You would expect to find truth etched in stone at an institution of higher learning. Not so on the fabled grounds of Harvard yard. Sculpted in 1884 by the well-known artist Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), the John Harvard statue is known as the “statue of three lies.”
The inscription reads: “John Harvard, Founder, 1638.”
John Harvard (1607-1638) was living in England when the new college was founded in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. He and his wife immigrated to Charlestown, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1637 and shortly afterwards he became the minister of the local church. In 1638, he died at age 30 of tuberculosis. Since he and his wife had no children, in his will he bequeathed the fledgling college half of his estate (779 pounds) and his collection of 400 books. With the influx of needed capital, the college started building immediately. The following year, the college was renamed Harvard College to honor its first benefactor.
In 1764, fire destroyed the original college and all but one of John Harvard’s books. If you take an unofficial tour of Harvard led by current university students, you’ll learn how one book was saved (and why you shouldn’t rub the statue’s toe).
The fire also destroyed any known likenesses of John Harvard. According to my tour guide, the model for the statue was a student and descendant of former Harvard president Leonard Hoar (1672-1675), the only president not to have a house named after him.
History & Fiction
You can learn more about Harvard's history, its famous landmarks, and even take a virtual tour online. Or you can discover just as much Harvard lore and journey through 300 years of its history in Harvard Yard by William Martin (2003), a fictional mystery involving a missing Shakespearean quarto.
If you have colonial New England ancestors, especially clergymen, find out if they attended the oldest American institution of higher education by searching Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts by John Langdon Sibley. These are available on Google Books:
Volume 1, 1642-1658 (published 1873)
Volume 2, 1659-1677 (published 1881)
Volume 3, 1678-1689 (published 1885)
Clifford Kenyon Shipton continued the series through 1774. You also can find a list of Harvard graduates 1642-1774 online.
The Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) co-published a CD-ROM called Colonial Collegians, which includes almost 5,800 boys and men who attended American colleges through the class of 1774. It comprises all 18 volumes of Sibley's Harvard Graduates, Franklin Bowditch Dexter's Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, James McLachlan's Princetonians, as well as students of Brown University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Rutgers University, the College of William and Mary, among others. Members of NEHGS can access the Colonial Collegians database online.