The Archives of Phi Gamma Delta

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



Jefferson College, Canonsburg Pennsylvania, in 1848

By James T. Herron, Jr.

Back to History Articles page 

Originally published in The Jefferson College Times, Vol. 31, No. 3, September 1998. 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.

A small, one-room log building has long been identified with Jefferson College. In fact, it often has been confused with Jefferson College, because the man who built it, John McMillan, pioneer Presbyterian minister of Western Pennsylvania, looms large in the Jefferson's history.

The college's annual catalogs refer to John McMillan's "Log School House" not as a predecessor of Jefferson College, but as its root. Instruction in the one-room school, though, was not on the college level. The students went there to learn Greek, Latin, mathematics, and other subjects needed for licensure as Presbyterian ministers, but the curriculum was not broad.

The Rev. John McMillan, a 1772 Princeton graduate (then known as the College of New Jersey), became a Presbyterian minister and accepted a call to the frontier between the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers in 1776. He had two churches but bought a farm and lived near the Chartiers (Hill) Presbyterian Church, a mile south of Canonsburg. Because of the danger of Indian attack, his wife and baby remained in Chester County until October 1778.1

His was the call of the missionary to the edge of civilization, but Princeton graduates of this era had an additional duty, to educate men for the ministry. McMillan accepted the task of becoming a teacher as well as a pastor. There was a competitive aspect to this. A Baptist or a Methodist of the time who felt the call did not need a classical education to become a minister. The Presbyterian denominations, however, required an educated clergy.

Though McMillan was not an outstanding scholar (he graduated in the lower third of his class), he began teaching a classical academy at his home about 1780. Soon he built a one-room log school building. Two contemporaries, Joseph Smith and Thaddeus Dod, had similar schools about the same time, but McMillan's probably was the first and lasted the longest.2

The time and effort required to be a teacher as well as a pastor made McMillan aware of the need for a school of higher learning on the frontier. This is not to say that McMillan taught all the students himself. James Ross, a young man he had known in the East, taught Latin, presumably in exchange for theological instruction. Ross, however, gave up his studies for the ministry to read law, in which sphere he became eminent.3

McMillan, along with other ministers and interested laymen, instituted an academy in Pittsburgh and another one twenty miles to the south, in Washington, both in 1787. Pittsburgh Academy soon turned into a finishing school for young dandies. The one in Washington was housed in the county courthouse. It did not open until 1789, and two years later, during the winter, the courthouse burned to the ground. Sentiment among the townspeople to continue the school in a new location was lacking, and Washington Academy became dormant.4


There are several versions of the story of the founding of the successful frontier academy at Canonsburg. Probably, a meeting was held after a communion service in July 1791, and John McMillan offered the use of his log school for yet another try at organizing an incorporated academy. John Canon then spoke up and offered not only a lot in his town, but also to erect a suitable building. The academy would receive the deed when Canon was repaid for his expenses.

It has been said that McMillan was miffed that the offer of his school was not accepted, but the following day he was present at the initial session of the academy, held on the bank of Chartiers Creek in "the shade of some sassafras bushes." The academy got its building, two stories and a finished attic, on the west side of Canonsburg's principal street nearly across the street from Canon's home.5


It was not until 1794, when it had been proven capable of survival, that the school was chartered as Canonsburg Academy and Library Company. The board of trustees was strikingly different from those of the earlier tries at establishing a frontier academy. John McMillan had been a trustee of both Pittsburgh and Washington Academies, but there were no ministers on Canonsburg's board. Each of the nine trustees lived in or near the town. David Johnson, who taught the school, was also a trustee, probably the only one with a college education.

Joseph Smith, in his History of Jefferson College, wrote in 1857 concerning McMillan's log school and the academy at Canonsburg that "the two schools were very soon . . . united." John McMillan wrote, in 1832, "I still had a few [students] with me when the academy opened in Canonsburg, and finding that I could not teach and do justice to my congregation, I immediately gave it up and sent them there."6


Within a few years the curriculum, faculty, and student body had expanded and the school was providing an education at what was then the college level. Beginning in 1796, the state legislature was repeatedly petitioned for a college charter, but this entailed political, rather than educational proficiency. Influential men, principally ministers and politicians, were added to the board, and the trustees were drawn from a wider geographic area.

President Thomas Jefferson's political adherents had control of the Pennsylvania legislature, which accounts for the change in the school's name to Jefferson College. It is not known whether the name was chosen by the legislature or by the Canonsburg Academy trustees, but Jefferson College received its charter from the Pennsylvania legislature on January 15, 1802.

