The original American colonies were settled by the English, who landed on North America’s Atlantic coast. As the colonies grew, so did the necessity for institutions of higher learning. The first such college was Harvard University, founded in Massachusetts in 1636. Today it is one of the most prestigious schools in the world. Along with Harvard, there are eight other schools which were founded in colonial times and are grouped together informally to constitute the “Colonial Colleges.” Seven of these nine are still linked through their membership in the athletic Ivy League, and even the newest of these schools is over two centuries old.
Every school on this list was founded in the 17th or 18th Century. The majority of them existed prior to the Revolutionary War, and the last two were founded in the same year George Washington took office as the first President of the United States. This list contains a variety of schools, from small, exclusive private institutions to large public universities. It should come as no surprise that Founding Fathers George Washington and Benjamin Franklin are players in the stories of more than one school, since their power and influence were great in the 18th Century.
This list is a celebration of the histories of these schools, and of the circumstances of their foundings.
John Harvard died in 1638, and his bequest— £800 and a scholar’s library of 320 volumes— to the new college in the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Cambridge was so appreciated, the school was named after him. The amount was twice what the Colony had set aside to establish the school two years before. A bronze statue of John Harvard by Daniel Chester French sits in Harvard Yard.
College of William & Mary
William & Mary is a so-called “Public Ivy,” a group of eight schools that provide an “Ivy League” experience at an affordable, public-school cost. They claim that their school was in the planning stages decades before Harvard, but was delayed by an “Indian uprising.” The land for the college was purchased in 1693, and one of the boundary stones laid in 1694 can still be viewed in the Swem Library.
St. John's College
King William’s School, founded in 1696, was the Maryland Colony’s grammar/prep school for almost a century before the State of Maryland chartered St. John’s College, absorbing it. Prior to the establishment of St. John’s, students from King William’s continued their studies at William and Mary College. Four of the founders of St. John’s signed the Declaration of Independence, including America’s richest man, Charles Carroll, who contributed £200 to the endeavor.
Yale University began in 1701 as the Collegiate School, located in the home of Reverend Abraham Pierson, its first rector, in Killingworth. The school settled permanently in New Haven in 1716, and was renamed in 1718 for Elihu Yale, who donated money, over 400 books, and a portrait of King George I.
Washington College traces their origin to George Washington’s gift of 50 guineas and the permission to use his name. The college is the tenth oldest in America and the first chartered in the United States. It grew from the existing Kent County Free School, which through the efforts of Reverend William Smith transformed into Washington College.
In 1742, the Bethlehem Female Seminary became the first boarding school for young women in the American colonies. It was founded by 16 year-old Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf. The school was incorporated by the State of Pennsylvania in 1863 and renamed Moravian Seminary and College for Women in 1913. A men’s Moravian College & Theological Seminary, also tracing its roots to 1742, combined with the women’s school in 1954 to create Moravian College.
University of Delaware
In 1743, Reverend Francis Alison opened a free school at his home in New London, Pennsylvania. This school was eventually chartered by Pennsylvania in 1769 as Academy of Newark (Delaware was part of Pennsylvania until 1776), which became Newark College in 1833. In 1843, Newark became Delaware College, and in 1921 it was renamed the University of Delaware. Delaware merged with the Women’s College of Delaware in 1945 to become a modern coeducational university.
Like many of the Colonial Colleges, Princeton was first opened to train ministers. Founded as College of New Jersey in 1746, the school moved to Nassau Hall, Princeton in 1756. During the Revolutionary War Battle of Princeton, British soldiers occupied Nassau Hall until their surrender to American Brigadier General John Sullivan. In 1896, the College of New Jersey became a university and changed its name to honor its host community.
Washington and Lee University
The institution now known as Washington and Lee University was first called Augusta Academy. The school then moved to Lexington and was chartered as Liberty Hall Academy. Several years before his death, President George Washington bequeathed $20,000 in stock to the Academy, and the school renamed itself Washington Academy in his honor. In 1813, it was rechartered as Washington College. After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee became the school’s president and led it through Reconstruction. Lee’s name was added to the name of the school after he died in 1870.
University of Pennsylvania
The Academy of Philadelphia opened in August 1751 and within four years, the College of Philadelphia received a charter. Benjamin Franklin was involved with this educational endeavor and favored what would become known as the “liberal arts,” though his term was not adopted then. Penn is the home of the first medical school in America, which started offering classes in 1765, as well as the first college-level business school, Wharton, founded in 1881. In 1791, the College of Philadelphia became the first school with “university” in its name when it became the University of Pennsylvania.
