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Amherst College Early History Collection

Identifier: MA.00055
Digital Collection: Amherst College Early History Collection
Digital Collection: Amherst College Early History Collection

Browse 1 digital objects in collection

Scope and Contents

Printed material, legal documents, financial records, correspondence and other papers documenting the history of Amherst Academy, the Charity Fund, and the resulting inception and founding of Amherst College as an institution for the education of "indigent young men of promising talents and hopeful piety." The collection brings together from disparate sources the early founding documents of the College from its inception in 1817 to its securing of a Massachusetts charter in 1825 through to its gradual institutional stability in the latter 19th century. Printed material includes early circulars and catalogues of both Amherst College Academy and Amherst College. Materials relating to several 19th century trustees of the College are also included.


  • Creation: 1815-1891
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1815-1849

Conditions Governing Access

There is no restriction on access to the Amherst College Early History Collection for research use. Particularly fragile items may be restricted for preservation purposes.

Conditions Governing Use

Requests for permission to publish material from the Amherst College Early History Collection should be directed to the Archives and Special Collections. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights.

Biographical / Historical

Before Amherst College received its charter from the Massachusetts State Legislature on February 18, 1825, it had been conceived out of the previously existing Amherst Academy, which opened in 1814 and received a Massachusetts charter in 1816. The role of the Academy in the inception of Amherst College is unambiguously described as follows by Frederick Tuckerman on page 27 of his definitive history, Amherst Academy, 1814-1861 (1929):

"The founders of Amherst Academy were also the founders of Amherst College. The College owes its origin to the pious zeal of certain members of the Board of Trustees of the Academy, and the records of the Academy were the records of the College during the first four years of its existence, or until the granting of the charter in 1825."

As the quotation indicates, the records of Amherst Academy begin earlier than Amherst College and extend beyond the date of the granting of its charter. Their placement, near but not of, what follows is indicative of the somewhat non-linear relationship between the two.

Amherst Academy opened December 6, 1814, and was incorporated February 13, 1816, to provide education for children of both sexes at a level preparatory for collegiate instruction. Students who attended Amherst Academy include Mary Lyon (founder of Mount Holyoke College), Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson. Amherst Academy closed in 1861, and the site was sold to the town of Amherst, which erected the Amity Street public school on it.

The founding of Amherst College arose neither from the visionary leadership of one or two wealthy benefactors, nor from any real encouragement from the state. Rather, it was very much a communal enterprise based on local citizens' enthusiasm for education. At the annual meeting of the trustees of Amherst Academy in November 1817, Colonel Rufus Graves presented a plan for a charitable foundation in the Academy to give free instruction to "indigent young men of promising talents and hopeful piety, who shall manifest a desire to obtain a liberal education with the sole view to the Christian ministry." The following year, Graves proposed a much more ambitious plan for a college, beginning with "the raising and managing of a permanent charitable fund as the basis of a Classical institution for the education of indigent young men of piety and talents for the Christian ministry." This was the origin of the Charity Fund, the endowment that was essentially the foundation of Amherst College. $50,000 was to be raised by subscription. Monetary contributions both large and small were received from the citizens of Amherst and the surrounding towns. As a site for the new college, a ten-acre plot of land was transferred to the Trustees by Colonel Elijah Dickinson, an Amherst selectman and member of First Church, in a deed dated May 15, 1818. On this land, which became the nucleus for the future land acquisition for the campus, the cornerstone of the college's first building (now known as South College) was laid on August 9, 1820.

On May 8, 1821, the trustees of Amherst Academy elected Rev. Zephaniah Swift Moore, then president of Williams College, as president of the "Collegiate Charity Institution" (as the incipient college was known) and appointed him professor of theology and moral philosophy. By the summer of 1821 the new college was forming a faculty and preparing to admit students to any of four classes. Inauguration of for the new president took place on September 18, 1821 in the First Parish Meeting House. Forty-seven students matriculated into four separate classes in that first term, including fifteen former Williams College students who were loyal to Zephaniah Swift Moore and followed him from Williamstown.

For the first few years of its operation, the institution was known as "The Collegiate Institution, Amherst, Mass." The catalogue of October 1825 first bore the name "Amherst College" - named not after Lord Jeffery Amherst but after the academy from which it originated and the town in which it was located.


5.5 Linear feet (5 archives boxes, 2 half archives boxes, 1 oversize flat box, 2 bound volumes)

Language of Materials



Printed material, legal documents, financial records, correspondence and other papers documenting the history of Amherst Academy, the Charity Fund, and the inception and founding of Amherst College. Includes early circulars and catalogues of both Amherst College Academy and Amherst College, as well as material relating to several 19th century trustees.


This collection is organized into five series:

  1. Series 1: Amherst Academy Records, 1815-1894
  2. Series 2: Inception and Founding of Amherst College, 1818-1891 (bulk 1818-1825)
  3. Series 3: After the Charter, 1825-1849
  4. Series 4: Nineteenth Century Trustees of Amherst College
  5. Series 5: Unbound Book Covers and Photocopies

Other Finding Aids

  1. Amherst Academy Business and Financial Records
  2. Amherst College Early History Manuscripts and Pamphlets Collection
  3. Alfred Ely (1778-1866) Correspondence
  4. Joseph Vaill Papers

Custodial History

The Early History Collection was compiled from surviving records in a variety of locations, including the records of Amherst Academy as well as from Memorabilia volumes assembled by Edward Hitchcock, president of Amherst College, 1845-1849. Because the history of Amherst College is tied so closely to that of Amherst Academy, materials related to Amherst Academy are included in Series 1 of the Collection. Series 2-4 document the inception and early period of Amherst College.

Related Materials

  1. Amherst College Memorabilia volumes: miscellaneous bound pamphlets, sermons, circulars, etc.
  2. "The Cradle of Amherst College." Amherst Graduates' Quarterly, XIX, no. 3 (May 1930): 151-156.
  3. Fuess, Claude Moore. Amherst: The Story of a New England College. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935.
  4. Tuckerman, Frederick. Amherst Academy: A New England School Of The Past, 1814-1861. Amherst: Printed for the trustees, 1929.
  5. Tyler, William S. A History Of Amherst College During the Administrations of its First Five Presidents from 1821 to 1891. New York: Frederick H. Hitchcock, 1895.
  6. Tyler, William S. A History of Amherst College during its first half century, 1821-1871. Springfield, Mass.: C. W. Bryan, 1873.
Elaine D. Trehub, Peter Nelson
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Repository Details

Part of the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections Repository

Amherst College Archives & Special Collections
Robert Frost Library
61 Quadrangle Drive
Amherst MA 01002-5000
(413) 542-2299