Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1817 Letter

Edmund Arnold Wetmore

Delivered: 1867

After the proceedings of the semi-centennial celebration of the founding of Hamilton College, and especially after the very full, elaborate, and able discourse of President Fisher delivered on that occasion, it is difficult, indeed almost impossible to add anything of interest relating to the early history of the institution. In that discourse, and in the addresses and letters which accompanied it, ample mention was made not only of the founders and builders, and first guardians and teachers of the College, but of almost all the early alumni who became in any considerable degree distinguished, and ample justice done to their characters and their labors. All important facts in regard to its origin, its condition, its educational character, its struggles with difficulties, its progress, and its influence through its years of infancy, and the staple anecdotes of that interesting period, were presented in pleasant and attractive speech and writing. The whole subject seems to be exhausted. Yet, one who was a pupil of the institution for nearly four years, commencing in the second year of the second stage of its existence, may possibly state a few things from information and memory, which, though unimportant, may possess some little interest for those who followed him, and who are curious in matters of antiquity.

President Fisher says in his discourse, "A college, especially in a new country, cannot be extemporized, nor instantly created. It must grow like any other solid product. It must possess an organic life, and that life must have time to develop itself, and become vigorous and strong." It may be added, that the history and experience of most American colleges show that that life must be given by men of brains, of some learning, of much practical knowledge, of great energy, of strong will and power to overcome difficulties, of undoubting faith, and of sincere and ardent devotion to the cause of education — highly appreciating its value and necessity in establishing and sustaining the principles of civil and religious liberty and order.

Doctor Fisher has strikingly and eloquently illustrated these truths — in part by reference to him (Samuel Kirkland, missionary to the five nations of Indians) who planted, almost in the wilderness, the germ of an institution upon which, in words often quoted, he invoked "the smiles of the God of wisdom," and prayed that it might "prove an eminent means of diffusing useful knowledge, enlarging the bounds of human happiness, and aiding the reign of virtue, and the kingdom of the blessed Redeemer." I doubt if the true purposes and uses of an institution of learning were ever expressed in words of greater simplicity, pregnancy, and beauty.

I am aware that these remarks, and the allusions to Mr. Kirkland, have a very slight connection with "the annals" of the Class of 1817, and of the College during the four years in which that class received its maternal care and instruction; but I cannot revert to so early a period of its history without thinking and speaking of him who brought it into existence. His life and methods show that he knew and felt the truth, announced by Dr. Fisher, that a college could not be "extemporized" — that it must have time and space to grow; and that he knew, too, that there were no short or easy ways to any great and permanent good. It may not be amiss to repeat these truths frequently, and even in this very humble place, though it may have little or nothing to do with the proper subject of this paper. The spirit of the age leads to attempts not only to extemporize colleges, but to extemporize almost every form of earthly good, and to make short cuts to the prizes which the divine wisdom has decreed shall be reached and kept only by patient, persevering and intelligent labor, continued through long paths filled with hidden and constantly recurring obstacles. Mr. Kirkland labored through many weary years to arrive even at a visible beginning. He traveled extensively, endeavoring to interest and enlist other minds in his works of charity and good will to man. He devoted his property, his person, and indeed all that he had, and all that he was, to the service of his fellow men, truly "without distinction of race or color." They who worked with him, and they who immediately followed him, were possessed of the same spirit.

I have in my possession a small memorandum book or journal, in Mr. Kirkland's handwriting, from which I give a few extracts, not that they relate to the College, but to afford a glimpse of the prominent traits of his character in his early years. They tell also something of the condition of the country in the vicinity of Hamilton College 97 years ago; and mark the difference between a journey from Oneida to Herkimer and Johnstown then and now.  He writes:

Jan. 15, 1770 — Set out from ye German Flats with my wife, for Onoide — Mr. Honicle and Fort Herkimer, John Tigert and two Indian slays in company — lodged at Capt. Shoemaker's. 16.—Proceeded to Fort Stanwix—the weather extreme cold — froze my face — lodged at Mr. Bruffs. 17; Wed. — Weather still extreme cold — proceeded on our journey — at sunset arrived at Kanoaohare, or upper Onoide — a joyful interview with some of my people in the evening —  mutual joy in our meeting — found my house unfinished, and to use a vulgar phrase, every thing up-side-down. 18, 19, 20; Thursday, Friday, Sat. — Worked like a slave, and spent ye eve'g chiefly with my ppl., and visiting some of ye sick — except Friday, we have had a singing and conference meeting — opened with prayer, and concluded with a word of exhort'n — have the joy to find my children in the truth — blessed be God — not unto me, but unto thy name, O L'd, be ye glory — Amen and amen.

