The Archives of Phi Gamma Delta

Archives Home  Founders  Traditions  Today in History  Historic Sites  Leaders  Exhibits/References  Contact



I Wanna Be First!!!

By James T. Herron, Jr.

Back to History Articles page

Originally published in The Jefferson College Times, Volume 12, Number 4, March 1979. Reprinted with the author's permission. The Jefferson College Times is a publication of the Jefferson College Historical Society. Society membership is open to all: Individual $10; student $5; contributing $15; business or institutional $25; sustaining $50; life $150. Send membership requests and fees to Joseph A. Solobay, 514 Craighead Street, Canonsburg, PA 15317. 

"We're Number One" is proclaimed on banners. Television cameras pan across forests of index fingers pointed skyward, what is going on? Skunkcabbage State has just defeated its bitter rival, Monkeywrench Mechanical, in the first football game the valiant Stinkers have won in three seasons. Hooray, hooray for number one.

Colleges also play the "Number One" game in fields other than athletic. Many of the claims are no more valid or objective than those upraised fingers. Of particular interest is the "we're the oldest" claim. It would seem that determining which school was first in a particular area, geographic, academic, or both, would. be easily accomplished. This is not so; the school making the claim also has the option of making up the rules.

Some think that the phrase "first college west of the Allegheny Mountains" is the exclusive property of Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pa. However, similar words have been printed referring to the University of Pittsburqh and Transylvania University. The date 1787 graces the Pitt seal, and Lexington's Transylvania University was incorporated in 1799. Each of these dates is earlier than Jefferson College's 1802. How can Jefferson be the first?

To further confuse the issue, Washington and Jefferson College, the result of a union of Washington College and Jefferson College in 1865, celebrated its bicentennial in 1981.The school celebrated its centennial  in 1902. Can its second century pass in less than eighty years? Well, strict veracity is not among the rules of the "we're Number One" game.

The institutions of higher education in the West of the late 1700's originated because of cultural and geographic isolation. The settlers, predominately of Celtic stock, had brought with them in material things little more than the clothes on their back. But they had brought with them an indomitable spirit. Many had defended their rights in the Revolution and they would continue to defend what they thought was right no matter whom they had to trample. These rough, stubborn people, mostly farmers or craftsmen, were soon followed by ministers and lawyers, necessary adjuncts to frontier life, if only to  keep the peace.

It has been said that it was the preachers and the lawyers who were the only men on  the frontier who had any money. Physicians tended to nave trouble collecting their debts, but most preachers and lawyers enjoyed a relatively good income. These were the educated men. On the frontier an education was of value - in real money.

However, such an education was beyond the reach of most of the young men of the Upper Ohio Valley.    After a lack of money, probably the greatest hurdle was in the preparation for admittance to a college.    Common schools taught children to read and to write and to do basic arithmetic, but a mastery of Greek and Latin was required to enter a college.

To meet this need, small log cabin Latin schools sprang up where ambitious young men studies Latin and Greek, often under the tutelage of a minister. These schools, of which John McMillan's school was one, existed primarily to supply men tor the ministry, although some strayed into law, politics and other advantageous endeavors. These log cabin schools were not colleges. The instruction offered was narrow in scope with a limited objective.    In McMillan's case, no tuition was charged. These primordial educational institutions existed for only a relatively short tine. McMillan's Log School had a life of about ten years. Academies were  founded to take  their place. An academy was a school wnere students might prepare for college or business, and would be comparable to the present-day high school. In most cases, a log cabin school did not metamorphose into an academy. The log cabin schools were small and tutorial. The academies were more ambitious. They sought to attract a larger and more divergent student body,  were divided into classes and had a larger faculty. The academies we shall consider had boards of directors and a state charter, as well as designs upon upgrading their level of education to the status of liberal arts colleges.

Each of these early liberal arts institutions, Transylvania University, Western University of Pennsylvania (now Pitt), and Jefferson College, was preceded in time by an academy. It should be noted that the designation, university, implies that an institution is composed of a number of schools or colleges, of which a liberal arts college is one.

Since Transylvania,  Western University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson was each incorporated as an institution for the dispensing of a liberal arts education, one would think tnat judging which has priority would result from determining the date of incorporation in each case. However, the act of incorporation only legitimatizes a board of directors or trustees, under an institutional name, to act for a specified purpose - in this case, to run an education factory.

When a college is incorporated, the trustees may be granted permission to provide students with an appropriate education with the end result that a college degree is awarded, but the legislation  is merely a charter, not a certification that such is the ease. Institutions nave been chartered as colleges which never awarded a single degree and were colleges in name only. Also, degrees have been awarded to persons who did not complete a college curriculum at the institution whose name appears on the diploma.

How, then, can we judge which institution was the "first college west of the Allegheny Mountains" or the "first school of higher learning in Western Pennsylvania"? Do we make a judgment on the basis of:1) the  first  to be incorporated, 2) the school with the earliest direct predecessor, or 3) the first to function as a college of liberal arts?

