Engraved stone, John Harvard Mall, Charlestown.

An engraved stone at the center of John Harvard Mall, the hilltop park in Charlestown dedicated to the clergyman, marks the place where his house stood before it was torched during the Battle of Bunker Hill. “The British burned it all down in 1775,” historian Rosemary Kverek said.

Photos by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

John Harvard’s Charlestown

University’s namesake left mark beyond Cambridge

3 min read

Visitors posing for photos with the John Harvard Statue may not know that the University’s namesake and first major benefactor may never have set foot in Cambridge, Mass. The English clergyman’s name is practically synonymous with this college town, but he actually lived and preached 3 miles away in Charlestown.

There’s even another square named after him on the other side of the river, no doubt a source of confusion for the occasional tourist who stumbles upon the John Harvard Mall while looking for Harvard Yard.

Harvard died of consumption in 1638 a mere year after he sailed to New England in search of religious freedom — but in his brief time here he left a lasting mark.

After a recent snowfall, we explored his old neighborhood and spoke with historian Rosemary Kverek of Charlestown and Cambridge Historical Commission Director Charles Sullivan.

Some think John Harvard may be buried under the John Harvard Mall or in Phipps Street Burial Ground in Charlestown, but good luck finding a headstone. According to Cambridge Historical Commission Director Charles Sullivan, “In that early period, John Harvard’s headstone would likely have been a wooden plank, that would have long rotted by now.”
Charlestown’s Harvard Square is just outside the John Harvard Mall. If John Harvard ever did make the trek to Cambridge, his commute likely would have taken him along a pre-existing Native American footpath that ran from Sullivan Square, continued onto Washington Street in Somerville, and followed Kirkland and Brattle streets in Cambridge, according to Charles Sullivan.

Two venerable Charlestown landmarks, the Warren Tavern and the Bunker Hill Monument, were built more than 100 years after Harvard’s death.

A man walks his dog on a quarter-acre lot once owned by Harvard. According to a book by J. Gardner Bartlett, Harvard also owned a lot of 60 acres in Mystic Field (now Everett), a lot of 120 acres in Waterfield (now Winchester), a lot of 4 acres in Line Field (now Arlington), and two small lots in Mystic Marshes (now Everett).

“It pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. Harvard a godly gentleman and a lover of learning …”