At the time of this journey Mr. Kirkland was 29-years-old, and had been married four months. He writes again:

Feb. 5. — Wrote 3 letters in ye morning, and visited ye sick — and then went 5 miles out to look for my horse, (which went off last night,) intending to go to Fort Stanwix, about 20 miles hence, for some provisions; towards evening rode in a slay about 2 miles, and dug up some flat stones which I discovered about a year ago, and brought home to support my chimneys, they being made of raw brick, are much broke away, and not like to last till spring without great care.
Feb. 8. — Assisted in getting wood — and some house work, and a weary day I had of it.
9. Frid. — Spent sometime with two Indians, assisting in getting wood. An hour or two of study in the evening.
Feb. 12. — Monday. Set out for the German Flats to get some provisions, and intend to proceed to Col. Butler's for some money I hear Dr. Wheelock has sent there for my present necessities. Rose at 4, set off at sunrise; came to Fort Stanwix, P. M., and preached a lecture. Baptized two children — Martin, son of John Ruff, and Martha Christian, daughter of Wm. Cline — lodged at Mr. Ruff's.
13, 14, 15, at Fort Stanwix. Tuesday evening joined in matrimony Daniel Pierson and Margaret Dancer.
Wednesday. — Much unwell, with a cold and pain in my breast, occasioned by sitting so long at a low table writing letters to friends.
17. — Proceeded to the German Flats in company with some of ye people of Fort Stanwix to assist in breaking the road; found the road extremely bad — the creeks very high by ye late rain. Obliged to swim through six rivers and rivulets with horses and slays. Wet and hungry all day — about sunset reached lake, tied the horses in the
woods — crossed the Mohawk river upon the ice, and slept at Thompson's — a very fatigueing day this has been.
19. — L. D. Obliged to go forward — with much difficulty got horses and slays across the river — and again at ye upper Fronks, reached Mr. Honicle Herkimer's before sunset. Evening, parted with my Indians — gave $2 to Thomas and Skenando to redress ye misfortune sustained by ye long and dangerous journey.
20. — Monday. Proceeded to Col. Butler's for the money sent there for me by Dr. Wheelock. With much difficulty and danger crossed the river — dined at Mr. Perry's in Stony Robby. In the evening to Sir Williams, when it began to hail and snow most violently — detained there by ye storm till next day — treated with great kindness and civility by his Honor.
21. —P. M. Went to Col. Butler's — lodged there — kindly entertained. Received £30 sterling, which had been sent there by Dr. Wheelock.
22. — Inye morning went to Major Fonda's on business, accompanied by Col. Butler. P. M. set out on my return.

Such, with continual preaching, lecturing, and teaching, and much attention to the affairs of the general government with the Indian tribes, constituted through many years almost the daily life of Samuel Kirkland, until through other years, and other fields of ceaseless, unselfish toil, his labors culminated in the founding and endowment of "a well-regulated Seminary of learning," in the manner described in Dr. Fisher's discourse. I make no distinction between Hamilton Oneida Academy and Hamilton College. The latter was a continuance of the former; having only a new name with means of instruction and powers of usefulness enlarged and perpetuated. Hamilton College was founded in 1793.

In 1813, the visible property of this College consisted of  "the grounds," the old Academy building (containing 14 students' rooms, a laboratory and a chapel), the President's house in the east corner of the grounds, (I believe the foundations of Hamilton Hall), and the Commons Hall (now the cabinet), with long woodsheds extending from the two ends, and ornamented at their extremities by brick water-closets of simple architectural design. In front, along the west side of the road leading north, was a very plain, feeble, white paling, with gates used principally for the purposes of slamming, swinging, and lifting. Where the observatory now stands, and west and north of its site, was a growth of ragged trees and underbrush, the ground was very wet, and seldom or never explored, there being no temptations to mischief. There was not a tree or shrub in front of the buildings. There were two or three small farmhouses in the distance, west of the College. The north road led, by rough and devious paths, to Cary's tavern on the "Genesee road," where patriotic boys of the College resorted to celebrate the Fourth of July. The house now owned by Professor Root was "Lee's tavern," where a certain class of students used to run up bills for "sundries." Where now are the Professor's beautiful garden and grounds was an almost impassable gulf, offensive to the sight, and, in the eyes of that period, bidding defiance to all attempts at cultivation or use, for any purpose whatever. On that side of the road below Lee's, to the foot of the Hill, was only the small house afterwards occupied by Dr. Noyes; and on the opposite side were the little unpainted tenement of Caesar, ("the professor of dust and ashes"), the ancient Anderson house, and Powell's dwelling and shoe-shop.

