Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Anglo Americans expressed ambivalent views toward the indigenous inhabitants of North America, seeing them as simultaneously noble and savage, foes and symbols of freedom. These views, along with the emerging guilt about occupying Indian land, fueled a vigorous campaign to acculturate Indians into white society. Education became one of Anglo Americans’ most powerful tools to achieve this, and the College of New Jersey was one of the earliest institutions of higher education to take on this mission.
In the 18th century, three Delaware Indians (or “Leni Lenape”) matriculated at the College of New Jersey: Jacob Wooley (class of 1762), Bartholomew Scott Calvin, also known as Shawukukhkung or Wilted Grass ('1776), and George Morgan White Eyes ('1789). The 19th century saw Cherokee students join the college’s student body—most notably William Potter Ross ('1842), future principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and Confederate officer.
The experiences of Princeton’s Delaware and Cherokee students illustrate how the education of Indians proved easier for Anglo Americans to theorize than to implement. Though each of them entered the college without controversy, none of the 18th century Indian students graduated, and after the Civil War the college admitted no self-identified Indian students until the very end of the 19th century.
18th century Lenape Students
Jacob Wooley, the College of New Jersey’s first Indian student, likely came from the Christian Delaware community near Cranbury, New Jersey. Both Wooley and Bartholomew Scott Calvin prepared for college at Reverend Eleazar Wheelock’s new Indian charity school in Lebanon, Connecticut, so it could be assumed that they were prepared for integration into an all-white institution. But Wooley’s stay at Princeton was brief. Drink and a woman in town distracted him from his studies and he was soon dismissed. Wooley left campus before John Witherspoon arrived in 1768 to resuscitate the institution, but Witherspoon had certainly learned the details of Wooley’s unhappy months at the college by the time Bartholomew Calvin entered.
Calvin (Wilted Grass) was the son of an interpreter at the Indian settlement near Cranbury. His father was also a teacher and spokesman for the Delaware of New Jersey, and would later become a prominent Delaware leader. Wilted Grass came to Princeton with a younger brother who was enrolled in the local grammar school. Calvin’s study was sponsored by the society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, but he later reported sadly that “in the second year in college, the funds failed in consequence of the revolutionary war and he was obliged to abandon his studies.” There is no record of resistance to Wooley or Wilted Grass’s enrollment in the College of New Jersey, but neither Wooley nor Calvin graduated.
Wooley’s life after Princeton was as non-productive as his months at the college, but Wilted Grass found more success. He spent the rest of his life as a spokesman for the Delaware of New Jersey. After succeeding his father as schoolmaster at Brotherton he earned a reputation as an “excellent teacher” in a school with as many white students as Indians. He became a major figure in negotiations for the rights of his people as they moved further west. He crucially arranged the sale of Delaware hunting and fishing rights in order to fund their move to a new settlement projected to accommodate remnants of various other eastern tribes. Wilted Grass dramatically described this agreement as “the final act of official intercourse between the State of New Jersey and the Delaware Indians, who once owned the whole of its territory . . . Not a drop of our blood have you spilled in battle, not an acre of our land have you taken but by our consent.” As late as 1834 he was still at work overseeing the migration of several disparate Christian Delaware communities to a new settlement in Michigan.
George Morgan White Eyes
In the spring of 1779, students at the College of New Jersey must have been fascinated by the encampment they saw on the other side of what is now McCosh Walk. At the time, a turf wall separated the 18th century campus from Prospect, owned by Colonel George Morgan (1743-1810), a former agent of Indian Affairs. In 1779, Morgan played host to an impressive delegation of Delaware Indian leaders and their retinues.
1797 watercolor rendering of Prospect Farm while it was owned by George Morgan.
