Almost every Cantabrigian knows that Harvard University was named after John Harvard, who donated half of his estate and his entire library to the newly formed institution in 1638.
Perhaps few Cantabrigians know that John never lived in Cambridge. In fact, he and his wife, Ann Sadler, settled in Charlestown in May 1637 with their household goods, cattle, and a large inheritance – passed down after most of the Harvard family succumbed to the plague – that they took with them across the Atlantic. Harvard established himself rather quickly, building a new house, purchasing enough land for his cattle to graze, and, most importantly, becoming a freeman, which meant he could enjoy full political rights and privileges. He also became a teaching elder at the First Parish Church of Charlestown where he explained scripture and delivered sermons.
Perhaps even fewer Cantabrigians know that John did not found Harvard nor attend the institution. Harvard, which at the time was called the New College, had been in operation a year before he arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As far as his education, Harvard attended Emmanuel College in Cambridge, England, a Puritan stronghold, a decade earlier to receive religious training.
By September 1638 at the age of 30, the childless Harvard contracted tuberculosis and died, bequeathing £779 and 400 books to the New College across the river, transforming him into a “semi-mythical figure in early colonial history.”
No writings, papers, sermons, or letters of John Harvard exist. His 400 book library was destroyed during a fire at Harvard in 1764. And perhaps most interestingly of all, no one knows what he looked like. The statue of Harvard sculpted by the venerable Daniel Chester French is modeled after one of the artist’s students.
It is rather ironic that a university’s whose name is easily recognized the world over was named after someone we all know so very little about.
1. Waters, Henry F., John Harvard and His Ancestry, Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1886.
2. Harvard family. The John Harvard Family Collection : an inventory, Harvard University Archives, http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hua05007.