Columbia University in the City of New York
In 1754, what we know as Columbia University today was founded as King’s College in New York. Historically significant students of King’s College included Alexander Hamilton, Robert R. Livingston and John Jay. In 1784 the school was renamed Columbia in honor of nation’s quest for independence during the American Revolution, of which the school played a part in. Columbia is the oldest institute of higher learning in New York state.
The College of Rhode Island was founded in 1764 and began offering classes the next year at Warren, Rhode Island. The institution moved to Providence in 1770 and was situated on land purchased in large part from Moses and John Brown. In 1803, the College Corporation offered the naming rights to the school for the sum of $5,000, which was answered in 1804 by Nicholas Brown, Jr., who eventually donated over $160,000. During the Revolutionary War, school buildings were used by American and then French soldiers.
Rutgers University - New Brunswick
In 1766, Queen’s College was chartered by colonial New Jersey’s last governor, William Franklin, named in honor of Charlotte. The school was renamed in 1825 after Revolutionary War hero Col. Henry Rutgers, who donated a $5,000 bond and a bell that still hangs in the school.
Dartmouth College grew out of Eleazar Wheelock’s efforts to found a school for the education of Native American youth, and was chartered in New Hampshire by Gov. John Wentworth. The school was named for William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, who donated to Wheelock’s early attempt to start an Indian school; surprisingly, Legge opposed the College. Dartmouth is the last of the Colonial Colleges.
College of Charleston
The long delay between the founding and chartering of the College of Charleston can be attributed to political rivalries and disagreements followed by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Three of the founders were signers of the Declaration of Independence, and its first president, Robert Smith, served as a Patriot soldier.
University of Pittsburgh
With roots in a log-cabin prep school, the Pitt claims to be the oldest continuously-chartered college west of the Allegheny Mountains. Hugh Henry Brackenridge obtained the charter for Pittsburgh Academy in 1787. Rechartered as a university in 1819, the institution took the name Western University of Pennsylvania, and then became the University of Pittsburgh in 1908.
The idea for a Moravian all-girls school came to 17-year-old Sister Elisabeth Oesterlein in 1766 when she walked from Bethlehem, PA to Salem. In 1772, a boarding school for girls and women opened. It was renamed Salem Female Academy in 1866. Salem College began offering college degrees in 1890. It is recognized as the oldest women’s college in the US, though today men over 23 years of age may enter into its Continuing Education division.
Originally the Carlisle Grammar School, founded in 1773, Dickinson College was chartered on September 9, 1783. This was only six days after the Treaty of Paris concluded the Revolutionary War. Dickinson, based on this date, claims to be the first college chartered in the new United States. The school was named for John and Mary Dickinson, who donated their large library to the school.
Founded by Samuel Stanhope Smith, a graduate of College of New Jersey (Princeton), the school was named after Englishmen John Hampden and Algernon Sydney, who were revered by the colonial Patriots as martyrs of democracy and freedom. The school started offering classes in 1775. It’s the last college chartered under colonial rule, and has never suspended operations. It is also one of three remaining all-men’s liberal arts colleges in the US.
Chartered in 1780 under Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson, Transylvania, like Pitt, claims to be the first college founded west of the Allegheny Mountains. Located in Lexington, Kentucky, the area was first called the Colony of Transylvania (Latin for “across the woods”).
Washington & Jefferson College
Tracing its roots to three log-cabin academies, Washington & Jefferson is a unification of two colleges. The Canonsburg Academy became Jefferson College in 1802 and Washington Academy became a college in 1806. The two combined following financial problems after the Civil War in 1865.
University of Georgia
Georgia was the first state to charter a state-supported university with the University of Georgia. Though chartered in 1785, the university did not offer classes until Franklin College, named for Benjamin Franklin, opened in 1801. Abraham Baldwin, a Yale graduate, was the first president of the college.
Franklin and Marshall College
Franklin College was chartered in 1787 and named for Benjamin Franklin, who donated £200 to the institution. Marshall College opened in 1836, but despite a solid reputation, ran into financial difficulties. Merger talks between the two schools began in 1849 and concluded in 1853 with future U.S. President James Buchanan as the president of the board of trustees.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chartered in 1789 by the North Carolina General Assembly, UNC’s cornerstone was laid near the ruins of an old chapel in the central part of the state. UNC was one of the few universities among the Confederacy that remained open during the Civil War. The University of North Carolina is the oldest public university in the United States.
After the Revolutionary War, plans were developed to open a Catholic university. With Benjamin Franklin’s recommendation, Bishop John Carroll was named head of the Church in America. Under his direction, Georgetown University was founded.