Founding of Washington University
In celebration of the 150th anniversary
of the University's founding in 1853, Washington University is publishing
a new history book, Beginning a Great Work: Washington University
in St. Louis, 1853-2003. Author Candace O'Connor opens the book
with the excerpt below, which details the day that 10 of the original
17 directors met to decide whether to establish an educational institution
using the Charter they had held for nearly a year.
13, 1854, 10 men gathered in the parlor of a fashionable St. Louis
home owned by merchant Wayman Crow. They were meeting as a group
for the first time, yet they already knew each other well and had
a great deal in common. Like Crow, a Kentuckian by birth, most had
come to the city as young adults, eager to make their fortunes.
Now in early middle age, they were comfortable if not yet wealthy;
they had households to support, businesses to nurture, and growing
families to educate. Few had much formal education themselves, but
they were all generous, altruistic, civic-minded. They were also
members of the same Unitarian church, and their pastor, William
Greenleaf Eliot, Jr.a small, delicate man with a colossal
social consciencewas their spiritual leader and moral inspiration.
On a visit to St. Louis, Ralph Waldo Emerson had met Eliot and called
him "the Saint of the West."
Eliot, then 42 years old, had earned this title
through a lifetime devoted to good works. In 1834, he had arrived
from civilized Boston, a young and untried graduate of Harvard Divinity
School, to build a congregation in the rough-and-tumble West. By
1851, he had succeeded so well that his Church of the Messiah, flush
with 1,200 members, had just dedicated a new sanctuary at the corner
of 9th and Olive in St. Louis. But the church was only the beginning
of his labor. Amid his endless pastoral duties, he was deeply involved
in community causes, particularly education. ...
The February 22, 1853,
Charter establishing Eliot Seminary had three sections; one
of them named 17 "incorporators." Those men were:
Hudson E. Bridge, 1810-1875, stove manufacturer
and railroad president
c. 1783-1855, attorney, killed in Gasconade train disaster
1808-1885, dry goods merchant; state senator; University co-founder
Eaton, 1807-1883, captain, West Point graduate
Eliot, Jr., 1811-1887, minister, Church of the Messiah; University
Jr., 1813-1892, wine manufacturer
John How, 1812-1885,
businessman; three-time St. Louis mayor
John M. Krum,
1810-1883, lawyer; judge; taught at law school 1868-1878
McCreery, 1816-1861, Crow's business partner and nephew
Seth A. Ranlett,
c. 1808-1881, longtime University secretary/treasurer
c. 1802-1859, wholesale grocer
1820-1877, Smith Academy benefactor
1815-1902, judge, U.S. Court for the District of Missouri
Co-Founders of the University
A new educational venture was what brought him
to this wintry meeting at the home of Wayman Crow, his parishioner
and close friend for nearly 20 years. Their friendship was unlikely,
given their many differences. While Eliot was diminutive, Crow was
tall, with a commanding manner; while Eliot was an intellectual,
who had traded ideas with Boston transcendentalists, Crow was a
self-educated man, whose schooling had ended when he was 12 years
old; while Eliot was a man of the cloth, Crow was a man of business,
who was rapidly building one of the largest wholesale dry goods
companies in St. Louis. Yet Crow and Eliot shared other, more binding
qualities. They were both energetic and large-spirited, with strong
mutual respect and an unshakable dedication to public service. Crow,
who had helped Eliot organize the Mission Free School and re-organize
the public schools, had twice been elected to the Missouri state
In the previous year, near the close of his last
term of office, Crow had presented Eliot with a most surprising
gift. At the end of a February 2, 1853, letter to Eliot ... he added
"If you see notice of a charter to incorporate
the 'Eliot Seminary'don't condemn me for using the titleit
is rather a favorable time to get acts of incorporation and I avail
of it, as our Society may desire to have the privilege of establishing
such an institution at some day, and this can be partially organized
and held in reserve."
Years later, reflecting on this action, he said
that he had drawn up the Charter of this new seminary "without consultation
with others." Eliot remembered that Crow had modeled his bill on
another charter, drawn up by a fellow senator, which had struck
him as particularly good. Certainly, he had not discussed the matter
in advance with Eliot, who noted in his journal on February 22,
1853, that: "An 'Eliot Seminary' has been incorporated by [the]
present legislature, but I know nothing of it." Just as certainly,
Crow must have known ... that such an action would be acceptable,
even welcome. On the same day that Eliot made this notation in his
journal, Gov. Sterling Price signed Crow's Charter into law, and
Eliot Seminary was born.
His senate session concluded, Crow returned to
St. Louis on March 1, 1853, with ... the new seminary Charter. Eliot
must have read [it] quickly and with interest, for on March 2 he
wrote in his diary that "it is very liberal and full and will be
worked up in some way before long." Much later, he also recalled
|The first publication
of Washington Institute in 1854 contained the Charter drawn
up by Wayman Crow and the Constitution detailing the new school's
organization. Article VIII assured that the institution would
always be nonsectarian.
"It took us by surprise, and, at first thought,
caused some amusement; for none of us had dreamed of such a thing,
and an educational enterprise seemed quite beyond our strength.
But, upon examination of the charter, it was found to be a document
of extraordinary merit, and capable of the grandest use. Its possession
constituted a divine call; and, after talking it over for a year,
we determined to organize it, and go to work."