The only change, other than the name, was the ability to grant degrees. Five men had fulfilled the requirements for an A.B. and received their diplomas in 1802. They were not boys: the youngest was a 22-year old transfer from Princeton; the oldest had been bom in Ireland thirty years before. The faculty consisted of John Watson, principal, and Samuel Miller, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy.

John McMillan carried the title, Professor of Divinity, but theology was not part of the curriculum of Jefferson College. He had been named a trustee but preferred to be a member of the faculty, possibly because John Watson, his protege and son-in-law was dying of tuberculosis. A few years later, in 1805, McMillan dropped his professorial guise and was designated the college's vice-principal.7


Jefferson was the fourth college to be chartered in Pennsylvania, The first, the University of Pennsylvania, had been founded as an academy in 1749 and became a college in 1755. Dickinson College, Carlisle, was next, in 1783, followed by Franklin College, chartered as "the German College and Charity School in the borough and county of Lancaster," in 1787.

The state legislature chartered no college for the next 15 years, but after Jefferson, in 1802, came Washington College, 1806; Allegheny College, 1817; Western University of Pennsylvania (Univ. of Pittsburgh), 1819; Lafayette College, 1826; Madison College (Uniontown), 1827; Pennsylvania College (later, Gettysburg College) and Haverford College, both 1832.8

By 1802, when Jefferson was chartered, there were just two other colleges in the state and neither of them was flourishing. Franklin College, Lancaster, had closed with no graduates. Its charter much later would be merged with Marshall's to form Franklin and Marshall College in 1853.

Dickinson College was open but was having trouble raising money to finish a new building. In 1801, there were only 40 students, and for three "yearling" classes, 1799 through 1801, a Dickinson degree had been devalued by reducing the course to one year. The college principal objected to the scheme, saying it would generate "only raw and ignorant Graduates." President James Buchanan wrote: "I was sent to Dickinson College in the fall of 1807, where I entered the Junior class. The College was in wretched condition; and I have often regretted that I had not been sent to some other institution. There was no efficient discipline, and the young men did pretty much as they pleased."9

The oldest institution, Penn, also was having difficulties. The faculty and trustees had been at odds for years. In January 1802, the trustees voted to discontinue the salary of the head of the college, the provost. For some ten years after 1800, the course was reduced to two years. In 1804, there were just 14 students; in 1807, 17. A new provost, appointed in 1813, promised "to raise this College from its present state of depression and decay and infuse new life and vigor into it." It would take a white, though. Jefferson consistently had the larger graduating classes.10

The ability of the infant Jefferson College to attract students certainly was improved by the difficulties the other Pennsylvania schools were having, but there were other viable colleges: Harvard University, 1650; William and Mary, 1693; Yale College, 1745; College of New Jersey (Princeton), 1746; Columbia College. 1754; Brown University, 1765; Dartmouth College, 1769; Queen's College (Rutgers), 1770; Washington College (Maryland), 1782; Hampden-Sydney College, 1783; St. John's College (Maryland), 1784; University of North Carolina, 1789; College of Charleston (South Carolina), 1791; Williams College, 1793; Union College (New York). 1795; Transylvania University, 1799; and Middlebury College (Vermont), 1800.11


None of the existing colleges were close enough to provide real competition for students, but some would have appealed to men who had to decide whether they wanted to go west for their educations. Washington and St. John's Colleges were in Maryland, part of a scheme to form a state university, but the two schools could not be joined and the legislature abandoned the idea in 1805. A University of Maryland would have provided competition for Jefferson, but two small Episcopalian colleges on the Chesapeake did not.12

The New England colleges would have had little effect on Jefferson due to distance and culture. Union College, Columbia, and Queens (Rutgers) would have been unlikely rivals, but the College of New Jersey was different. Princeton had a historical draw as the pre-eminent Presbyterian college. Before Jefferson College existed, Canonsburg Academy students (and instructors) had gone on to Princeton. The frontier pulpits were served by Princeton graduates. Schools were taught by Princeton men or their students.

Two colleges in a neighboring state that would have had advantages over Jefferson were the College of William and Mary and Hampden-Sydney, in Virginia. William and Mary was a venerable college, the alma mater of the statesmen of the infant republic, but like the Maryland schools, it had long been under the control of the Anglicans. Hampden-Sydney had been founded by Presbyterians to provide an alternative. Like Jefferson College, it had been founded and was strongly influenced by Princeton graduates, and the Presbyterians avoided making it sectarian.13

Transylvania University, the sole western school that could be considered a competitor in Jefferson's early years, began as Transylvania Seminary, a Presbyterian school founded when Kentucky was still a part of Virginia. It had begun instruction about 1789, but lost its Presbyterian board of trustees in 1792, when Kentucky achieved statehood. After a period of sectarian squabbling, Transylvania University was chartered in 1799.

