This Week in History: Harvard University was founded in 1636

Harvard College (now Harvard University) founded, 1636 (Oct. 28)

Harvard College (now Harvard University) founded, 1636 (Oct. 28)

Harvard University was founded at Newtowne (now Cambridge), Massachusetts, on Oct. 28, 1636, just 16 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, one of the richest private schools in America, and one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

The Massachusetts legislative assembly initially founded Harvard as New College, a school for educating clergymen. The school’s name was changed to Harvard College in 1639, when it was named after the school’s first benefactor, John Harvard. Harvard was a Puritan minister. He left half of his estate, including his library of over 400 books, to the college when he died in 1638. Harvard College opened that same year. The school graduated its first class of nine students in 1642.

In 1764, Harvard Hall burned down. Some 5,000 books—including all but one of John Harvard’s books and the only known portrait of him—were destroyed. Today, a statue of John Harvard stands in Harvard Yard in front of University Hall. It has become the university’s most famous landmark. More than 250 years after the fire, Harvard now houses the world’s largest university library system.

In 1775, General George Washington and his Continental Army soldiers briefly moved into Harvard’s buildings at the start of the American Revolution (1775-1783). The next year, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, the signers included eight Harvard alumni.

Harvard College was officially renamed Harvard University in 1782 after the founding of its medical school. In 1910, crimson officially became the school color. The color tradition initially started in the mid-1800’s, when the school’s rowing team donned crimson scarves during a competition so they would be more easily recognized.

Several U.S. presidents have graduated from Harvard, including John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Other notable graduates include American revolutionary leader John Hancock, philanthropist and Microsoft creator Bill Gates, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Harvard, which was founded just three days before Halloween, has its share of ghost stories. Over the years, students, faculty, and employees have reported encounters with spirits roaming the halls of some dorms and school buildings. These include Wadsworth House, which General George Washington used as his first headquarters, and Lowell Hall, named after former Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell. People claim to have seen apparitions dressed in colonial uniforms walking down the halls or going through doors at Wadsworth House. Ghosts of Lowell’s sister, the poet Amy Lowell, or former House Master Elliott Perkins have reportedly been spotted silently moving around Lowell House. Amy Lowell was known to smoke cigars and, supposedly, if you stand near her portrait in Lowell House, you can sometimes smell cigar smoke.

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