Exploring the Founding of Wabash College and New Beginnings

Greetings, my name is Nolan Eller [W2011], and I am the new College Archivist for Wabash College. I began my journey as Wabash College Archivist in July of 2022, and since then, I have had the pleasure of exploring the fantastic collections of the Robert T. Ramsay Jr. Archival Center. Through this monthly blog, I hope to take you along on my journey through the different boxes and materials that make up this incredible collection. Together we will meet new and interesting people, discover fascinating stories, and explore the history of Wabash College. So join me on my journey as we learn “What’s in the Box!”

Today, November 21st, 2022, is Founders’ Day, and I could not think of a better day to start my new blog. As I walked across campus on this quiet, cold morning with light snow falling around me, bundled up in my winter attire, I began to think about an important date in our College’s history, November 21st, 1832. That, for those who do not know, is the date our College was founded at the home of James Thomson. On November 21st, 1832, James Thomson called together nine men, all but one under the age of 32, to discuss founding a School that would grow to become Wabash College. Those called by James Thomson were John Steele Thomson, James Carnahan, Edmund O. Hovey, John Ellis, John Gilliland, John McConnell, Hezekiah Robertson, and Bradford King. All of these men were laymen of the Presbyterian church. They would come together “to fund a college somewhere in the Wabash country…that the institution be at first a classical and English high school, rising into a college as soon as the wants of the country demand.” Edmund O. Hovey, the founder who would have the most significant impact on the history of the College, compiled a scrapbook. Within it is an extract from a letter sent from James Thomson to Hovey, calling him to come to Crawfordsville and describing the need and mission of this new school.

1832 Annals page from the Edmund O. Hovey Scrapbook

“Probably not one in ten of the children between the ages of 5 and 15 are regularly at school, and a general apathy seems to prevail on the subject. Deeply impressed with the importance of making an effort to remedy this deficiency. Several of the ministering brethren of this Presbytery (Crawfordsville) have associated themselves with a few lay men for the purpose of making a vigorous effort to get up a classical school of high character at Crawfordsville where a competent number of teachers may be trained to be spread over the country and teach the children of this rapidly populating district.”

The following day, November 22nd, these nine men ventured out into the snowy wilderness and came to a location on a plot of land donated by Williamson Dunn, our College’s first trustee. Dunn would also play a role in the founding of Hanover College and Indiana University. Edmund O. Hovey described this event in his scrapbook.

1832 Annals page from the Edmund O. Hovey Scrapbook

“At the close of deliberations of the brethren consisting the original meeting, they went upon the grounds and selected the spot upon which to erect the first building; and there in solemn prayer in the midst of nature’s unbroken loveliness dedicated the enterprise to God and invoked his blessing upon it.” 

Historic Marker on the corner of Blair Street and Lane Avenue

The location of this founding is not on the campus we know and love today but is a few blocks north of campus on the corner of Blair Street and Lane Avenue. At this location, there is now a marker that memorializes this important event in Wabash’s history. So, on this Founders’, I invite you to think about our founders and their families and the scarifies they made in creating a College that still stands today. And acknowledge those who predated our College whose land we now inhabit, the tribes of the Kaskaskia, Myaamia, Kiikaapoi, and Peoria.

Founders’ Day Program from November 21st, 1902

Ever since that cold day in November 1832, Wabash College has set aside November 21st as a day to celebrate and remember our founding and all those who have come before us but also to think about our future and the roles each of us will play. When we reach our Founders’ Day on Monday, November 21st, we hope you’ll join Wabash in celebrating 190 years of our life-changing education, the unprecedented momentum the College experiences today, and how we will carry out the tradition of excellence as we near our bicentennial in 2032.

Materials celebrating Founders’ Day will be displayed in the Ramsay Archives for the remainder of this week and next week, including the page from the Hovey Scrapbook. So, take a break and come on down and explore the history of Wabash College. The Hovey Scrapbook and Hovey Letters have also been digitized and can be found on our Digital Collections Page.