Founding of Williams College

1755 On November 11th the will of Ephraim Williams is presented for probate in the court at Northampton, Massachusetts.

1762 Attempts are made by members of the Williams family to found Queens College in Hatfield, Massachusetts. Pressured by Harvard College, which opposes the establishment of a competing institution in the colony, Governor Bernard is forced to revoke the Queens College charter a year after granting it.

1765 The west township is incorporated under its present name, fulfilling the proviso of Ephraim Jr.’s will “that the Governor & General Court give to the said township the name of Williamstown.”

1770 Having obtained a copy of Ephraim Jr.’s will several years earlier, the Proprietors of Williamstown call the Executors of the estate before the General Court to answer for the delay in fulfilling Ephraim Jr.’s intentions. In response to the charges, the Executors draw attention to the still unsettled boundary between New York and Massachusetts.

1773 New York and Massachusetts settle their long-standing boundary dispute, setting the line 20 miles east of the Hudson River. However, it requires action by the Continental Congress in 1784 to have the parties reach formal agreement. Williamstown is now officially located in Massachusetts, thereby meeting the second stipulation of Ephraim Jr.’s will, that “the said township fall within the jurisdiction of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.”

1785 The Massachusetts legislature grants a charter to the free school called for in Ephraim Jr.’s will. Israel Williams and John Worthington (1719-1800), the Executors of the will, have until now managed the funds accrued from the estate. Amounting to over $11,000, those funds are transferred on March 8th to the newly incorporated “Trustees of the Donation of Ephraim Williams, Esq., for maintaining a Free School in Williamstown.” At their first meeting on April 24th, the Trustees resolve to apply the whole of Ephraim’s bequest to the Williamstown Free School, ending any plans to establish a second school in North Adams.

1788 The Trustees petition the Massachusetts General Court to hold a lottery to raise additional capital to fund the construction of a brick building to house the Free School. The petition is granted on February 11, 1789.

1790 The lottery is held on May 22nd and raises $3,449. Construction of the building to be known as West College begins that summer. The building’s design incorporates a kitchen, dining room, chapel, library, recitation rooms and dormitory.

1791 With construction of the building barely completed, the Free School opens October 26th. Ebenezer Fitch (1756-1833) serves as preceptor and schoolmaster. Sixty-five students are enrolled: 45 in the Free School, and 20 in a tuition-charging Academy (or Grammar School) established to teach more advanced subjects.

1792 In May the Trustees petition the Massachusetts General Court to convert the Free School into a college to be named Williams Hall. In their petition, they stress the importance of keeping college-bound Massachusetts students from leaving the state, the moral ambiance (or “lack of allurements”) of the rural location, and the affordability of an education here, which, they assert, will bring it “more within the power of the middling and lower class of citizens.”

1793 Williams College is incorporated as the General Court grants the Trustee’s petition on June 22nd. The College opens its doors October 9th with an undergraduate enrollment of 20. The Free School is closed, and the Academy, with a student body of approximately 60, will be phased out after several years.

By Sylvia Kennick Brown, College Archivist