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The Mistaken Name:

Washington College or Maryville College?

By Towner Blackstock (Davidson 1994), Curator of Archives

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Since at least 1856, Phi Gamma Delta’s roster of chapters has placed the original 1852 Zeta Chapter at Washington College in Maryville, Tennessee. However, recent investigation of records, including original Grand Chapter minutes, reveal that a chapter existed at Maryville College rather than at Washington College. 

An undated Grand Chapter minute recorded between May 14 and July 13, 1852 reads as follows: 

A communication from Bro. G. E. Eagleton formerly of Union Chapter, was read, containing a petition from Marysville College for the privilege of establishing a chapter of our order at that place. The petitioners were Messrs J. D. Thomas, W. H. Vernor, F. N. Gary, W. McCampbell, N. B. Goforth, and Jno. H. Lovelace.

On motion a charter was granted to the above named gentlemen. On motion Bro. G.E. Eagleton was appointed legate to establish the chapter. 

Maryville College was founded in 1809 in Maryville, Tennessee, located just east of Knoxville. The small Presbyterian school was respected, although like most antebellum colleges it remained beset with financial difficulties.

 Comparisons of Fraternity and Maryville alumni records show at least five of the seven men found on Zeta’s roster attended the school. Regarding the two missing brothers, J. D. Thomas was reportedly the legate sent by the Union Chapter for Alabama’s installation in 1855 (although records indicate that it was really Woodlief Thomas, Union 1854). F. N. Gary (misidentified some places as "Gorry") is credited in the Fraternity’s membership card catalogue as being the founder of the first Zeta Chapter at "Washington." The source of this claim is unknown. 

A tragedy may explain Thomas and Gary’s absence. Most of the College’s records were destroyed when fire incinerated the president’s home. The Civil War destroyed much of the rest of campus.

The chapter had folded long before these tragedies. Circumstances at Maryville deteriorated in the early 1850s. College histories describe the mental decline of the aged Dr. Issac Anderson, president and one of only three faculty members. In 1855 he was replaced by action of the Presbyterian Synod after one of the other professors resigned. Many students left school well before that; enrollment had declined to around 46 by 1853-54. Only two men graduated in 1854! 

At the Fraternity’s 1856 convention, William McLaren (Jefferson 1850) gave another reason for the chapter’s demise. While reporting on the condition of the Fraternity he noted a chapter had been founded "at Washington College, Marysville, Tenn. . . ." He further stated ". . . the Washington Chapter was annulled by the Faculty of the College, its members leaving the Institution rather than (remaining) to abandon the Fraternity."  While we know not all the members left-- Goforth graduated in 1854-- perhaps Gary and Thomas did leave to attend other schools, and as such are not found as Maryville students in the 1854 College catalogue. 

Why did McLaren get the wrong name for Maryville? Grand Chapter minutes never mention a Washington College distinct from the one in Pennsylvania. The only school of that name in Tennessee existed in Limestone, near Johnson City in the northeast corner of Tennessee. Today it is a boarding school called Washington College Academy. Among other errors, McLaren called Baylor "Bailey" and the University of Nashville "the University of Tennessee, Nashville, Tenn." In his defense, the report was written at the convention, almost surely without the benefit of the Grand Chapter’s minute book. The Fraternity had not yet printed a catalogue. And no one present at the convention possessed more correct information; there were only eight delegates— none from Union or Maryville. 

One other possible explanation for the Washington name may stem from the chapter at Union University. The Alabama and Baylor chapters, chartered by Union in 1855 and 1856, respectively announced to the Grand Chapter their names as "Euilada Chapter" and "Tryon Chapter." Did Union brothers start a naming tradition that pre-dated modern Greek-letter designations? If so, perhaps the brothers at Maryville called themselves the "Washington Chapter" and this name became confused as the name of the institution. This speculation is bolstered by the fact Maryville's legate (installing officer) came from Union: George E. Eagleton, class of 1851. 

Regardless of its origin, why was the error not corrected more quickly? The brothers of Zeta appear to have had no contact with the Grand Chapter after the death of their chapter. They never sent a representative to a convention, and their entries in Fraternity catalogues were not updated until long after the Civil War. The only correct mention of the College’s name was found in the single copy of the Grand Chapter minutes, whereas the minutes of the 1856 Convention and other relatively well-distributed records contained the erroneous name. Thus historians perpetuated the "Washington" name based on the most accessible but unfortunately incorrect documents. 

Of the seven known brothers of Zeta Chapter, one became a state representative in Tennessee and a candidate for the US Congress; another became president of Mossy Creek Baptist Seminary, which later became Carson-Newman College.

 Maryville College itself still exists. It closed in 1861 and, like much of eastern Tennessee, was physically and financially devastated by the Civil War. Greatly weakened, it reopened in 1866 and moved to a new campus in 1871. Today it remains a small, private liberal arts college. No other fraternity is known to have ever established a chapter there. 

Biographies of known initiates of the Maryville Chapter 

Many thanks to Debbie Long of Maryville College's Lamar Memorial Library

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