Origins of 10 famous schools

You might take for granted that big name schools like Yale and Stanford have always been around. While they do have histories that go back hundreds of years, they each had to start somewhere. Often, the stories about how these early colleges came into existence are quite interesting and make for great reading – even if you’re a college student somewhere else, as many of these schools played a key role in the formative years of the United States and the cities and states we know today. Here are just a few stories to educate you on how some of the biggest and most well-known colleges in the U.S. got their start.

  1. Stanford University: There is a myth about the origins of Stanford that is quite widespread. It states that a family wanted to set up a memorial to their son and approached the administration at Harvard where they were discouraged. Put off by the Ivy League school, they decide to set out westward to not only set up a memorial, but dedicate an entire school to their son’s memory. While the story is charming, it isn’t entirely true. Stanford University was started by Leeland Stanford, a California railroad tycoon to honor his son, but not because Harvard had shut him down. It was Stanford’s plan all along to replicate Harvard and other Ivy League schools on the West Coast, and the businessman and politician paid big bucks to bring out experienced teachers and administrators to start up the school. While Stanford U struggled through the turn of the century, it came to be an educational powerhouse after the establishment of industry in what today is known as Silicon Valley.
  2. Yale University: Founded in 1701, Yale is the third-oldest university in the United States – older than the country itself. The school was created as a place where clergy and political leaders could be trained in the new colonies rather than having to be imported from England. The story thickens, however, as unrest grew between rival school Harvard’s clergy and president over-religious politics, causing the latter to promote Yale in hopes that it would to return to the Puritan values he felt so strongly about. While the religious leaders of Yale were fairly conservative, they were also swept up in the spirit of the Enlightenment and encouraged students to learn just as much about science and the laws of nature as they did about theology. The school almost came to an early end during the American Revolution when British troops ordered it to be razed, but it was saved just in the nick of time and has gone on to become one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher education.
  3. Princeton University: Princeton also holds the title of one of the oldest colleges in the United States. Established in 1746 by a group of New Light Presbyterians, the school served as a center of religious education for the region’s numerous Scotch-Irish immigrants. Yet only a few years after it was established, it was nearly destroyed. During the Revolutionary War, the school was severely damaged in the Battle of Princeton. George Washington led his troops against the forces of British General Cornwallis, eventually causing them to retreat into Princeton itself. There, British troops took cover in Nassau Hall, Princeton’s oldest and possibly most historic building. There, they were forced to surrender, a victory that helped raised morale in the army and increased enlistment– factors that may have played a role in the ultimate success of the revolution. Few schools can claim a history so intimately tied to that of the founding of our nation and while it took a toll on the school, Princeton has emerged as an academic powerhouse in the decades following the war.
  4. Georgetown University: The pilgrims may have come to America seeking religious freedom, but the country didn’t stay free from religious persecution for long. Following a defeat in the English Civil War, strict laws were enacted against Roman Catholic education and required the extradition of any known Jesuits in the colonies. It was not until the American Revolution that a Roman Catholic school could be founded, and that’s just what happened in 1789 with Georgetown University. The school had just started to grow and expand when the Civil War broke out, causing many buildings to be commandeered for use by Union troops. The school declared itself neutral territory and chose blue and gray as their school colors, representing the colors of the Union and Confederate uniforms. The war took a heavy toll on the school and it nearly went under until Patrick Francis Healy, a former slave, took it over and reformed the programs. Because of the rebirth he afforded the school, Healy is regarded as its second founder and played a major role in the continued success enjoyed today.
  5. The College of William & Mary: If you want historical schools, there’s only one older than the College of William & Mary. Founded in 1693 by a royal charter, the school helped to educate founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Because it was so closely allied with the British royals, all school leaders were required to be members of the Church of England and declare their adherence to the Thirty-Nine Articles, a fact that would become an issue during the American Revolution when freedom of religion became a key issue for colonists. The school, like many others at the time, was not only interested in secular education but religious education as well. Because of this, colonists also set up a branch to help educate the Native American men of the area, hoping they would bring their lessons back to their tribes and share them. The school is ranked among the top in the nation today, but like Georgetown almost met its end when it was used to house Confederate troops during the Civil War.
