Native American’s Latin Poem Surfaces

A new Harvard study of a Native American’s eighteenth-century Latin poem reveals new details about colonial-era education at Harvard and substantiates otherwise unconfirmed accounts of the academic success of Benjamin Larnell, the last Native American student in Harvard’s colonial era.

“I was certainly a little bit surprised because when you think of someone writing a Latin poem, you don’t normally think of an American Indian teenager in the early 1700s,” said Thomas J. Keeline, a Classics graduate student at Harvard and co-author of the study. “This is a window into the colonial classroom. You can see the theory and application of colonial education, and that is pretty neat.”

The study began after Stuart M. McManus, a Harvard Ph.D. student in history, found a poem by an author whose name he did not recognize in the archives of Latin works at the Massachusetts Historical Society last year.

McManus discovered that Larnell, the last Native American student at Harvard during the colonial era, studied at the Boston Latin School and Harvard’s Indian College, where he became expertly-versed in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

Keeline explained that Larnell’s poem, entitled “The Fox and the Weasel,” is a versification of one of Aesop’s fables.  “The poem is a school assignment, and the story is a fairly difficult moralistic tale,” he added.

The poem comments on class conflict employing the stylistic devices and vocabulary of Horace and Vergil. In the verse, a fox enters a crack in the wall of a granary, eats the grain, and ultimately finds that he is too big to come back out of the crack. A weasel informs the fox that he has to go back out as thin as he was when he entered.

McManus said he believes that the poem is evidence of how then-University President John Leverett, a 1680 graduate of the College, described Larnell as “an acute grammarian, an extraordinary Latin poet, and a good Greek one.”

We now have evidence that actually quantifies how good he was at a certain stage. We can thus draw some conclusions about how good he became while he was at Harvard,” McManus said.

Reactions to the discovery of the poem have been enthusiastic. Keeline explained that the finding supports previous understandings of Native American education at Harvard.

What was remarkable to me was that Larnell, whose native language wasn’t even an Indo-European language, was educated in the same way that someone would have been educated in England at the time.”

Kenard G. Dillon ’17, a member of Harvard’s Native American community, also said he believed that the discovery was significant. “You don't hear much about the Indian College, and any new information on the history of it is welcome.”

Larnell’s poem represents a larger trend of cultural and social themes in the colonial period, as well as the legacy of Harvard’s Indian College, students said.

“It’s a testament to our ability to adapt as cultures,” commented prospective history concentrator Lauren R. Mandaville ’17.

With respect to the Indian College, Dillon explained, “It had a lasting impact that influenced Harvard’s current efforts to recruit talented Native American students.”

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