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A cornerstone of Harvard, the first university in America, is Harvard Indian College. Harvard struggled financially soon after its 1636 inception. To support the faltering college, the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England (SPGNE) raised and granted funds for Indian education at Harvard. The College, in turn promised to waive tuition and provide housing for American Indian students. The founding Harvard Charter of 1650 manifests this promise and dedicates the institution to "the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge: and godliness."
The Indian College’s founders hoped graduates would proselytize their home communities with the Gospel.
The ca. 1655 Indian College was Harvard's first brick building, and its second building built for educational purposes. It stood west of Harvard’s Old College, approximately where Matthews Hall now stands. A total of five Native students attended the Indian College. These men were marked as future leaders, honored by their home and adopted communities.
All 17th-century finds particularize the story of the Indian College and its sweeping implications. Every fragment teaches us about the daily experiences of Indian students and their English counterparts. Today, students research the collections to explore nuances of colonial interactions that eventually transformed the globe.
In the 17th century, the Indian College was the sole brick building in the Yard. The only known image of the Indian College is H. R. Shurtleff’s conjectural restoration, which was published in 1936 in Samuel E. Morison’s Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. Since there are no 17th-century maps or illustrations of Harvard, this reconstruction was based on historical documents, existing 17th-century New England structures, and early 18th-century Harvard structures such as Massachusetts Hall.
While Shurtleff’s depiction of the Indian College provides some insight on the building, archaeological data from the 2009 excavation season provides additional, detailed information on the structure.
In the final days of the 2009 dig, we uncovered the remains of a 17th-century trench situated on the parcel of land where the Indian College stood. The trench was filled with foundation stones, clay roof tiles, and vast quantities of brick, including a special brick, known as a plinth squint. One of the items recovered from the trench was a piece of printing type from the printing press housed at the Indian College. The location, size, and structure of the trench, along with the materials found inside, indicate that it was a foundation for a building—most likely the Indian College building.
The uncovered portions of the trench measure nearly three feet wide by at least twelve feet long with a possible corner uncovered in the southernmost portion of the excavation, suggesting part of an east wall and the southeast corner of the structure. Shurtleff’s restoration denotes that the walls were one foot six inches thick and that the eastern wall measured twenty feet from north to south. The portion of the trench excavated and the size and placement of the foundation stone are certainly consistent with the illustration; however, other artifacts recovered provide further detail on otherwise unknown aspects of the building.
Shurtleff’s depiction of the building exterior suggests that it was unornamented; little or no detail is provided on the brickwork or nature of the roof. Numerous clay roof tiles were recovered in and around the trench, signifying that the roof was more substantial than previously known. The presence of a decorative brick called a plinth squint would have marked the transition from the thicker, lower part of the wall meant to compensate for the changeable New England water table, to the thinner, upper part of the wall. In this way, this brick represents a desire to preserve the Indian College against natural, damaging elements while also giving the walls dimension, and in doing so, embellishing them.