The members of the faculty were President Backus, Professors Norton and Noyes, and Tutors Strong and Dean. The name and character of Dr. Backus are known and honored by all men, who ever heard of the former eminent clergyman of Connecticut, or of the College over which he presided. No one who ever knew or saw him could forget him. Though he was not a man of extensive learning nor a thorough and accurate scholar, yet no one questioned his fitness for the high place which he occupied. There was, in his presence, a consciousness of intellectual and moral power, which, forbidding inquiry into detail, placed him instinctively at the head. He was truly a man of genius, and yet in the exercise of his powers he was ever guided by common sense, and controlled by a sensitive and enlightened conscience, and the purest and highest religious sentiments and principles. In the pulpit, (in the sphere in which he moved,) he had hardly a peer. His printed discourses do him no justice. A reader would wonder at the effect of his preaching. It was produced by his emotional nature giving utterance to his thoughts in words which were not, and could not be written — by the pathos of his voice — by his speaking face — the expression of his clear and beautiful eye, and the simplicity, dignity, sincerity, and earnestness of his whole appearance and manner. He loved his pupils, and treated them with affectionate consideration. In the recitation room he taught from the resources of his own mind, using the lessons of the textbooks chiefly as suggestions.

Professor Norton was an accurate and finished classical scholar, apt to teach, and taking great interest and pleasure in his profession. A student who desired to learn, secured his good will and encouragement, and his cheerful and ample aid in all cases of difficulty. He taught with a consciousness of full and certain knowledge, and no question was made of the correctness of his instructions. He was emphatically "the right man in the right place."

Professor Noyes illustrated the law of kindness in all his works, words, and ways. He knew no guile. In his department he was full of knowledge, and took great pleasure in imparting it to others. It was not, however, well digested or arranged; yet he made his lectures instructive and interesting, and was never at a loss in answering inquiries and giving explanations and illustrations. He was not always fortunate in his experiments, but his ingenious and pleasant way of accounting for his failures served at least to enliven the lecture room. His apparatus was limited and imperfect, and his laboratory was small, unpleasant, inconvenient, and miserably furnished.

Professor Strong, (tutor until 1816), is still living, but I cannot pass him without a word or two. He has retired from the halls of instruction, and is in the enjoyment of competence, contentment, and a cheerful spirit, and has more than the usual health and vigor of men at his time of life. He had, I am sure, the affectionate regard and gratitude of every student of the College who had the will and the capacity to be benefited by his teaching. In his department, I believe he was without a superior in any American college. The most abstruse and difficult mathematical problems were his playthings.

Of Mr. Tutor Dean but little has ever been written or spoken. I have always regretted that he did not make teaching his profession. He graduated at Union with the highest honors of his class. He was an accomplished classical and English scholar. His translations were beautiful, while at the same time they conveyed accurately the meaning of the author. He was distinctively a gentleman, and was very popular with the students. He governed without an effort, and without using words of authority. Anyone who should have offered him the slighest indignity, would have met with the frowns and indignation of his fellows.

I entered College towards the end of the first term of the freshman year. I was taken to the President's house, exceedingly frightened, but I was kindly received. He directed me to the College for examination. I went to Mr. Dean's room, where I was examined by him and Prof. Norton — they hearing me read a few lines in Virgil, five or six verses in the first chapter of John's Gospel, asking me to parse a few words in each, propounding half a dozen questions in some English study, I have forgotten what. The whole affair occupied 15 to 20 minutes.

