Harvard graduates

Alicia Crane WilliamsOne of the best sources I use is Biographical sketches of graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. John Langdon Sibley compiled the first three volumes, covering the classes of 1642 through 1689 (published between 1873 and 1885). The collection is still colloquially known as “Sibley’s Harvard Graduates,” although his successor, Clifford K. Shipton, published more volumes covering classes from 1690 through 1771 (between 1933 and 1975), a total of 17 in all. The text from these books is available in the database Colonial Collegians: Biographies of Those Who Attended American Colleges before the War for Independence on americanancestors.org.

These biographies demonstrate how rarified the college experience was in the seventeenth century. In the first volume (1642–1658) class size averaged 5.4, ranging from zero in the classes of 1644 and 1648 (and one in the class of 1652) to a maximum of ten in 1651. The men who attended the college came from the elite of the elite, sons and grandsons of the men who controlled the religious, political, and financial world of the colony. They were “ranked” according to their social position rather than academic abilities, although all would have needed sufficient intelligence to deal with a curriculum that included Latin, Greek, logic, mathematics, and moral philosophy.

They were “ranked” according to their social position…

The graduates of the Class of 1651 in ranked order were: Michael Wigglesworth, Seaborn Cotton, Thomas Dudley, John Glover, Henry Butler, Nathaniel Pelham, John Davis, Isaac Chauncy, Ichabod Chauncy, and Jonathan Burr.

Michael Wigglesworth, despite feeble health, was to become a prominent minister at Malden, Massachusetts, respected as “intensely conscientious, ardently religious, and restlessly seeking always to perfect himself in holiness.”

Seaborn Cotton was the son of the highly respected Rev. John Cotton of Boston. His brother John graduated in 1657 and their sister Mary Cotton married Increase Mather, who graduated in 1656. They became parents of the famous Rev. Cotton Mather.

Thomas Dudley was the grandson of two governors of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley. Unfortunately, young Thomas died within a few years of graduation.

John Glover became “a distinguished” merchant and large land owner.

Henry Butler became a minister in Dorchester.

Nathaniel Pelham was the son of the college treasurer, Herbert Pelham, but came to a tragic end in 1657 when he and fifty other passengers, many of “great worth and virtue,” set sail on a ship never to be heard from again. Classmate John Davis was on the same ship.

Isaac and Ichabod Chauncy were sons of the college’s president, Charles Chauncy. They both became ministers.

Jonathan Burr was the son of Rev. Jonathan Burr and step-son of prominent magistrate Richard Dummer.

Even if our own ancestors did not belong to the socially or politically elite of early New England, their lives were greatly affected by the men who did. These biographical sketches are another enlightening resource to help us experience the context of their times.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

10 thoughts on “Harvard graduates

  1. Thanks, Alicia, for the heads-up on College Collegians database. I’ve used the hardbound Sibley/Shipton Harvard Grads for info on an obscure 18th century Massachusetts minister. Do you know if Shipton’s research notes are held by Harvard or elsewhere? He makes reference to a ministerial council about the dismissal of this minister. But neither his research nor info on these councils seem to be available, for instance, at the Congregational Library or American Antiquarian. Any thoughts on where to look?

      1. If it’s related to Harvard, even student theses, are in the archives. Also, do an online search in the library databases for any topic or person, and you will find information. There is some public access to the databases, and you can also get a researcher’s pass.

        1. Thanks, Reine. I’ve looked at a few of the Harvard libraries’ catalogs, but probably not thoroughly enough. –Eileen

  2. Thanks for highlighting this wonderful resource…and most especially for featuring the class of 1651. Henry Butler was the uncle of my 8x great-grandmother, Mary (Butler) Athearn. He was one of many Congregational clergy who returned to England to minister during the inter-regnum, and continued as a non-conformist minister after the Restoration of 1662. He was even nominated to return to Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1670 to replace Richard Mather (father of Increase Mather, and grandfather of Cotton Mather mentioned in your description of Seaborn Cotton).

    As soon as I read about Nathaniel Pelham and John Davis being victims of a 1657 shipwreck, I spotted another family connection: Thomas Mayhew, Jr. and his brother-in-law Thomas Pain(e) were also on that ship.

    A little research turned up this comment in the records kept by the Rev. Samuel Danforth while serving the church in Roxbury:
    “1657 This Winter Mr Garrets ship was lost, w’in was mr Thomas Mayhew Preacher to ye Indians, mr Davis sometime schoolmaster at Hartford, mr Jonathan Ince, mr Nathaniel Pelham wth many others.”

    A little side note that connects some of these dots: Thomas Mayhew’s grandson Pain (per his gravestone and town records kept in his own hand, and NOT spelled with an “e,” as is found in most secondary sources) had a daughter Mary Mayhew, who married Henry Butler’s great-nephew Jethro Athearn. I know there weren’t really that many folks around, but it’s fun to play a little game of “Six Degrees of Harvard Graduates”!

    Will have to check out some other ancestors in this resource. Thanks again!

  3. Having checked this out, it is great fun to get many more details about some distant cousins and uncles. Caveat, which holds true for most secondary resources: you can’t believe everything you read. Even a cursory review has unearthed “facts” not upheld by the real records, such as an ancestor dying in 1739 when he actually died in 1740/1, and another who married his second wife “about 1792” when the marriage actually took place in 1777, shortly after he stepped down from serving as aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington.

  4. Shipley showed up in one of my NEHGH searches and turned out to be a treasure. I was trying to find a possible acquaintance link between a 1754 Harvard graduate, Samuel Foxcroft, my 4th great-grandfather and members of the John Marsh family of Hingham, MA. Samuel was the first minister of the New Gloucester, ME Congregational Church, Samuel’s daughter married by third-great grandfather, Shubael Marsh born in Hingham. Sibley said Samuel “kept the Hingham school for a time” and the Hingham town history indicates it was all or part of the year 1754. Sibley also wrote about Shubael’s uncle Thomas Marsh, class of 1731. Thomas became a Harvard librarian and appears to have been a tutor when Samuel was a student at Harvard. When Thomas died he appears to have left his estate to Shubael’s brother. Ebenezer Gay was classmate of Samuel’s father, Thomas Foxcroft, Harvard class of 1714. Thomas Foxcroft became a minister of the First Church of Boston and Ebenezer became the minister of Hingham’s First Church. Ebenezer baptized the Marsh children in Hingham. There is evidence of some association in later years of these two Harvard graduates. Shipley provided clues for researching a hypothesis.

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