Campus & Community

Digitizing Dunster

2 min read

Papers of Harvard’s first president now online

On an unrecorded November day 400 years ago, Henry Dunster, Harvard’s first president, was born in the Lancashire town of Bury and baptized there on Nov. 26, 1609. To celebrate Dunster’s 400th year, the Harvard University Archives, with generous support from the Sidney Verba Fund, has digitized the Dunster family papers and made them available on the Internet.

Overall, the papers document the business transactions and family history of the Dunster and Glover families during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, while others offer insight into the legal system in Colonial America.

Key documents, including memoranda and Harvard’s first annual report, provide details about Dunster’s tenure as president of Harvard, early Colonial education in New England, local missionary efforts to educate Native Americans, and the operations of the first printing press in North America.

Dunster (1609–c. 1659) studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he received bachelor of arts (1630) and master of arts (1634) degrees. Subsequently, he returned to Bury, where he served as headmaster of the Bury Grammar School and minister of Saint Mary’s Church.

Following the outbreak in 1640 of civil war in England, Dunster emigrated to the English colonies. On Aug. 27 of the same year, he was appointed the first president of Harvard College.

With the College in dire financial straits, Dunster reformed the academic program, established a four-year residency requirement, and introduced a student code of conduct. With funding from the Massachusetts General Court and — significantly — from individual donors, Dunster oversaw construction of the first College building. Dunster secured the College’s papers of incorporation, approved by the General Court of Massachusetts, as the Charter of 1650, and established its governance by the President and Fellows of Harvard College (commonly called the “Harvard Corporation”).

“Four hundred years after his birth, Henry Dunster continues to hold a place at the heart of Harvard history and culture,” notes Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library. “Appointed Harvard’s first president, he had chosen the title himself based upon a related position at his Cambridge alma mater. He is understood to be the author of the Charter of 1650, under which the University is governed to this very day. His newly digitized papers offer brief but tantalizing glimpses of the man, his family, and his aspirations for Harvard.”