Quarters were assigned to me in the northwest corner-room, first floor, already occupied by S.W. Taylor, Eleazer Lathrop, and Charles S. Henry — a family of four in one compressed apartment, with two closets annexed, called bedrooms.
The room to which I have referred was furnished in the most primitive manner. There were two or three pine or cherry desks or tables; perhaps half a dozen wooden-bottomed chairs, with a pail, a basin or two, and two or three tumblers in a cupboard. There was no carpet — indeed there was not a carpet in the College except in Professor Norton's room. Our door opened into an entry ventilated by a large outside door, which was generally open for the free admission of wind, rain, and snow. That corner received the concentrated power of all the west and northwest winds; and my impression is that we never suffered by anything resembling the modern contrivances for imperfect ventilation, and the exclusion of oxygen from the atmosphere. The room was warmed by a wood fire in a large open fireplace, and this was the method of warming every other room. There was not a stove in the building. We, and a large number of the students, brought our firewood in our arms, from the woodshed. This, with some other simple practices, prevented the necessity of a gymnasium.

My class, through its whole course, recited sometimes in one room and sometimes in another, according to circumstances; all of which rooms were so prepared and furnished as to prevent luxurious habits, and inure "young gentlemen" to hardships. There were no blackboards, and no apparatus, except now and then a globe, and in the laboratory a few tubs, blowpipes, retorts, receivers, and an air pump.

The services of the day, in the winter, commenced by prayers in the Chapel at six o'clock, and often in an atmosphere in which the polar bears would have enjoyed themselves; then to recitation by (tallow) candle-light, and in an atmosphere a very few degrees above that of the Chapel; and then to breakfast in the Commons hall, which there was an attempt to warm by two large oven-like piles of brick, (one at each end), plastered over, and called Russian stoves, and one of which did not go at all — breakfast on long, cold-looking pine tables painted white, with long wooden benches for seats.

All the students, with the exception of a very few special cases, were obliged to board in the commons. This hall was a favorite place for plunder. A considerable portion of the provisions of the table were smuggled into pockets, papers, bags, and hats, and carried off to the students' rooms for evening picnics. In addition to these supplies, there was sometimes a turkey or a chicken, procured through an underground road to a poultry yard, and roasted before an open fire, by suspension by a string fastened to the mantel. It is grievous to say that these picnics were sometimes visited by uninvited members of the faculty. This always produced confusion.

At the breaking up of our family arrangement in the corner, I was sent to a room with one chum. Our beds were in a shallow recess formed by the jutting of the chimney. There was a large dark closet intended for a bedroom, but that was occupied by rats, who furiously disputed possession with all comers. We yielded at once. They made nightly incursions, in military array, into our premises, carefully examining our beds and our clothing, especially our boots and shoes, hovering around the fireplace, and having a good time generally. I think I never saw in a similar space an equal number of those pleasant animals.

I do not remember when we took possession of our new College, Hamilton Hall, but believe it was before the close of the sophomore year. Almost all our rooms there were comfortable and pleasant; cool in summer and warm in winter, except recitation rooms at half past six o'clock in the morning. This hall remains, I believe, as it was at the time of which I write, except in its exterior dilapidation, the closing of the fireplaces, possibly some interior changes, and in the removal of a bust of Hamilton from a niche in the middle and near the top of the front wall, and a golden eagle which spread its wings above it. I do not know when they were removed, nor what disposition was made of them.

The Chapel remained in the old building. There we attended prayers morning and evening. Dr. Backus preached Sunday mornings, and generally to a "full house." The great majority of the students needed no compulsion or urging to attend religious services conducted by him. His prayers were almost as attractive as his sermons. They were brief, simple, pathetic, devotional, and altogether beautiful. In summer the chapel was pleasant enough, but in winter it was cold as I. have described it. The president frequently preached in overcoat and mittens. Sometime during my College course a small stove was put up there, which served to prevent frost. At twelve o'clock we had a cold dinner and were then obliged, in summer, to walk through the heat and dust, and in winter, to wade through the snow, to the old meeting-house on the green in the village. We had seats in the gallery, where, sometimes, we suffered severely with the cold. The warming of churches in the country is a modern invention; a sign, our fathers would think, of "modern degeneracy." We had the pleasure of listening to sensible, and sometimes practical, but to boys, very dull and uninteresting discourses, from that excellent man, the Rev. Dr. Asahel S. Norton, of blessed memory. No better, purer, or holier man ever held the office of pastor over any people. He was a ripe scholar, continuing his acquaintance with the classics, and reading extensively, until very late in life; but he could not interest college students on a warm summer's, or a cold winter's day.