The Kentucky school bestowed its first A.B. in April 1802, bringing into question the proud motto that Jefferson College was the "First College West of the Appalachians." Transylvania's degrees, though, were granted fitfully: one in 1802, 3 in 1806, and 2 in 1809. This appears more like education as a cottage industry than an institution of higher learning.

A visitor to Lexington wrote in the Kentucky Gazette in 1804, "There are professors but few students and the latter appeared to be composed generally of youth in the pursuit of the inferior and less dignified departments of literature, to the almost total rejection of scientific and classical learning." In 1805, the course was rudimentary, just two semesters.14

Although Jefferson College was founded as a factory for forging Presbyterian ministers, like Hampden-Sydney, it was not sectarian. The charter specified, "All persons of every religious denomination shall be capable of being elected Trustees; nor shall any person, either as Principal, Professor or pupil, be refused admittance for his conscientious persuasion in matters of religion."15


In 1806, Jefferson College got significant competition when Washington College, with the brilliant, if erratic, Matthew Brown at its head, was chartered. The following year the Jefferson trustees passed a resolution to replace the stone building they had inherited from Canonsburg Academy. Nothing was done, and in 1815 the minutes record, "Whereas the necessity of building a new College is apparent to every Trustee - the old one being in a decaying, tottering condition and by no means sufficient to accommodate the students in any comfortable manner, therefore, it was Ordered, that preparations be made immediately for building a new college . . . ."

Through a series of property transfers, Jefferson College came into possession of what had been John Canon's home, and where his widow still lived. A new brick edifice was built on the site, which would be the college campus as long as the college remained in Canonsburg. As for the "decaying, tottering" old college building, it became the home of the Widow Canon and stood until 1843 when the college sold it to the Borough of Canonsburg.16

The brick structure remained in use for 95 years, from 1817 until it was torn down in 1912 to make way for a new Canonsburg High School building. For a time it contained all the college classrooms, and there was an assembly room, Prayer Hall, on the third floor.

However, like its predecessor, it was quickly outgrown, and a new, larger building was erected adjacent to it. The building, dedicated the same year John McMillan died (1833), was not given a name, though the name of the first floor chapel, Providence Hall, was commonly used to refer to the entire building. The 1817 structure often was referred to as the West or Old College.

The chapel was at the rear of the first floor of the new building and was two stories high. In deference to the revered McMillan, the college did not hold Sunday church services, though the principals and most faculty members were Presbyterian ministers. The Presbyterian students and faculty walked the hilly mile to McMillan's Chartiers (Hill) Church.

For several years in the late 1820s, Matthew Brown, President of Jefferson College, assisted the aged pastor. Then, in 1830, presbytery acceded to a petition that called for the creation of the Presbyterian Congregation of Canonsburg. Rather than a pastor, the church had a "stated supply," usually the college president.

The pulpit was at the rear (north) wall of the building, and the auditorium was entered through a door in the center of its back wall. The sanctuary was wider than it was deep, and during the college years, the students filled the pews to the left, while the townspeople sat on the eastern side.17

Above the college chapel, on the third floor, were two suites of rooms, each with an atrium, a library, and a meeting hall. Between the mirror-image rooms was a narrow hallway ("Goat Hall") that served as an acoustic insulator and a place to hang coats and hats and change into carpet slippers.

These rooms were the chambers of the college's literary societies, Philo and Franklin, both established in 1797 in the old stone college. The college provided the rooms; the societies furnished them, including the libraries, which were far more extensive than the college library. The meeting rooms, with their chandeliers and carpets, were in strong contrast to the utilitarian classrooms.

The classrooms and the meeting rooms would have been warmed by a coal stove when needed, but there was no respite from the summer's heat. The college by-laws, written in 1846 when the college year ended in June, notes that "the college year commences after the heat of summer is over, and terminates before the excessive heat of the year following commences." This statement was made in conjunction with a discussion of the college uniform, "Black cloth cap, black vest and cravat or stock, a blue coat and dark gray pantaloons," of thinner material and substituting a glazed cap for warm weather.

