Records of gifts and donations
In the 17th and 18th century, Harvard College relied on government grants and tax allocations, town subscriptions, and private donations to fund the school. The history of donations at Harvard reflects both the generosity of donors and the challenges of collecting funds in a colony lacking an established financial structure. The Records of donations and gifts document contributions made to Harvard University by private citizens, companies, the Massachusetts colonial and state governments, and New England towns. They include correspondence, copies of wills and legal instruments, donation books, and record-keeping files used by the Harvard Corporation. The records provide insight into the income the College received from outside sources, as well as the challenges the College faced in fund-raising, keeping track of donations, meeting gift conditions, and recovering lost money. The records also offer a resource for studying the perceptions donors held towards the College and higher education in New England in general.
- Harvard University. Corporation (Organization)
The Records of gifts and donations are open for research.
Copying of fragile materials may be limited.
Extent8.25 cubic feet (23 volumes, 3 flat boxes, 4 legal half document boxes, 4 legal document boxes, 4 card boxes, and 12 folders)
The records of gifts and donations document contributions made to Harvard University by private citizens, companies, the Massachusetts colonial and state governments, and New England towns. They include correspondence, copies of wills and legal instruments, donation books, and record-keeping files used by the Harvard Corporation. The records provide insight into the income the College received from outside sources, as well as the challenges the College faced in fund-raising, keeping track of donations, meeting gift conditions, and recovering lost money. The records also offer a resource for studying the perceptions donors held towards the College and higher education in New England in general. Some of the correspondence and bequests reveal information about donors' viewpoints on religion and sectarianism in higher education during the 17th and 18th centuries. The collection includes records related to contributions for the support of Indian education and conversion missions, problems the College encountered recovering British donations during and after the Revolutionary War, and contributions from the Massachusetts General Court and New England towns.
The records are divided into three series: Gifts, Donation lists, and Donation administration files. The Gifts series contains documents relating to single donations, such as a letter or will that recorded the gift itself. The Donation lists series contains records created by the College to track donations. Finally, the Donation administration files series holds documents that relate to the administration of a substantial donation, or correspondence with a substantial Harvard benefactor. For example, the document signed by Lady Mowlson recording her 1643 gift to the College is held in the Gift series (Series I). The records relating to the many donations of Thomas Hollis, including the sustained correspondence between Hollis and College administrators are held in the Hollis donations subseries of the Donation administration files (Series III, Subseries A). But both the Hollis and Mowlson donations are listed in multiple places in donation books and lists made in later years, which are included in the Donation lists series (Series II).
Series I and II and some subseries in Series III are arranged as bound volumes and loose papers. The distinction is made primarily to help researchers differentiate between items holding large amounts of information and single-page items. For instance in Series II, the "Donations to Harvard College between 1642-1773" (UAI 15.400 Box 2, Folder 14 ) is a two-page list, whereas "An Account of Grants Donations and Bequests to Harvard College from the Foundation of that Society to the Year 1773" (UAI 15.400 Box 6, Volume 1) is a folio-sized volume. The bound volumes were often authorized by the Corporation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to collect loose records in one volume, or as a place to transcribe information from various sources, such as court records and Corporation minutes.
Some documents, the dates of which fall between January 1 and March 25 in the years prior to 1752 have been cited with the double date convention, e.g. February 27, 1658/9. This convention has been followed only when the document itself indicates the date in such a manner. This convention was used in England and the North American colonies between 1582 and 1752. The first date refers to the year according to the Julian calendar, which began on March 25, while the second refers to the year according to the Gregorian calendar, which began on January 1.
On October 28, 1636, the Massachusetts General Court allocated £400 “towards a schoale or colledge.” The General Court's vote founded Harvard College, initially known as "New College," and the money collected from that decision, known as the “Countrys Gifte,” represented the first donation to the College. The history of donations at Harvard in the 17th and 18th centuries, beginning with that initial grant, incorporates both the generosity of donors and the challenges of collecting funds in a colony lacking an established financial structure.
When the first students arrived at Harvard in 1638 there was no modern banking system in Massachusetts; the Colony often relied on payment in kind to collect taxes. Even at Harvard, most parents paid tuition in crops they grew themselves. Donations were often deposited in the Colony’s treasury and then paid out to the College piecemeal.
