Quick, when did Harvard graduate its first Native American scholar? The 1960s? The 1860s? How about 1665? Yes, that’s right—1665.
Founded in 1636, Harvard very quickly found itself in financial difficulties. In order to stay afloat, the college obtained funding from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, which was formed for the purpose of converting Natives to Christianity. Harvard’s 1650 charter called for “the Education of the English and Indian Youth of the Country,” and the college agreed to build an “Indian College” where Native Americans could study free of charge. The Indian College building also included a printing press operated by James Printer, a Nipmuc convert, who translated and typeset at least fifteen books in the Algonquian language
Only a handful of Native American students are known to have attended the college. Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag from Martha’s Vineyard, was the first Native to graduate from the short-lived Indian College in 1665.
Author Geraldine Brooks uses Caleb’s story as the starting point for her beautifully told historical novel Caleb’s Crossing. Brooks combines fact and fiction to follow the journey of Caleb, a Wampanoag chief’s son who hopes to save his people from destruction by learning the language and ways of the English settlers. His story is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the (fictional) daughter of a minister striving to convert the Wampanoags on Martha’s Vineyard to Christianity. While Caleb struggles with the two cultures, Bethia struggles with her role as a young woman hungry for learning at a time when higher education (and, often, any education at all) was reserved for males.
Bethia and Caleb strike up a secret and forbidden friendship, each learning the other’s language and ways. They share a hunger for knowledge and a yearning for freedom from the stereotypes that limit their opportunities. They see education as a way to be free in spirit, if not in fact.
Eloquently narrated and thoroughly researched, Brooks’s novel ably captures the voice and spirit of the seventeenth century, a time when gender and ethnic roles were rigidly enforced, and crossing boundaries could prove fatal.
For information on an archaeological dig on the site of the Indian College, see this article: https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/561
For more about Caleb and the Harvard Indian College, go to: – http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~amciv/HistoryofIndianCollege.htm