The school uniform was mentioned in the 1847 catalog and no others. The idea probably was resisted by the students and quietly dropped. A summer term, though, was instituted and may be the reason most of the classroom work was scheduled for the morning hours.18

Jefferson College had three presidents m the 1840s, each of whom put into effect a different college year. Under Matthew Brown, commencement was the last week of September and vacations were in October and April. When Robert J. Breckinridge became principal, in 1845, the college year continued to be made up of two semesters of twenty weeks each, but the school year began the last week in August. The students were given one week's vacation between semesters, and had an eleven-week summer vacation. The Commencement activities, including the annual contest between the literary societies, were held the first week in June.

Alexander B. Brown was inaugurated as the college's principal in October 1847. His schedule divided the school year into three sessions, beginning in mid-September. A two-week Christmas vacation divided the first and second terms. The second term ended the first Wednesday of April, and there was a vacation of four weeks. The third term concluded with Commencement, the first Wednesday of August.19


The tuition at Jefferson College was $30 a year ("$10 per Term, payable in advance.") Also required was the payment of "50 cents every term for fuel, servants' wages, and repairs to the public Halls." At the successful completion of the course, and after paying the college's $6 "graduating fee," the student could receive his diploma.20

Lodging and board were available at boarding houses, in private homes, and from the college. Apparently, the accommodations varied greatly, as the college catalogs of the late 1840s give a range of $1 to $2.50 per week. The college charged $1.62 1/2 a week.

In the words of the May 1848 catalog. "Upon an average the necessary expense of a student, including tuition, board, lodging, fuel, washing, lights, &c ought not to exceed $130, and need not exceed S100, for the period of forty weeks annually, during which the college is in session." This did not include "the cost of clothes, books, pocket money, traveling expenses, board during vacations. &c."

The Yale 1847-48 catalog provides an estimate for prospective students of the largest college in the nation. Tuition at Yale was $33, not much higher than Jefferson, but all students had to live in the college at an average cost of $12 a year. $3 was charged for "expense of recitation rooms," and items that included repairs and sweeping added up to $6 a year. The college's charges, plus such necessities as food, books, furniture rental, washing, and an item described as "Taxes in the classes, &c." totaled $140 to $210 a year, significantly higher than at Jefferson.21

Yale College had 379 undergraduate students in 1847-48, while Jefferson had 197. The Canonsburg school had an additional 10 students in what was termed the Classical School, which provided instruction, primarily Greek and mathematics, needed by boys who were preparing to enter college. Yale had no preparatory students, but had more than 140 graduate students in theology, law, medicine, and "Philosophy and the Arts."22

Jefferson was a small college but at the time, all colleges were small. The American Almanac for 1857 lists 108 schools, though some were not actually colleges. In some cases the data were several years old, and there were colleges with the size of their student body inflated. Jefferson College was listed as having 170 students, which was the enrollment in the 1844-45 school year. Only seven schools had the same or a larger enrollment: Yale (424), Dartmouth (331). Harvard (275). Princeton (244). Union (232). Bowdin (182), and the University of Virginia (170). If the actual enrollment for the 1846-47 school year (227) were used, Jefferson would have been just a few students shy of being one of the five largest colleges in the nation.23


The Jefferson College faculty in 1848 consisted of just five professors, including the principal, and there were three adjunct professors. According to the school's annual catalog, Alexander B. Brown, the principal, taught philosophy and economics. William Smith taught Greek; Henry Snyder, mathematics; Samuel R. Williams, natural philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, and geology; and Robert W. Orr, Latin and Roman history. The chair of "Belles Lettres, Logic, Rhetoric and General History," courses formerly taught by A. B. Brown before he was elevated to principal, was empty. There were three additional professors listed in the catalog: the Rev James Ramsey, Professor of Hebrew, the Rev. Thomas Beveridge, "Professor Extraordinary of Archaeology, and the Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion," and John D. Vowell. M.D., "Professor Extraordinary of Physiology and Comparative Anatomy."

No mention is made of the college offering a course in Hebrew, but when Rev. Ramsey withdrew from the faculty in 1853, he was replaced by a "professor extraordinary." When Rev. Beveridge and Dr. Vowell left, though, they were not replaced.

The full-time faculty formerly had consisted of six men, but when A. B. Brown was elevated to principal, his position on the faculty was not filled. The process was reversed in 1856 when the Reverend Doctor Brown stepped down and again became a professor.24

The 1847 American Almanac credits Jefferson College with a faculty of eight, also from the 1845 catalog which apparently included the Hebrew professor and the teacher of the preparatory school. The Yale faculty was given as 33, but this included the graduate schools. The 1845-46 Yale catalog lists 36 instructors. Three were law professors; five, medical school professors; and five would have taught theology students. This brings the college faculty down to 23, but this includes seven tutors, two assistants, and six instructors of courses such as modern languages and drawing.

