questions and provide comments. > Read more.

HCPS to present three-day ARTS Festival, beginning April 21


Henrico County Public Schools’ annual spring arts festival will celebrate its fourth year with a weekend of music and fine art. ARTS Festival events – the acronym stands for Artists, Residents, Teachers and Students – will kick off with a musical performance Friday night, April 21 and events will run through Sunday, April 23. This year’s festival will be held at Henrico High School, 302 Azalea Avenue.

Friday night at 7:30 p.m. the Center for the Arts at Henrico High School will hold the first of two weekend performances of its Musical Theatre Showcase, a selection of musical numbers performed by Center for the Arts students. > Read more.
Community

Villa’s Flagler Housing wins national NAEH award


St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.

Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.

RIR’s Christmas tree lighting rescheduled for Dec. 12


Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.

Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
Entertainment

Weekend Top 10


For our Top 10 calendar events this weekend, click here! > Read more.

 

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The Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond will present the Takács Quartet at 7:30 p.m. in Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music. The Takács Quartet plays with a unique blend of drama, warmth and humor, combining four distinct musical personalities to bring fresh insights to the string quartet repertoire. For 32 years, the ensemble has been in-residence at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Stay after for a post-show Q&A with the quartet. Tickets are $38. For details, call 289-8980 or visit http://www.modlin.richmond.edu. Full text

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