Commemorating John Harvard

1622 deed from the John Harvard Family Collection

"the colledge...shalbee called Harvard Colledge"

September 14, 2013 marks the 375th anniversary of the death of John Harvard in 1638.  Harvard’s generous donation of both funds from his estate and his library of some 400 volumes led the Great and General Court of Massachusetts to order on March 13, 1639, “that the colledge agreed vpon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge.” 

John Harvard died at age 31 (presumably of consumption) at his home in Charlestown, Massachusetts – less than two years after his arrival in the colonies.  He was one of a number of graduates of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University who travelled to New England committed to religious reform.  In Charlestown, he was the church’s “teacher” and a member of the clergy.  He is noted in a Harvard Magazine article as a passionate preacher who in the brief time left to him spoke "with teares [of] affection strong."

Having lived for such a short time in Massachusetts, there are only scattered records to document his life here.  For example, a volume of College records begun by Thomas Danforth, most likely around 1687, notes the following:  “The Reverend Mr. John Harvard sometimes Minister of Gods Word at Charlstown by his last will & Testament gave towards the erecting the abovs school or Colledge th’ one moiety or halfe parte of his estate, the sd moiety amounting to the sum of seven hundred seventy nine poundes seventeen shillings and two pence.” 

Two original items in the John Harvard family collection of the Harvard University Archives contemporaneous with his life were added to the collections many years after Harvard’s death.  One, the oldest item in the Archives’ collections, is a 1577 deed in which the name of ‘John Harvard’ appears as a former owner of a tenement standing in the ‘east side of Barbican, in the Parish of Saint Giles, without Cripplegate of London.’ It is presumed that the John Harvard mentioned in this deed is an ancestor of John Harvard (1607-1638), perhaps a brother of his father, Robert.  The second, shown above, is a 1622 deed of a transfer of property from John Sadler and his wife, Mary, to Anthony Stapley in Elbourne, Sussex. It is presumed that the John and Mary Sadler mentioned in this deed are John Harvard's in-laws. Given that it may have been through the sale of family property that John Harvard and his wife Ann were able to start their new life in Massachusetts, these deeds provide some clues to that passage.

Harvard’s life remained a bit of a mystery until 1883, when Henry F. Waters (Harvard College Class of 1855) was sent to England to search for information on early settlers, among them John Harvard, as a result of a fundraising campaign for the purpose instigated by John T. Hassam (Harvard College Class of 1863).  The story of his search is recounted in a June 1907 article in The Harvard Graduates' Magazine.