So, Yale's college faculty would have numbered eight: the president and professors of chemistry, Latin, natural philosophy, Greek, rhetoric and English literature, mathematics, and natural history. Jefferson's six professors certainly was a reasonable number.25


All but one professor had joined the faculty between 1841 through 1844. Alexander Brown had been elected Professor of Belles-Lettres and Adjunct Professor of Languages in February 1843, in the waning years of his father's presidency, which lasted from 1822 to 1845. He appears to have been an addition to the faculty rather than a replacement for a professor who had departed.

His father, Matthew Brown, had been brought to Washington as principal of Washington Academy, which soon became Washington College. His grandson described him as "tender as a child, and yet irascible, a man of moods." He offended some people in Washington and ended up as principal of the rival Jefferson College. He served as principal from 1822 to 1845 and, after 1830, as pastor of the Presbyterian church shared by the college and the town.

The grandson, Matthew Brown Riddle, said in 1890 that some of the people who remembered the man he was named for might say: "'What a pugnacious, disagreeable old man!' Well, he had his faults; but oh, my friends, how happy it would make me if I thought that when I am dead and gone men would feel about me as the pupils and parishioners of old Matthew Brown felt about him!"

A. B. Brown was 32 years old when he joined the faculty. He had graduated from Jefferson in 1825, taught for a while, studied at Western Theological Seminary, and served as a stated supply to Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio for ten years before returning to Canonsburg.

His father, described as showing "frequent severity" and other eccentricities, was nonetheless respected and admired. Alexander was spared the personality problems, but a 1902 biographer wrote: "In temperament he was exceedingly nervous and apparently restive, pacing the floor oftentimes while in conversation, stroking his head, raking his fingers through his black silky locks, twisting about in his seat and changing position again and again so as to remain at rest for scarcely a moment at a time." Matthew Brown Riddle said of his diminutive uncle, "Modest and gentle, he could show great strength and severity when necessary." Another biographer notes that the strength came from his "earnestness and honesty of purpose" with an "absence to an unusual degree of selfishness and guile." Even when students believed he was wrong, they respected his ruling because they knew it was his honest belief.

Alexander Brown's sons presented musical shows throughout the area in the late 1800s. Class reunion reports often mention that the Brown brothers had appeared and sometimes say what they had sung. No reference has been found that mentions whether their father was musical, but an advertisement in the Washington Reporter in May 1848 lists "Rev. President Brown, Canonsburg" as being the owner of a "Stodard and Dunham's Rosewood grand action Piano."26

During A. B. Brown's tenure, the size of the student body and the number of graduates continued the increase that had begun under his father. He was a great draw in the pulpit of the college church as well. His eloquence as a preacher was passed on to another generation of ministers, lawyers, statesmen, and teachers by his teaching, particularly his course in rhetoric.

On his resignation as president (because of "feeble health" according to Joseph Smith, a contemporary), he returned to the faculty as Professor of English Literature. He finished his career in the pulpit as pastor of Center Church, from 1856 to 1862. For a number of years, Jefferson College had been in a strained financial position. Alexander Brown had not collected a salary so the other members of the faculty could he paid. He died September 8, 1863, at age 55.27


Henry Snyder had joined the faculty as adjunct professor of mathematics in 1841 and was promoted to full professor in 1843. Five sears before, in 1838, he had graduated from Jefferson College.

Jefferson College's classical curriculum, with its emphases on Greek, Latin, and mathematics, provided its students with the knowledge essential to be considered an educated man. Henry Snyder also taught a course to seniors about the world of their day described by one of his former students as being "on all things and some others," to make them well-informed on important subjects outside their college studies.28

The former student, Alexander Reid, was an 1849 Jefferson graduate, Presbyterian minister, principal or proprietor of Steubenvillie Seminary for nearly half a century, and world traveler. He said in 1909, "When [Ralph Waldo] Emerson was a guest at his house in Steubenville, and when he talked with [James Russell] Lowell in England . . . thanks to Prof Snyder, he could talk to them in an intelligent way about some of the best of their writings."

Other former students recalled another aspect of his personality. The Class of 1848 historian described him as taking "a kind of mathematical delight in teasing those who were easily thrown off their guard." He called him Professor Pickle. Another class historian, this one of 1850 vintage, mentions "the pranks which were played upon the keen and sarcastic professor of mathematics."

