FEATURE — Summer 2003

  The 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.

by Candace O'Connor

In February 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 conscience—was 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

Mann Butler, c. 1783-1855, attorney, killed in Gasconade train disaster

John Cavender, ?-1863

Wayman Crow, 1808-1885, dry goods merchant; state senator; University co-founder

Nathaniel J. Eaton, 1807-1883, captain, West Point graduate

William G. Eliot, Jr., 1811-1887, minister, Church of the Messiah; University co-founder

William Glasgow, 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

Phocion R. McCreery, 1816-1861, Crow's business partner and nephew

George Partridge, 1810-1890

George Pegram, c. 1816-1877

Seth A. Ranlett, c. 1808-1881, longtime University secretary/treasurer

Christopher Rhodes, 1801-1858

Samuel Russell, c. 1802-1859, wholesale grocer

James Smith, 1820-1877, Smith Academy benefactor

Samuel Treat, 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 senate.

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 a postscript:

"If you see notice of a charter to incorporate the 'Eliot Seminary'—don't condemn me for using the title—it 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 that:
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 ..."


Gasconade train disaster injures co-founder and Washington Institute directors

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 land—worth $25,000 already and rapidly gaining in value—for 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 two—again himself and Treat—to 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 members—as anxious as they would have been to honor their pastor and friend—to 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. Louis

Candace O'Connor is an award-winning writer, editor, and documentary producer. She has written extensively for regional and national magazines and newspapers—including this magazine—as 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.