- Historic Sites
No Son Unsung
The dogged effort to record the life of every Harvard man has reached the class of 1744, and with 3,000 new subjects being added every year, the end is nowhere in sight
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
True list in hand at last, Shipton then read through every newspaper and journal published in this country throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He did the same lor all the colonial diaries, journals, daybooks, and interleaved almanacs (a favorite repository ol vital statistics lor the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century citizen). Every time he came across a name that appeared on his list of Harvard students, he made a reference card, noting for future use the type of infomation included and the source. This material he calls his “low-grade ore.” As he went on, individual clues appeared: the man’s birthplace, an announcement of his marriage, a reference to a sermon he had preached. These clues led to ancient genealogies, church records, the minutes of legislative proceedings. Slowly, as the cards accumulated, Shipton amassed the raw material from which he could create a three-dimensional man out of the dust of the past.
Today there are 250,000 of these cards in the study of Shipton’s handsome old house facing the green in Shirley Center. Each one represents a fact it may have taken months to acquire and verify. Once all known data have been assembled, writing one of the individual biographies may take anything from an hour to three months. Of the 1,592 men who already people these pages, there have been less than a dozen for whom Shipton has been unable to find any record beyond the fact that such a man once lived and attended Harvard.
“What I am really doing,” Shipton explains, “is making bricks for future historians.” And even the most cursory examination of these sketches reveals that the project is no mere exercise in gratification of institutional vanity. The great of Harvard’s and the nation’s past loom large in each volume, but here also are the neglected and forgotten who may not have seemed so obscure in their own time. And out of the collected details of their lives a biography of their society emerges which, because it is focused on people rather than events, seems somehow more comprehensible across the division of the centuries.
Who were these early sons of Harvard? They were the sons of weavers, tailors, ministers, innkeepers, carpenters, merchants, mariners, shoemakers, cordwainers, and landed gentry. They came of families where a dozen or twenty children (the majority of whom died in infancy from such diseases as “the bloody flux” or “throat distemper”) were common. And although most of them left Harvard as ministers, many indulged in other skills and talents as well: farming, practicing law or medicine, becoming Indian fighters, merchant princes, judges, royal governors, and members of Parliament.
In Harvard’s first class of 1642 was Sir George Downing, who built the street where Britain’s prime ministers live. In 1645 he signed aboard a ship sailing for the West Indies as a schoolmaster to the seamen. By a circuitous route he made his way to England, where he joined Cromwell’s forces as a chaplain, rising rapidly to become a confidential member of Cromwell’s staff, for which most of his contemporaries read “spy.” The year 1665 found him in the Netherlands as Cromwell’s emissary, holding a two-hour conversation in Latin with Mazarin. By 1657 he had been appointed Cromwell’s minister to Holland at a salary of £1,100 annually. An obscure clerk in his office was a diarist named Samuel Pepys, who made frequent, acid entries on his superior. Although he had served Cromwell brilliantly, Downing was able to transfeer his allegiance so convincingly to Charles II that after the Restoration he was knighted and elected to Parliament. In 1665, for sevices rendered, he was made a baronet and given the largest estate in Cambridgeshire. He was instrumental in the English acquisition of New York from the Dutch, and in 1667 he was a lord of the Treasury. He died in 1684, never having returned to Massachusetts, but a son of Harvard all the same.
A classmate of Sir George Downing was Henry Saltonstall, son of Sir Richard Saltonstall, one of the original patentees of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The younger Saltonstall went on to become a Fellow of Oxford and the University of Padua. A freshman when Downing was a senior was Dr. George Stirk, who gave his life treating victims of the Great Plague in London in 1665.
And a few classes later, in 1656, came Increase Mather, who entered Harvard at the age of twelve, became its president in 1685, influenced the theology, morals, politics, and education of his time as few men ever have before or since, and was the oldest living graduate of the college when he died in 1723. His will was ruminative: “Concerning my son Cotton Mather, he has bin a great comfort to me from his childhood, having bin a very dutifull son, & a singular blessing both to his Fathers Family and Flock. If I had any Considerable estate, I ought to bequeath the greatest part of it to him. It has bin thought, that I have bags by me which is a great mistake. I have not twenty Pounds in silver; or in bills. But whatever I have (be it more or less) whether in silver or Bills, I give it to him, my eldest son. Item, I give him my pendulum watch, Item my pendulum clock, Item my silver tankard.” Sibley devoted 28 pages to Increase Mather’s biography and 50 Pages to a bibliography of his writings. Increase’s son Cotton, who also entered Harvard at twelve and after graduation was an influential and distinguished divine, lived fourteen years less than his father, but his literary output rated a 115-page bibliography from Sibley.