White teaching at Jefferson, Snyder also was preparing for the Presbyterian ministry. He left Canonsburg in 1850, the year he was licensed, and went to Centre College, Kentucky as Professor of Latin. A former student described him as having "a mind of great breadth, acuteness and versatility, capable of excelling in any department of scholarship," but he usually taught mathematics or languages.

He later was a stated supply in Virginia for a short while and taught mathematics at Hampden-Sydney College. He returned North when the war broke out and volunteered as a U.S. Army chaplain in 1861. He died mysteriously while at Fort Richmond, New York in 1866, at the age of 50.28


Samuel R Williams, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry had been born in Washington County in 1813 and graduated from Jefferson College in I836. Like many others, he went South after graduation, but he remained longer than most. He taught in St Mary's, Georgia until he was elected to the Jefferson College faculty in 1843. While at Jefferson College he lived in the house east of Providence Hall. The residence had been built by the college's fourth president, William McMillan, and was owned by the college.

Williams resigned from the faculty in 1852. He died relatively young, at age 55, still a teacher, though never again at the college level. He did not enter the ministry, but was a devout Christian. The obituary in the Presbyterian Banner noted, "His memory is still fondly cherished by his former pupils, whom he not only instructed with secular knowledge, but for whose souls he watched with the tenderest solicitude."29


Robert W. Orr had joined the faculty in 1844, and when Alexander Brown became principal in 1845, Orr took over his Latin classes. Like the rest of the faculty, Orr was homegrown, having graduated from Jefferson College in 1833. He was a native of Clarion County and had stayed on the farm until he was 21. He switched to the carpenter's trade, but within a few months was seriously injured from a fall from a ladder. He then entered Jefferson with the intention of becoming a lawyer.

Through ability and effort, he was able to complete the course a year early, even though he left school for six months to earn money by teaching. During his time in Canonsburg he experienced a call to the ministry, and entered seminary immediately after graduating with first honors. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1837 and, though his health was poor, spent the next four years as one of the first Presbyterian missionaries in China.

The missionary board had persuaded him that the sea voyage and change in climate would be good for him. They were wrong, and Orr, unable to fulfill his mission, was forced to return. He taught at an academy in Clarion for a while, then accepted stated supply positions before returning to Canonsburg. Why he was named to the chairs of natural history and civil engineering is puzzling. Neither natural history nor civil engineering was part of the formal course of studies in the 1844-45 school year, though in 1848, natural history was given as a one-term course in the junior year.

After his resignation from the college in 1852, Robert Orr returned to Clarion County. He supplied pulpits there while serving as the county superintendent of schools from 1854 until his death in 1857. He was just 45 years old.30


The senior member of the faculty, in age and service, long outlived his colleagues of 1848. William Smith, professor of Greek and vice-principal, had been appointed in 1821. This was nearly two decades after the college was founded and he was only the eighth faculty member elected, and four of them had been principals.

In addition to his formal professorial duties, the college's annual catalog advised potential students that he could also teach them French and German. Dr. Smith was elected Professor Emeritus of Greek in 1862, but he was still teaching when Jefferson and Washington Colleges united in 1865.

The historian of the Class of 1848 wrote for the class's fortieth anniversary that a member of the class "studied theology, privately, for a year under Rev. Dr. William Smith - "Tupto of Canonsburg." The word is Greek, a verb meaning "to smite" and was used in the sense of striking a die to make a coin as well as metaphorical uses. The word, in a related context, appears in the 18th Century comic novel, Tristram Shandy. "Seven long years and more tupto-ing it, at Greek and Latin."

The historian of the Class of 1858 described William Smith as "That revered and beloved man, who never found an absolutely bad or irredeemable student in all his long career as a teacher." Another former student recalled that the professor had taught for so many years that his best material preceded him. He wrote of the "applause with which we greeted some traditional pun that we had learned from our predecessors to expect when certain points in the Greek text were reached."31

The historian of the Class of 1840 wrote, "The gentle and courteous Dr. William Smith, whom I seem to see now walking to and fro with soft, noiseless step, listening to our recitations, politely and gently correcting our mistakes, in Latin and Greek." To his students, Greek would always be "associated with the wrinkled, yet sturdy face" of Dr. Smith, who "looked over his spectacles at the end of the long, narrow room in the third story of the old college." Matthew Brown Riddle, a former student and Matthew Brown's grandson, recalled that the students had called him "Old Billy" and that he was "one of the best men I ever met."32

William Smith, an 1819 graduate of Jefferson College, had been born near Hamsburg in 1793. When he died in Canonsburg in 1878 at the age of 84, the Canonsburg Herald devoted its editorial to his obituary. "Rev Dr. William Smith is dead; a good man has gone to his rest," it began. Superlatives were not needed for the readers of the small-town newspaper who had known him for years. "Dr. Smith was a man who by his consistent Christian walk in life, unassuming manners, and genial disposition, won the respect, esteem and love of all who knew him, and has at last passed away full of years and honors."