Harvard's first substantial gift from a private citizen was received from John Harvard's bequest in 1638. Harvard arrived in Massachusetts from England in 1637, and upon his death a year later on September 14, 1638, he left all of his books and half of his estate to what was then known as “New College.” In March of the next year, the General Court renamed the institution "Harvard College" in gratitude. But translating half of an estate into funds proved to be difficult for the College. Wills often reflected assets held as property, as well as unrecovered loans at the time of a benefactor's death. Procuring income from land sales, especially in England, as well as debt recovery, was complicated. The 1658 will of British lawyer John Doddridge laid out a yearly allotment to the College, but after 1687 Harvard stopped receiving the annual installments. The College worked unsuccessfully until 1785 to recover the money.
Through the first two centuries of Harvard's existence, the institution relied on grants from the government. When Massachusetts itself faced financial difficulties in 1641, the General Court authorized three local ministers, Hugh Peter, Thomas Weld, and William Hibbens, to travel to England to raise money for the colony and the College. Notably, the mission produced the first endowed scholarship when, in 1643, Weld secured a £100 donation from Lady Ann Mowlson of London that stipulated the interest on the initial donation should be used to support needy students.
The established wealth of England was an appealing place for Harvard to seek financial support. An estimated 13% of the total gifts to Harvard came from England between 1636 and 1710; the percentage was 17.4% between 1711 and 1805. Individual donors gave gifts of money, land, books, and supplies. Some donations included conditions that often limited the use of funds to scholarships or professorships; Harvard alumnus Paul Dudley stipulated in 1750 that his bequest should support an annual sermon that came to be known as the "Dudleian Lecture," and is still given to this day.
Between 1636 and 1805, Harvard received $178,919 in donations from individuals; between 1806 and 1900 the College received $13,776,111. While the College did not receive the same level of private contributions in its first two decades that it would in later years, there were some individuals who gave generously to Harvard. Major 18th century benefactors included Governor of Connecticut Edward Hopkins (1600-1657), Boston merchant Thomas Hancock (1703-1764), his nephew John Hancock (1737-1793; Harvard AB 1754), and Massachusetts Chief Justice and acting Governor William Stoughton (1631-1701; Harvard AB 1650) who financed the first Stoughton Hall. Significant gifts were also made after a 1764 fire destroyed Harvard Hall. But the most significant benefactor of the 1700s was London merchant, Thomas Hollis (1659-1731), who is estimated to have given the College £6000 in money and books.
In its early decades the College relied on government grants (including the General Court's allocation of the Charlestown Ferry rents), the "college corn" paid in kind by families within the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven colonies, and private donations to support the College. Without the underlying support of a religious sect or a wealthy patron, the process of building a substantial endowment required many years.
The records are arranged in three series:
- Gifts, 1643-1950
- ___Subseries: Loose gifts records, 1643-1950
- ___Subseries: Bound gifts records, 1653-1838
- Donation lists, 1680-1955
- ___Subseries: Loose donation lists, 1680-1955
- ___Subseries:Bound donation lists, 1772-1877
- Donation administration files, ca. 1714-1906
- ___Subseries:Hopkins donation, ca. 1714-1854
- ___Subseries: Hollis family donations, 1718-1910
- ___Subseries: Paul Dudley donation, 1750
- ___Subseries: Otisfield donation, 1771-1781
- ___Subseries: Benjamin Bussey donations, ca. 1771-1946
- ___Subseries: Madam Saltonstall's donation, 1772
- ___Subseries: Ward N. Boylston donations, 1800-1822
- ___Subseries: Samuel Dexter fund, 1810-1842
- ___Subseries: Rumsford legacy, 1815-1827
- ___Subseries: Robert Troup Paine fund, 1851-1855
- ___Subseries: Trustees records from the Museum of Comparative Zoology, 1859-1880
- ___Subseries: Harvard College Entrance Gates, 1889-1891
- ___Subseries: Randall Charities Corporation, 1892-1899
- ___Subseries: Soldiers Field fund, 1892-1897
- ___Subseries: Records of the Trustees of the Noble Lectures, 1897-1906
Most documents in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business; others were donated and acquisition information is noted at the item level.
Some of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.
Collections and items have been digitized with the generous support of The Polonsky Foundation.
- Harris, Seymour E. The Economics of Harvard. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Founding of Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1935.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
- Quincy, Josiah. The history of Harvard University. Cambridge: J. Owen, 1840
This document last updated 2023 January 04.
The material was first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. The material was originally described as part of a larger Harvard Corporation finding aid. The material was re-processed in 2010. Re-processing involved a collection survey, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid. Post-1800 materials have been included in the finding aid, but are not fully processed. The records relating to the Charity of Edward Hopkins were separated and described as its own collection.
This finding aid was created by Diann Benti in September 2010.
Preservation and description of the Records of gifts and donations was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
- Harvard University. Corporation. Records of gifts and donations, 1643-1955: an inventory
- Language of description
- EAD ID
Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository
Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.
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