Each of these criteria have been used as the means of winning the "we're number one" game, as can be seen when we look at the histories of these institutions of learning in the western United States of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Transylvania University

Of the western institutions of higher learning, Transyl­vania University can claim the earliest antecedent. Before the establishment of our national independence, Virginia granted 8,000 acres of land in Kentucky, then a part of Virginia, "for the purpose of a public School or Seminary of learning." The stated purpose was "to promote the diffusion of useful knowledge even among (Virginia's) remote citizens, whose situation in a barbarous neighborhood might otherwise render unfriendly to science." Three years later, in 1783, the Virginia Legislature passed an additional law granting the "Trustees of the Transylvania Seminary all the other powers and privileges that are enjoyed by the visitors and governors of any college or University within the state."

As has been stated, a distinction should be made between the enactment of enabling legislation authorizing the establishment of an institution of higher education and the actual existence of such a school. Transylvania seminary had a name, a charter and trustees, nut no teachers or students.

Transylvania Seminary did not open until early in 1785 when the Rev. James Mitchell was selected as a teacher at a yearly salary of S100.00. Mitchell did not last long and within a year the school ceased operation, not to open again until 1789 when a "grammer master" was hired by the trustees to teach in a schoolhouse near Lexington. This teacher,  Isaac Wilson, had already established the Lexington Grammar School and his selection was, in effect, a union of two schools, the Grammar School which had pupils and Transylvania Seminary which had a charter. However, this venture was also unsuccessful. By 1791, when James Moore replaced Wilson as teacher, the enrollment nad dropped from 13 to 5. The seminary also lacked a building; Moore kept school in nis house.

In April, 1794, eighteen students were enrolled and subjects typical of a liberal arts college curriculum of the day were offered - Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Greek New Testament, astronomy, mathematics and natural philosophy. However, each of these courses were taken by only one student and amounted essentially to tutoring. The majority of the student body studied grammar.

James Moore resigned in June, 1794, and the new president, Harry Taulmin, presided over but six students. However, by October he had built the enrollment up to thirty pupils ranging in age from eight to fifteen.

Presbyterians who had supported the seminary were generally critical of the choice of Taulmin.    Coincidental with the election of Taulmin to head Transylvania Seminary came the founding of a new school, the Kentucky Academy. This school like Transylvania, was a private school predominately elementary in nature. Under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church, the Kentucky Academy was chartered by the Kentucky legislature in December, 1794. By 1798, the school was reported to have "out­stripped the Seminary at Lexington" (Transylvania).

Financial problems plagued both schools. The resignation of Toulmin allowed the factions which had caused the division to consider reunion. On December 22, 1798, the Kentucky legislature granted a charter for a merged school, effective January 1, 1799, to be known as Transylvania University. Thus two grammar schools united to become a university.

The university status allowed the school to grant degrees in medicine and law. Several attempts at establishing a medical school failed before success came in 1816. The law school was similarly undistinguished in the early years of the university, although Henry Clay served as professor of law from 1805 to 1807. Soon afterwords, the law lectures were delivered by volunteers and the non-law faculty, and it was not until the 1820's that the law school became stable.

The academic status of Transylvania University for its first twenty years was low. It was a university without a liberal arts college. Entrance requirements in 1799 stated that "applicants must show the ability to read English with some degree of facility and write legibly."

The university's first commencement was held on April 7, 1802, when one student was granted a Bachelor of Arts degree. His education must have been primarily tutorial.

Accounts as to the quality of education available at Transylvania University are generally unfavorable.   Walter W. Jennings, in a history of the school states that "only 22 stu­dents graduated from 1799 to 1818 and they were more poorly trained than the present high school graduate."

A latter from "The Hibernian Visitor" appeared in a Kentucky newspaper in 1804. The letter states:  "There were professors, but few students; and the latter appeared to be composed generally of youth in the pursuit of the inferior and less distinguished departments of literature, to the almost total rejection of scientific and classical learning."

An 1815 report to the state acknowledges that the school was not at the college level. In its report, the University complains that "numerous public seminaries will always thin the ranks of any university circumstanced like this." The university also reported that its full course consisted of only one year of instruction.

In 1816, Dr. Thomas Cooper, the professor of chemistry at the university, in a letter outlining his qualifications to become president of Transylvania stated: "I consider myself worth your attention, chiefly for the purpose of employing me in converting your grammar school into a college." Cooper didn't become president, but the same year a committee investigating the university echoed his sentiments in a report that stated that the character of the school was poor and that its pupils were largely children.

In time, Transylvania University became a successful institution for liberal arts education, but such was not the case during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Transylvania University was a corporate body authorized by the state legislature to offer, among other things, a college education. However, the university was not required to provide a curriculum of study organized for the purpose of providing a liberal arts education to retain its charter. Until the 1820's, Transylvania was a university by law, but was not in actuality

what we would commonly consider to be a collage or university. However, there is no denying that Transylvania was the first institution west of the mountains to be chartered as a school of higher education.