He was buried in the graveyard of the Miller's Run Presbyterian Church, alongside his wife. He had served as pastor of Miller's Run, as well as being Professor of Greek, for 52 years. The evening following his death, the funeral service was held in the church in which he had served so long; scripture was read by his student and successor, Alonzo Linn. A multitude had gathered at the little church and followed the six pallbearers, all ministers, as they walked with their old friend for the last time.33


  1. Dwight Raymond Guthrie, John McMillan (Pittsburgh, 1952), 30, 37. Joseph Smith, History of Jefferson College (Pittsburgh, 1857), 385. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pa. (1853-56), 20.
  2. Richard A. Harrison, Princetonians, 1769-1775, A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, 1980). 250. Smith, History of Jefferson College, 376. In 1854, John McMillan's son was living in the old house and pointed out to Smith the location of a previous log school that had burned down (Smith, History of Jefferson College, 385).
  3. Guthrie, John McMillan, 219-225.
  4. Smith, History of Jefferson College, 286. Herron, "John Canon and the Founding of Canonsburgh Academy," Jefferson College Times, May 1988, 12-13.
  5. Herron, "John Canon." Jefferson College Times (May 1988), 14-15. Smith, History of Jefferson College, 25-28.
  6. Smith, History of Jefferson College, 20, 417. In a note amplifying the relationship between McMillan's school and Canonsburg Academy, the author several times uses the term "Log-cabin" school." Today, a cabin is considered to have been a temporary structure. Apparently, to Dr. Smith, any small log structure was considered a cabin.
  7. James D. Moffett, Historical Sketch of Washington and Jefferson College (Washington PA, 1890), 4; [ ], Biographical and Historical Catalogue of Washington and Jefferson College (Philadelphia, 1902), 14, 17. Matthew Brown wrote that the naming of the college was "a matter of surprise and regret," since Jefferson was "an infidel, a deist, if not an atheist, and a bitter opposer of the Christian religion. But it is a matter of small account 'Deminimis non curat lex.' A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet' " (Smith, History of Jefferson College, 57).
  8. James P. Wickersham, A History of Education in Pennsylvania (Lancaster, PA, 1886), 376-377.
  9. James H. Morgan, Dickinson College (Carlisle PA, 1933), 85, 142, 149, 172. Howard Miller, The Revolutionary College (New York, 1976), 185.
  10. Edward P Cheyney, History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740- 1940 (Philadelphia, 1940), 185-187.
  11. Jurgen Herbst, From Crisis to Crisis (Cambridge MA, 1982), 244-250.
  12. Herbst, 166-167.
  13. Herbst, 192.
  14. Herbst, 192-193. John D. Wright. Jr., Transylvania, Tutor to the West (Lexington, 1975), 43, 49, 50, 52. The motto, "First College West of the Appalachians," was on the seal of Canonsburg High School, curving like a rainbow over a depiction of McMillan's log school.
  15. T. J. Bigham, Annual Address Delivered Before the Alumni Association (Canonsburg. 1846), 9.
  16. Herron, "The Old Stone College." Jefferson College Times (March 1978), 12-14.
  17. J. T. Herron, A History for the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Canonsburg United Presbyterian Church (Canonsburg, PA, 1975), 18-19. Smith, History of Jefferson College, 119. The college chapel remained in use by the Canonsburg Presbyterian Congregation, later the Central Presbyterian Church, until May 1922 ("Old Chapel to be Vacated After Use for Almost Ninety Years.' Daily Notes, May 20, 1922).
  18. By-Laws of Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pa (Pittsburgh, 1846), 10. Annual Catalog, Jeff. College (May 1847), 22; "Franklin Society." Canonsburg Rural Notes, Nov 18, 1880.
  19. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Jefferson College, Canonsburg Pa (1845), 16, 1847. Catalogue, 21; 1848 Catalogue, 20. The annual catalogs listed Matthew Brown as "president," but his successors were described as being "principals." Summer commencements were not peculiar to Jefferson College Yale's commencement was in August in the 1840s, changed to July in 1851 (Yale catalogues, 1844-45 through 1850-51).
