The Harvard Indian College

Affixed to Matthews Hall hangs an often unnoticed slate plaque, inscribed: “Here American Indian and English students lived and worked ...

Affixed to Matthews Hall hangs an often unnoticed slate plaque, inscribed: “Here American Indian and English students lived and worked in accordance with the 1650 Charter calling for the education of the English and Indian youth of this country.” The plaque itself is straightforward, but what is less obvious is the unique history behind it, the history of Harvard’s complex relationship with the Native American community.

In its 1650 charter, Harvard made a promise to extend its resources to the Native American community, a promise that it has started to fulfill only in the past few years. The plaque is part of Harvard’s renewed effort to promote the study of Native American affairs through initiatives like the current excavation of Harvard Yard, emphasizing the importance of addressing Native American issues within the University.

The affairs of Harvard and of the Indian community were bound inextricably from the start. Diana Loren, associate curator at the Peabody Museum and co-instructor for Anthropology 1130, explains this relationship. “Harvard was going bankrupt in about 1646,” she says. “So they went to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, looking for funds.”

The Society decided to grant these funds with one condition: that they be used at least in part for the spiritual and educational advancement of local Native American students. In its precarious financial state, Harvard was only too willing to fulfill this prerequisite. So in 1655, near where Matthews Hall now stands, the Harvard Indian College was built to further Harvard’s new Charter, educating both Indian and English students “in knowledge and godliness.”

“Native American students went to lecture, they dined with the English students,” says Loren. Yet they were at Harvard for an express purpose—to absorb the Puritan teachings and, upon graduation, transmit this knowledge to their tribes. In this vein, the Indian College became home to a printing press that published the first Bible in the United States, the “Eliot Bible,” published in Algonquian by the missionary John Eliot.

The Indian College was only ever home to five native students, only one of whom graduated: Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag, in 1665. By the late 17th century the building had fallen into disrepair, and was torn down in 1698 (its bricks were reused in the construction of the original Stoughton Hall). To mollify its original funders, Harvard was to provide Stoughton housing rent-free to any Native American students in the College—but this proved an empty promise, as not a single Native American student would return to graduate until three centuries later.

Finding Living History

Today, the first floor of the Peabody Museum is home to Digging Veritas, a student-produced exhibit revealing archaeological findings relating to the Harvard Indian College. The project began in 2005, part of an initiative by the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP) to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Indian College.

Founded in 1970 as the American Indian Program, HUNAP has played a vital role in reviving Harvard’s interest in and responsibility to the Native American community. “Part of HUNAP’s mission is to bring together Indigenous students and other interested individuals to advance the well-being of Indigenous peoples,” writes Executive Director Shelly C. Lowe. She continues, “HUNAP continues to look to the 1650 Charter as part of our foundation.”

It was HUNAP that organized the unveiling of the commemorative plaque on Matthews in 1997 and who invited tribal leaders to speak at the ceremony.

In 2005, the students of Anthropology 1130, “The Archaeology of Harvard Yard,” took on HUNAP’s initiative as a part of their coursework, combining fieldwork with archive research in order to explore the relationship between Harvard and the Native American community. “[HUNAP] wanted to bring different academic programs into the work,” says Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology William L. Fash, who also co-teaches Anthropology 1130. “We thought that it would be very appropriate to celebrate by doing more work in Harvard Yard, by looking at this Indian College. It was integral to the University—it was part of the charter.”

Fash emphasizes the contemporary implications of digging up Harvard Yard in search of the Indian College. “We want to make the Indian College part of the living history, the living fabric of the University,” he says. “What better way than to actually find it?”

Cultivating Connections

Fash, who is also director of the Peabody Museum, emphasizes the central role of students in this archaeological project. “The students themselves were picking up the deposits,” says Fash. “They themselves were realizing, ‘Hey, we’re really onto something here.’”

Part of the course involves visiting the Harvard University Archives, whose documents bear witness to the connection between Harvard and the Indian community.