University of Pittsburgh

The University of Pittsburgh is an outgrowth of the Pittsburgh Academy, the first educational institution chartered in Western Pennsylvania. The date of the academy's charter, 1787, is emblazoned on the University's seal to this day. In numerous articles, it has been stated that Pitt was chartered in 1787 and is thus the oldest institution of higher education west of the Appalachians. Some authors come closer to the truth by reducing the geographical area. Chancellor William J. Holland, in the "First Alumni Year Book of the Western University of Pennsylvania" (Pittsburgh, 1893) states that "the Western University of Pennsylvania is the oldest institution of learning in Allegheny County, being the outgrowth of the Pittsburgh Academy...".

The Pittsburgh Academy, the earliest progenitor of the University of Pittsburgh, was chartered by the Pennsylvania Legislature February 28, 1787 in an act entitled "An Act for the establishment of an Academy or public school in the town of Pittsburgh." Among the 21 incorporators of the academy were five, John McMillan, Matthew Henderson, Joseph Smith, David Bradford and James Ross, who later the same year were among the incorporators of the Washington Academy.

Although the Pittsburgh charter was obtained in 1787, instruction at the academy did not commence until 1789. Several years later, a two story brick building with one room on the first floor and two on the second was built to house the school. In the mid-1790's, the headmaster, a Reverend Arthur, advertised teaching "the reading of English according to the most approved method."

A prospectus dated May, 1796 states that "lower classes will be taught orthography Reading and a just pronunciation Writing, Mercantile Arithmetic, Navigation, Surveying, & Bookkeeping." The upper classes studied the "usual branches of classical education...". The advertisement also noted that "a French and Dancing Master will also attend."

The Pittsburgh Academy differed from its contemporaries in Washington and Canonsburg in that it was coeducational. Also, instruction was more elementary and the student body younger than at these other nearby academies. A newspaper account of the performance of the Pittsburgh Academy students in April, 1804 stated: "Many of the boys were not more than twelve years of age, some under ten." One of the teachers at this time was James Mountain, who formerly had taught at Canonsburg Academy. He was, according to James Carnahan, who succeeded him at Canonsburg, an exceptional classical scholar.

Pittsburgh Academy was in operation at least until 1819, when the state legislature chartered its successor, the Western University of Pennsylvania. However, it is evident that at this time the academy was not providing instruction at the college level, as it was not until 1822, three years later, that a new college level curriculum taught by a new faculty was installed. In 1823, Western University of Pennsylvania's first graduating class, which consisted of three men, was awarded BA degrees.

Through the years, the university grew physically in students, faculty, departments, schools and stature.  A new campus was required, and the present Oakland campus was selected. At the laying of the cornerstone of the school's first building in Oakland, on October 2, 1906, it was announced that the University would not only have a now campus, but also a new name, the University of Pittsburgh.

A statement that the University of Pittsburgh was the first liberal arts institution in Western Pennsylvania is fallacious. However, this impression is easy to come by if a carefully worded, accurate statement is mis-read. Chancellor Samuel B. Mccormick wrote for the University of Pittsburgh Alumni Directory of 1910: "The first charter to an institution of learning west of the mountains granted by the legislature of Pennsylvania, February 28, 1787, created the Pittsburgh Academy." The statement says nothing about college level instruction, and includes only the state of Pennsylvania.

Also leading to misunderstanding is the date, 1787, on the University's seal instead of the more accurate 1819. This is another example of claiming priority by referring to an antecedent, non-collegiate institution.


Washington & Jefferson College

Jefferson College, chartered January 15, 1802, was the successor to the Canonsburg Academy and Library Company. The college's July, 1833 catalog stated: "Jefferson Colloge was chartered by the State, and regularly organized in 1802. Prior to that time there existed an academy, called Canonsburg Academy, which commenced soon after the first settlement of this country. This was the first literary institution west of the mountains. It originated in a small log-cabin, where the first Latin school was taught by the Hon. James Ross, of Pittsburgh, under the patronage and direction of Rev. John McMillan."

As can be seen, the "We're the oldest" game was played many years ago. In this 1833 salvo, the claim is based upon John McMillan's school being the first west of the mountains. The question as to whether the McMillan school was the direct progenitor of Canonsburg Academy is discussed at great length in the History of Jefferson College by Joseph Smith (1857). However, McMillan, in a letter to James Carnahan, implies that the log school and the academy coexisted for a time, but that the McMillan school was no longer needed after the academy opened. McMillan stated: "I still had a few with me when the academy was opened at Canonsburg, and finding that I could not teach and do justice to my congregation, I immediately gave it up and sent them there." McMillan was the driving force behind Canonsburg Academy and its successor, Jefferson College until his death in 1833.

Prior to the founding of Canonsburg Academy, McMillan had been one of the incorporators of the Pittsburgh Academy and of Washington Academy. He soon withdrew from active participation in the Pittsburgh venture, probably before the school commenced operation. The Washington Academy had failed due to the destruction by fire of the court house where classes had been held.

John McMillan's account of the founding of the Canonsburg Academy is found in the Records of the Trustees of Jefferson College, dated December 29, 1817 and written in McMillan's.

Back to History Articles Page