  20. Annual Cat. Jefferson College, 1848, 18.
  21. Catalogue of the Officer and Students in Yale College, 1847-8 (New Haven CT, 1847), 34-36.
  22. Annual Cat. Yale. 1847-8, 27. Annual Cat. Jefferson Col, May 1848, 14.
  23. American Almanac and Repository of Useful knowledge for the Year 1847 (Boston, 1846), 180-183. American Almanac, 1846, 180-181. Annual Cat. Yale, 1845-6, 26. Annual Cat. Jefferson May 1847, 14. The Yale enrollment for 1844-45 was 542, of which 394 were undergraduates.
    The almanac credited Washington College (Pa.) with 191 students and Centenary (La. ) with 1 70. Washington's annual catalog for 1847 lists 34 seniors, 36 juniors, 23 sophomores, and 12 freshman, a total of 105. Apparently Washington counted the 22 students taking "Select Studies" as well as 63 preparatory students (Annual Cat. Washington College. 1847, 4-9).
    The figure for Centenary College is even less likely. The Methodist Church had taken over Mississippi College, renamed it Centenary, and moved it to the campus of the failed Louisiana College at Jackson, Louisiana. The 1847 Almanac gives the school's establishment as 1841, the student body as 170, and the number of alumni as 18. The 1844 edition lists Centenary as a Mississippi school with no alumni but the same 170 students. The 1846 Almanac notes it had "Removed to Jackson. La." but the 170 students persisted. Colin Burke credits Centenary with instruction on the college level and survival into the twentieth century (Colin Burke, American Collegiate Populations |NYU Press. 1982], 305) but it is extremely unlikely to have been among the nation's largest colleges in the 1840s.
  24. Annual Cat. Jefferson, May 1848, 5, 18. Annual Cat. Jefferson, 1856-57, 4.
  25. Annual Cat. Jefferson, July 1845, 4. Annual Cat. Yale, 1845-46, 3-4.
  26. Advertisement, Washington Pa. Reporter, July 1, 1848.
  27. Biog. Cat of W&J (1902), 14-16, 40. Smith, History of Jefferson College, 131. Matthew B. Riddle, "Quarter-Centennial Address," The Annual of W&J, 1890, 41. J M Smith, ed., "Biographical Sketch of the Late Rev Alexander B. Brown. D.D." Reunion Proceedings of the Jefferson Class of '56 (Beaver PA, 1902), 58. Matthew B. Riddle, "Historical Sketch of Jefferson College 1802-1865." The Centennial Celebration of Washington and Jefferson College (Philadelphia, 1903), 58-60. Reunion Proceedings of the Jefferson Class of '56 (Beaver PA, 1902), 57-62.
  28. Biog. Cat. of W&J (1902), 15, 95. "Old Jefferson's Faculty," Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph, June 25, 1909. William Y. Brown, ''Historical Sketch of the Class of 1848, Jefferson College, Pa" inFortieth Anniversary of the Class of 1848, Jefferson College (Buffalo NY, I889), 31. Joseph Mathers, "History of the Class of 1850, Jefferson College, PA." The Annual of Washington and Jefferson College for 1890 (Wash. C.C., 1891), 245. Smith, ed., Reunion Proc. Class of '56, 89-90.
  29. Biog. Cat. of W&J (1902), 15, 86. Smith, ed., Reunion Proceedings of the Jefferson Class of '56, 91-93. "Additional Local," Rural Notes, Dec. 22, 1881. In 1881 Jefferson Academy sold the houses where Professors Williams and Smith had lived.
  30. Biog. Cat. of W&J (1902), 15, 70. Annual Cat. Jeff College, July 1845, 14. Annual Cat. Jeff. College, May 1848, 16.
  31. Quarter Century Re-Union of the Jefferson College Class 1858 (1884), 121.
  32. George W. Chalfant, "Faculty of Jefferson College 1853-56," The Annual of Washington and Jefferson College for 1891, 172. H. A. Brown, "Class Oration," The Annual of W&J 1890, 53. Matthew B. Riddle, "Quarter-Centennial Address," The Annual of W&J 1890, 42. Greek remained a required course at W&J until 1906 ("Have Abolished Greek," Daily Notes, June 28, 1906).
  33. Biog. Cat. of W&J (1902), 14-16, 28, 4 16-417. Annual Catalogues, Jeff. College, various. William Y Brown, "Historical Sketch of the Class of 1848, Jefferson College, Pa," Fortieth Anniversary of the Class of 1848, Jefferson College (Buffalo NY, 1889), 63. "Death of Rev. William Smith, D.D.," Canonsburg Herald, July 19, 1878. "Funeral of Rev. Dr. Smith," Canonsburg Herald, July 26, 1878.

Back to History Articles page