The "we" of Eliot's recollection were 17 men
whom Crow had named in the Charter as directors of this nascent
institution. Ten of them made up the group that assembled in Crow's
home ... for their first official meeting as a board of directors.
During this year, they had not been idle; as Eliot said, they had
been talking among themselves and discussing what to do next. Characteristically,
Eliot had done most of all. In a July 1853 journal entry, he noted
that he was in the midst of founding "an Educational Institute under
charter of 'Eliot Seminary': to consist of Male and Female and Industrial
Departments. It will require large Endowment."
All of these men, even Eliot, must have had some
qualms about embarking on this new venture; they had little time
and heavy responsibilities. But they also saw a need for an institution
of higher learning, and they were intrigued by the breadth of the
Charter, which gave them exciting scope for their plans. As Eliot
later put it:
"The puzzle at first was where to begin. The
whole educational field was open before us, unoccupied except by
the public schools, a few indifferent private seminaries. ... Our
charter authorized us to establish anything we pleased, to hold
an unlimited amount of property free from all taxation, and direct
our affairs according to our own judgment. We determined not to
let such privileges die for want of use. ..."
"A Day of Small Beginnings"
The 10 men in attendance that evening quickly
went to work. One of them was Samuel Treat, judge of the U.S. Court
for the District of Missouri. Years afterwards, he called that eventful
evening a "day of small beginnings," and remembered ... the exciting
conversation that took place.
"With what distinctness, at this moment, the
consultations of that hour well up in the memory!the free
interchange of views concerning the educational wants of the West
and of the age, the proper mode of giving force and living energy
to the practical thoughts entertained,the policy or impolicy
of an early effort,whence would come the necessary funds to
place such an enterprise beyond the reach of failure ..."
train disaster injures co-founder and Washington Institute
On November 1, 1855, 600 St. Louisans
had boarded a special train to celebrate the completion of
the Pacific rail line as far as Jefferson City. En route the
train crossed the Gasconade River where the temporary trestle
bridge collapsed, plunging the train into the river. Thirty-one
St. Louisans were killed and another 70 injured. The mayor
declared that November 5 would be a day of fasting and prayer.
The Washington Institute board was
seriously affected by this accident. Not only was board member
and attorney Mann Butler killed, but Wayman Crow was "badly
hurt and confined to the house two months," wrote Eliot in
his journal. Samuel Treat, though injured, had heroically
taken command of rescue efforts and "distinguished himself
by his labors." John How "went up to deliver what assistance
he could." Although he was in the engine cab, Hudson Bridge,
president of the rail line and later a major benefactor to
Washington University, was injured but miraculously survived.
Finally, though, it was the promise of preliminary
funding that carried the day. Col. John O'Fallon, one of the city's
wealthiest residents but not yet a director, had pledged two prime
blocks of landworth $25,000 already and rapidly gaining in
valuefor the proposed Industrial School. This generous gift,
recalled Treat, "coming as it did at the turning point in the enterprise,
gave it the required firmness and certainty ..."
So the assembled board members began to plan
in earnest. They listened to a reading of the school's new Constitution
drafted by Eliot and Treat, the only two college graduates on the
board; next they elected their officers. As president, they named
William Greenleaf Eliot; as vice president, Wayman Crow. ... Each
man would fill this role for the rest of his life.
President Eliot proceeded quickly to a plan of
action. He asked his directors to agree that a Collegiate Department
should be established whenever they could raise the first $50,000
of an endowment. An Industrial School, named for Colonel O'Fallon,
would also open as soon as they could secure $10,000 to supplement
his gift of land. And, in an optimistic touch, three board members
were empowered to open a subscription fund to support Eliot Seminary.
Eliot also had another, more personal matter
to settle. He appointed a sub-committee of twoagain himself
and Treatto choose a name other than his own for this fledgling
seminary. Modesty must have played a large part in his resistance
... but he also believed to his core that church was the proper
place for religious instruction, and that narrow, sectarian influences
must not taint educational truth. If his name were associated with
this new venture, it would have a sectarian cast from the outset.
He and Treat were to report back at the next board meeting with
a new name in mind.
For this second meeting ... they chose an auspicious
date: February 22nd, the first anniversary of their incorporation.
... Firmly, Eliot announced the result of his subcommittee's deliberation:
The new school should be re-named "Washington Institute," a name
suggested, he said, by the coincidence that its Charter had received
approval on the anniversary of George Washington's birth. ...
It must have been hard for the other board membersas
anxious as they would have been to honor their pastor and friendto
oppose Eliot's call to pay tribute to Washington, widely revered
as the "Father of His Country." Inserting the new name in the proper
place within the Constitution, they approved the document unanimously.
Together with the Charter, it would soon be issued in a slim booklet
that represented the first publication of this new Washington Institute.
Copyright (c) 2003, Washington University in St.
is an award-winning writer, editor, and documentary producer.
She has written extensively for regional and national magazines
and newspapersincluding this magazineas well as
for corporations and health-care institutions. The founding
editor-in-chief of the Missouri Historical Society Press, she
has edited, substantially revised, and co-authored a number
of books. O'Connor has a Bachelor of Arts in English/American
literature from Cornell University and a Master of Arts in English/American
literature from the University of Rochester. Her hisorical documentary,
Oh Freedom After While: The Missouri Sharecropper Protest
of 1939, which aired nationally on PBS on April 30, 2000,
won an Emmy award.
Please visit 150.wustl.edu
for information about ordering the new history book.