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The Leni Lenape of Ohio regarded Colonel Morgan as one of the few trustworthy representatives of the new American government. This trust resulted from an extraordinary friendship between Morgan and an important Delaware sachem in Ohio named White Eyes. Following an extensive tour of major cities in the colonies in 1774, White Eyes encouraged his people to accept the teachings of Moravian missionaries as a means of gaining education and the other benefits of a closer association with white society. These connections helped White Eyes maintain the neutrality of the Delaware of Ohio in the early years of the American Revolution, despite pressure from the British and their Indian allies. In 1777 he traveled to Philadelphia to assure Congress that his people wished to remain friendly, eventually signing a treaty with the Americans.
During the sachem’s stay in Philadelphia, Colonel Morgan acted as his guide and counselor. Their bond of friendship led White Eyes to name his eldest son George Morgan White Eyes. For his loyalty, Congress rewarded White Eyes with the rank of captain in the Continental Army, where he was assigned to act as scout and messenger. But in November 1778, while guiding a group of soldiers, one of the Americans deliberately shot and killed him. His tribesmen were told he died of smallpox—but when Colonel Morgan learned the truth, he denounced the local commander before Congress and resigned his post in protest.
In response to this tragedy, Congress asked the Ohio Lenape to send a delegation of leaders to assure the government of their continued friendship. As a direct result of George Morgan’s lobbying, Congress also requested that the Delaware Indians send the dead chief’s children east for schooling. The delegation encamped at the edge of the Princeton campus in the spring of 1779 had brought White Eyes’s son George Morgan White Eyes and his two cousins to be educated at the expense of Congress—the first instance of federal aid to education in the new country. The Delaware Indians learned only later that Congress expected them to repay the expense of the boys’ education through a grant of Delaware land.
George Morgan White Eyes was only eight years old when he arrived in Princeton and did not know that his father’s death was the result of treachery rather than disease. He and his older cousins, the Killbuck brothers, were left in Morgan’s care at Prospect to be tutored by a faculty member from the Nassau Hall Grammar School. It is difficult to imagine their educational challenges. English was not their first language, and yet they were being prepared for admission to a college which required instruction in not only English but also Greek and Latin. The older boys soon dropped out of school. One of them was reported to have gotten one of Morgan’s servants, possibly a slave, pregnant. Overwhelmed with homesickness, they finally received Congress’s permission to return to their tribe in Ohio.
Under pressure from Congress to educate the three boys, and faced with the disaster of the Killbuck brothers at Prospect, President John Witherspoon expressed skepticism of this experiment with Indian education. As he wrote in 1782:
“On the whole it does not appear, that either by our people going among them, or by their being brought among us, that it is possible to give them a relish of civilized life. There have been some of them educated at this college, as well as in New England, but seldom or never did they ever prove good or useful.”
To the contrary, George Morgan White Eyes flourished at the grammar school; by the time his cousins left, he was finishing second in competitions in his class and reading Virgil in the original Latin. He seems also to have done well at the college, which he entered as a freshman in November of 1785. But White Eyes’s attitude and progress changed before the start of his senior year, when he faced tutelage under the skeptical John Witherspoon. Perhaps he sensed Witherspoon’s pessimism about the education of Indians. His progress at Princeton halted when he learned of the murder of his mother by a party of white men and, for the first time, the truth of his father’s death. George Morgan, who was about to leave for Missouri, put White Eyes in the care of a merchant in New York City and recommended to Congress that the boy continue his education elsewhere. Congress provided no response to this suggestion and a series of entreaties from the young man went unanswered. George Morgan White Eyes lost all interest in completing his education and eventually petitioned President George Washington for permission to return to Ohio. In August 1789 he wrote, sadly:
“I am very sorry that the Education you have given & views you must have had when you took me into your Possession, & the Friendship which my father had for the United States (which I suppose is the chief Cause) are not sufficient Inducements , to your further providing for me.”
As the third non-white student at the College of New Jersey, George Morgan White Eyes progressed further than his two Delaware predecessors, but he returned in bitterness to his people, with whom he now had little in common. Travelers who visited his wilderness camp later described him as taking pride in reading from his copy of Aeschylus in the original Greek to his beautiful Lenape wife. But in May of 1798, George Morgan White Eyes—while intoxicated—ran at a white man with an upraised tomahawk. His Indian companions insisted he intended only to intimidate him, but the man shot and killed him.