On Monday morning in the senior year, we received moral and religious instruction from the president, during the short time he remained with us, using Vincent's Catechism as a textbook — a book which, I fear, was shockingly neglected, and I think was never read by more than half a dozen in the class, and many never opened it ; but we all heard Dr. Backus talk.

There was one institution which was abolished, I believe, soon after 1817; probably much to the regret of all who were irregularly and frequently thirsty and hungry — that was "the Buttery "— a room in the north corner basement of the Commons hall, where raisins, almonds, nuts, apples, crackers, stationery, beer, and cider were kept for sale; but where no student was allowed to incur an indebtedness of more than $5 a term without the special permission of his parent or guardian. It was open for one hour after the evening meal. During my day it was kept by my classmate, Taylor, who received a small compensation for his services.

We had a code of laws consisting of 10 chapters, printed in a pamphlet of more than 20 pages, somewhat in the style of the revised statutes. It provided for almost all possible sins of commission and omission, and all kinds of behavior and misbehavior. There was one ominous chapter, headed, "Of Crimes and Misdemeanors." It contained solemn enactments against assaulting, wounding, or striking the president, or a professor, or tutor, or maliciously breaking their windows or doors; against fighting, striking, quarreling, challenging, turbulent words or behavior, fraud, lying or defamation, or any such like crimes; against breaking open doors, or picking locks, and against blasphemy, robbery, fornication, theft, forgery and. dueling, with suitable penalties imposed for transgressions. This code may exist at this day, but I suppose is not studied as a guide. My recollection is that it was not closely followed, in all things, even when supposed to be the student's rule of life. I am sure that there was some quarreling, striking, lighting, a good many turbulent words, much turbulent behavior, that some windows were broken, and that some bones were blown up with a view of starting doors and locks; that the prayer bell would not always ring, having lost its clapper, or having been turned down side up, and filled with water which became ice; that sheep and calves were introduced into the Chapel and conducted to the professors' seats; that tables with all that they held of provisions and crockery were upset in the hall, and that noises as of a battle or an earthquake, were heard in the night; all of which was in palpable violation of the code.

The exercises of our junior exhibitions and Commencements differed somewhat from the exercises of the present day. At Commencements we had disputes and colloquies, and at junior exhibitions we had dialogues and "played plays," generally of a very comical character. The Class of 1815 enacted the Capture of Derne, written by one of the class, a performance filled with startling incidents, patriotic and military.

The following is a copy of the scheme of the Commencement exercises of the Class of 1817. It was printed on a half sheet of common foolscap paper:

Of the Exercises to be Exhibited at the public Commencement,
Hamilton College, September 17, 1817.
1. Distribution of Schemes.
2. Sacred Music.
3. Prayer.
4. Salutatory Oration in Latin. Eleazer Lathrop.
5. A Dissertation on the Influences of the Arts and Sciences on National
Character. Charles S. Henry.
6. A Dispute on the Question, "Is Luxury Beneficial?" John M. Capron, Daniel Leroy.
7. A Dissertation on American Genius. Pelatiah Rawson.
8. An Oration on the folly of representing the present life as a state of misery. Edmund A. Wetmore.
9. Sacred Music.
10. A Dispute on the question, "Will mankind again return to a state of barbarism?” James Anderson, G.W. Lay.
11. An Oration on Decision of Character. Asher Tyler.
12. An Oration on Moral Sensibility. Halsey Townsend.
13. Valedictory Oration. Stephen W. Taylor.
14. The Conferring of Degrees.
15. Sacred Music.

What I have written respecting the condition of the College in 1813-1817, and at an earlier period, shows a pursuit of learning under difficulties; and yet the College then produced good scholars and strong, able men who went out and fought, (and a few are still fighting), the battle of life usefully and victoriously — doing good in their day and generation. This is owing in no small degree to the fact that they had difficulties to contend with, producing vigor and self-reliance. They were surrounded, taught, and influenced by strong men. Not only the founder, but many of his associates and immediate successors, were among those who had been engaged in laying the foundations of the government, and opening the paths of civilization. It was a time for men of hardy structure, intellectually and physically. It is well that the College is the child of labor, anxiety and trial. When she takes her place close by the side of her elder sisters in the east, as at no distant day she surely will, she will have a history to commit to her children to be read by them with pride and gratitude.