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The Chapter That Was Founded To Save A Fraternity,

Delta Tau Delta's Jefferson Alpha

By James T. Herron, Jr.

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Originally published in The Jefferson College Times, Volume 11, Number 1, January 1978. 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.

Few persons or institutions in the country were unaffected by the Civil War. Some became famous, some wealthy; some were ruined; many died. Educational institutions were affected just as much as other segments of American life. Many, particularly in the South, failed to survive; others throughout the country were financially ruined by severe economic problems and a rapid decline in enrollment.

Militia companies became as much a part of college life as literary societies and fraternities. Prior to the outbreak of actual war, some colleges, such as Miami University in Ohio, raised both union and secessionist militia companies who drilled on opposite ends of the campus. With such occurrences as the firing on a supply ship in Charleston harbor, the taking of the Pensacola Navy Yard by armed Southern forces and the secession of southern states, war was considered by many to be inevitable. Students began to leave college, singly and in groups, abandoning their books for muskets and sabers.

At Bethany College, Virginia (now West Virginia), Delta Tau Delta Fraternity had been founded in 1858 in an effort to wrest control of a college literary society from another fraternity. Within two years, a chapter had been formed at nearby West Liberty Academy and another at Monongalia Academy (now West Virginia University), although neither was a college-level institution. In 1860, the total membership of the fraternity was twenty-six.

By early 1861, though, the threat of war had reduced the student body and interest in the fraternity to an extent that the Alpha Chapter at Bethany had, at most, two or three active members The fraternity's chances for survival if its lone college chapter were to succumb would be slight. The only way that Delta Tau Delta could survive would be to form a chapter at another college. The closest candidate was Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, less than twenty-five miles away.

George Washington's Birthday was a festive occasion in Canonsburg; students, faculty and townspeople joined in the celebration. It was considered a suitable occasion for midwinter oration, recitation and occasional inebriation. But on the twenty second of February, 1861, two Jefferson College students rode away from Canonsburg through a howling snow storm in the direction of Bethany.

The riders were Rhodes Stansbury Sutton and Samuel S. Brown, both juniors. That evening, at Bethany, the two Pennsylvanians were given the secrets of Delta Tau Delta and initiated into the fraternity. Thus, the Delta Chapter of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity came into being.

Jefferson College in the school year 1860-61 had a student body of 273. At least half were members of one of the eight other fraternities on campus at that time. However, of the students present that term, thirteen were initiated into Delta Tau Delta; although not all joined that year.

As the new chapter at Jefferson grew, the founding chapter at Bethany died. In the fall of 1861, only one of the Bethany brotherhood returned. All hope for Delta Tau Delta at the school was abandoned; the one remaining member joined Beta Theta Pi. The Beta and Gamma Chapters at the Virginia academies retained a marginal existence, at best. The Jefferson College Chapter jettisoned the Delta designation and became the Alpha Chapter.

However, at Jefferson College that autumn, five fraternity brothers were missing; among them was Samuel S. Brown, one of the founders of the chapter. He had enlisted in the army the previous June. William Foster, a freshman; George Graham, a sophomore; and Samuel Dickey, a junior, also had interrupted their educations. Another brother, James S. McKee, had been a senior when he was initiated and graduated in August. The few Delts who remained came back early, before the start of the 1861-62 school year, in an attempt to beat the other fraternities to prospective members among the new students. Of the 185 students in the college, seventeen eventually became members of Delta Tau Delta. At least seven of the incoming students were initiated that year. The future of the Jefferson Alpha Chapter seemed secure, and an attempt was made to form a new chapter at Washington College. The chapter, however, was short-lived, existing only a few months.

During the year, more brothers left the college to join the army. Two of them, William Yates, a prep, and Origen Bingham, a freshman, died in the conflict. Five, including Rhodes Sutton, the remaining chapter founder, were seniors and graduated at the end of the school year.

When the 1862-63 school year started, another crisis arose. Thirteen names were missing from the roll of the Alpha Chapter. The enrollment at Jefferson College had dropped to 121, the lowest in thirty years. According to William H. Kirk, in an article written twenty years later, the chapter roll was reduced to one name: his. A new chapter had been instituted in 1862, Eta at Ohio University, but the Alpha Chapter and the fraternity were in serious trouble. Kirk was at that time a freshman, although he had been at Jefferson for the two previous years as a student in the Preparatory Department. However, Kirk managed to gain new members for the chapter, but there were no more than four brothers that year, including William Kirk. All had been at the college the previous year as well.

The following year, however, the ranks of Jefferson Alpha were swelled by the addition of members of Kirk's Sophomore Class and by the end of the year, the chapter had doubled in size. As the Alpha Chapter regained lost headway, so did the fraternity as a whole. In 1864, a chapter was established at Allegheny College through the efforts of Robert Robinson, who had graduated in 1862. Robinson had also been instrumental in instituting the Ohio University Chapter. The Washington College chapter was also re-established that year and a short-lived chapter at the Western University of Pennsylvania (Pitt) was formed. In 1865, chapters at Poughkeepsie Collegiate Institute, Monmouth College and Waynesburg College were organized, but did not survive.

While new chapters were successfully being organized, schemes for the establishment of others never reached fruition. A student at Franklin College, Ohio, J. R. Reed was initiated for the purpose of establishing a Delta Tau Delta chapter there, and a chapter name, Epsilon, was reserved for Franklin. Reed's death in 1863 aborted the project and the charter was never granted. Other projects were undertaken by men who had been members of the eclipsed academy chapters, who hoped to establish the fraternity at Marietta College and at Yale. Neither was successful.

The union of Washington and Jefferson Colleges took place in 1865. The Sophomore, Junior and Senior Classes remained in Canonsburg until 1869. So, too, did the Alpha Chapter of Delta Tau Delta. Under the administration of Jefferson (and W & J) Alpha, thirteen new chapters were admitted into the fraternity, although four of them had but a transient existence. Delta Tau Delta was firmly established as a national fraternity with most of the credit due Jefferson Alpha.

However, at the 1869 Convention hosted by the Allegheny College Chapter in Meadville, the W & J Alpha Chapter reported that although it was at the time flourishing, graduation would severely deplete its ranks. The anti-fraternity stance of the college's administration had made the fraternity an unlawful organization and the chapter would no longer be able to head the fraternity as the Alpha Chapter. The Alpha designation was passed to the Ohio Wesleyan Chapter, and the W & J Chapter assumed the designation, Gamma, which it retains to this day.

 

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