19th century Cherokee Students
In the next century, Princeton’s Indian students came from farther afield: the Cherokee Nation of the American South, numbered among the “Five Civilized Tribes” by white Americans. Large numbers of 19th century Cherokees adopted cultural and economic practices of Anglo Americans: Christianity, agriculture, intermarriage with whites, and, following their “civilized” neighbors’ example, slave-owning.
Concepts of slavery varied distinctly among American Indian tribes. Traditionally, “slaves” among native peoples were war captives adopted by tribal families to replace sons lost in battle. While sometimes sharing labor in the tribal communities, those not integrated into the Indian community were frequently seen as hostages useful for exchange rather than chattel. The Cherokee Nation, however, increasingly adopted white practices of chattel slavery on plantations geared toward the production of cash crops such as cotton. The Cherokees viewed slavery as a demonstration of their acculturation into white society.
Evidence of this acculturation can be seen in the Ross family. John Ross—the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation who led his people through the difficult years of removal to Oklahoma—sent twelve members of his family to the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. Three of them continued their education at the College of New Jersey and became the first Indians to graduate from the college. The most distinguished of this trio was William Potter Ross ('1842), a nephew of John Ross. Considered one of the most brilliant educated Cherokees, he was twice appointed principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. His writings are ranked among the finest in Indian literature, though they include editorials justifying the practice of slavery. William Ross’s brother, Robert Daniel Ross ('1843), went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1847, becoming one of the earliest Native American medical doctors.
William Potter Ross (class of 1842), principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1871 to 1875.
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Princeton’s American Indian Legacy
In 1901, Howard Gansworth—a direct descendant of the great Seneca chief Red Jacket—graduated from Princeton University. Born on the Tuscarora Reservation in upper New York State, he attended the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, before entering Princeton. After graduating from the college he served a distinguished career as a government liaison with Indian people.
Paul Baldeagle ('1923), left the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota when he was eleven years old. After graduating from Princeton, he taught English in secondary schools in the Princeton area for 35 years. In retirement he served in various elected offices in the borough of Princeton and as a guard at the Princeton University Library.
After Baldeagle’s graduation in 1923, no self-identified American Indian enrolled at Princeton until the 1970s. Then, in a single decade, at least twenty-four students with ties to Native American communities matriculated. At least five of these alumni were raised by parents who were monolingual speakers of their indigenous languages. Two-thirds of them were from reservations, and all of the reservation Indians returned home to improve the lives of their communities.
All told, Princeton’s history of Indian education provides a fascinating commentary on white Americans’ ambivalent views of American Indians. Given the fact that no African American students or representatives of other minority groups were permitted to enter Princeton until well into the 20th century, for most of the college’s history American Indians alone represented the “other” at Princeton.
About the Author
For forty years Alfred Bush curated the Western Americana collections in the Rare Book department of Firestone Library at Princeton. He is the author, among other works, of The Life Portraits Of Thomas Jefferson and, with Lee Clark Mitchell, The Photograph and the American Indian. In the 1970s he encouraged American Indians to apply for admission to Princeton, especially those from reservations in the Southwest. Once on campus he served as their informal advisor and after they graduated continued to mentor many of them.
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This online essay calls on Alfred L. Bush, “Otterskins, Eagle Feathers, and Native American Alumni of Princeton,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, Volume LXVII, Number 2 (Winter 2006), 420-434. It also relies on John Murrin’s introduction to Princetonians 1791-1794 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), xvii-lviii, and the entries for the various American Indian alumni as presented in the appropriate volumes of the Princetonians series.
Richard A. Harrison, Princetonians, 1776-1783: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 18.
Harrison, Princetonians, 1776-1783: A Biographical Dictionary, 20.
J. Jefferson Looney and Ruth L. Woodward, Princetonians, 1791-1794: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), lii.
Ruth L. Woodward and Wesley Frank Craven, Princetonians, 1784-1790: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 449.