  6. Tulane University: Tulane is unique among American universities in that, while today it is private, it was originally founded as a public institution of higher education. The school began in 1834 as the Medical College of Louisiana, in response to high levels of fatalities from illnesses like smallpox, yellow fever and cholera and a lack of properly trained doctors to treat them. At the time, it was only the second medical school in the entire southern United States. Through the next few years, the school would expand to include a law school and would be renamed the University of Louisiana. Yet the Civil War would be hard on the institution, and the agricultural depression and recession that followed the war would cause it to nearly go under. It was only the work of Paul Tulane, a wealthy businessman, which allowed it to survive. With his financial support and guidance, the school began to flourish and was eventually transferred from the state into private hands– the only such conversion to ever have taken place in American higher education. Today, Tulane is one of the premier colleges in the south, with a bright future and a rich history.
  7. Dartmouth College: Founded shortly before the American Revolution, Dartmouth is much different today than when it was created. Eleazor Wheelock, a Puritan minister, wanted to create a school to educate Native Americans to act as missionaries. After raising money at home and abroad, Wheelock would establish the beginnings of Dartmouth College. As it turns out, however, he didn’t plan the location of the school very well, and being far from any Indian lands it made recruitment nearly impossible. The school expanded to include educational programs for white students as well in order to stay afloat. Only a few short years after the college got on its feet it faced additional problems. The State of New Hampshire attempted to take over the school, and wanted to make it a public university. Dartmouth fought the state and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court when it was, as you can guess, decided in its favor. While the school puttered along throughout the 19th century, it was not until a grant given in the early 20th century that it truly emerged as the prestigious institution it is today.
  8. Columbia University: As the oldest college in New York and the fifth oldest in the nation, Columbia University has a rich history behind it. It was created by a royal charter given by King George in 1754 and was originally known as King’s College. After the Revolutionary War, this name understandably wasn’t particularly favorable, and the school was renamed Columbia College. What is interesting about the founding of this university, however, is what motivated state and local officials to petition to get the college there in the first place. At the time, Princeton University was a rising star in education on the East Coast, a fact that disturbed a number of conservative leaders at the time. Not only was Princeton a Presbyterian school interested in the ideals of the Enlightenment, but it also posed a threat to the cultural and intellectual superiority of New York. Spurred on by these concerns, New Yorkers established their own rival school with the help of the British Monarchy. This association may have helped it get its start, but it was also nearly its downfall, causing the university to be closed for eight years during and after the war.
  9. University of Pennsylvania: Another Colonial College, The University of Pennsylvania is an extremely old institution by American standards, getting its start in 1740. The University was founded by noted politician and inventor (not to mention founding father) Benjamin Franklin as a place where students would not only learn the essentials of classics, theology and academics, but would be able to prepare for careers in public service and commerce as well. Things the school is still known for today. Franklin’s proposed program of study became the basis for most modern liberal arts curricula, blending a variety of different disciplines to create a more well-rounded educational experience. Through the successive decades, the school has grown and expanded, with tens of thousands of students pursuing high regarded educational programs each year.
  10. University of Missouri: The first public institution of learning west of the Mississippi, the University of Missouri was founded in 1839 through the Geyer Act. Because having the university established in a local community was such a big deal, cities within the state battled it out, with Columbia winning after coming up with $117,000 in land and cash. The school had scarcely been around for two decades before the Civil War caused it to close, but it was not abandoned by the local citizens. They banded together to form the “Fighting Tigers of Columbia” bent on repelling anyone who intended to come into the city or college to loot or destroy it. Their determination inspired the school to name its teams after the group. While some of the original buildings on campus no longer stand, the University is today one of the biggest in the Midwest.

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About Nathan and Joanna Cornett

We are a from San Diego California, currently on a mission trip in Guatemala. Nathan has worked as a youth pastor, teen center director, college advisor, and now missionary. Joanna has worked at LaBahn's Landscape for 7 years in the field, sales, and as the Vice President, she started the Hispanic ministry at Foothills Church, and has worked in youth ministry, she is now working as a missionary. We are both passionate about youth, worship, and missions.

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  1. Origins of 10 Famous Schools « Jenkintown Guidance Blog - May 10, 2011

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