One 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.