Research Journal: Dickinson’s Founding Board

Continuing my research on Dickinson College’s early ties to slavery, I turned to the trustees themselves. My first objective was to discover how many founding trustees were slaveholders. To do so, I first found a list of the trustees in A Sketch of Dickinson College authored by Charles Himes.

Fortunately, the 38 founding trustees were prominent men in their time, increasing the likelihood that both records about their lives, and their relations to slavery, exist. Among the first I investigate is Henry Hill. A few brief Google searches inform me that Hill was a prominent wine merchant from Philadelphia. In fact, some of the first hits generated for his name are from Founders Online, a website run by the National Archives that holds transcriptions of the correspondence of George Washington and other Founding Fathers. One such letter indicated that Hill had been providing Washington with “fine wine” for many years. So friendly were the two that in August 1777, Washington chose to encamp his Continental Army on Hill’s country estate near Germantown, Pennsylvania, establishing his headquarters in Hill’s elegant home. [1]

I recommence my search with the added benefit of Hill’s birth and death years, obtained in the editors’ footnotes on Founders Online. I uncover that the Maryland State Archives has a page on the Hill family. There, I learn that Hill was born in 1732 on a tobacco plantation near Annapolis, Maryland, known as “Hill’s Point,” where his father, Quaker Dr. Richard Hill, owned “at least” 40 enslaved people. Dr. Hill, who sold 37 of his slaves in 1737, later willed an enslaved man named Valentine to his son Henry. [2] Knowing that Henry Hill later became a Pennsylvania resident, I sought to verify if Valentine or any other enslaved people showed up on Pennsylvania tax records. To do so, I went to Pennsylvania Archives, a gargantuan series of state records edited and printed around the turn of the 20th century. Fortunately, they are all conveniently available online through Internet Archive, although it’s important to consult an online index beforehand to know which volume is relevant for your research. The first volume I consult shows that in 1774, Hill was taxed for two servants (race not specified). In a later volume, I find he was taxed for one slave in 1783. [3]

Henry Hill, 1732-1798, a founding trustee of Dickinson College and slaveholder. (Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and his Children, 1854).

Although he would later die during a yellow fever epidemic in 1798, Hill’s contributions as a trustee were by no means marginal. Returning to the Board of Trustees Papers in the Dickinson College Archives, Hill surfaces repeatedly. At the very first board meeting held on September 15, 1783, at John Dickinson’s Philadelphia home, Hill formed part of a committee “requested to make enquiry for a proper Lot not less than 12 acres in the Borough of Carlisle for Erecting the College, having a particular attention to the health & pleasantness of the Situation[.]” The committee was also “to prepare a Drawing of the College, & to make an Estimate of the Expense of purchase and building.” [4] True to this task, on March 27, 1793, Hill wrote to General William Irvine, a Cumberland County slaveholder closely associated with the developing college. The subject of Hill’s letter was how to “conduce the compliance” of John Penn (1760-1834) who “holds 3/4 of the property we wish to be accommodated with[.]” [5]

Philadelphia wine merchant and trustee Henry Hill writes to Carlisle General William Irvine about securing land for the building of Dickinson College, 1793. (Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections).

I applied this same method to the other 37 board members. As all were residents of Pennsylvania in 1783, the research is simplified by one commonality—Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Abolition law. Even if tax records contained in the Pennsylvania Archives tomes proved inconclusive, all 38 men—if they owned slaves—would have been affected by the law, which required them to register their human property at their respective county seats. Fortunately, many county archives have taken the proactive step of digitizing those records, including Cumberland and Chester, where I found slave returns pertaining to many trustees. Still, other data can be found through simple Google searches, such as the one I ran for “Bucks County slaves.” The query turned up a University of Pennsylvania-produced spreadsheet documenting slave ownership in Bucks County, drawn from the county’s slave register. There I found trustee Reverend James Boyd, who registered four enslaved people.

Still, not all counties have made their slave registers digitally available. As a result, I turned to another great resource, the Pennsylvania State Archives’ website. The State Archives does not hold original slave registers, but maintains microfilm copies of most county records, many of which they have conveniently posted online. There, I find copies of the Lancaster County register, where trustee James Jacks records a “mulatto child” on August 12, 1788. Using the same resource, I was able to locate one of the board’s largest slaveholders, Col. William G. McCleary of Washington County, who registered 7 slaves in 1782.

Synthesizing this data, I was able to verify that at least 23 of Dickinson’s 38 founding trustees owned slaves at some point in their lives—60% percent of the founding board. However, even more explicit evidence of the board’s relation to slavery came from a 1788 document buried deep in the college archives, which I located using the physical card catalog. Board members John Armstrong, John Montgomery, James Wilson and Stephen Duncan all donated funds to establish a “free school and Sunday evening school” for children of “those people laboring under the unfortunate condition of slavery” in Carlisle–signed by many men who bought and sold slaves themselves. College president Dr. Charles Nisbet, who pledged 20 shillings, was to be one of the “managers,” while donations of one pound each came from slaveholding college trustees such as Montgomery, Duncan, Armstrong and Wilson.  [6]

The school’s stated purpose was to inform the enslaved of “the principles of morality & the Christian Religion” which “can only be obtained by reading and studying for themselves the Holy Scriptures and other good Books.” Demanding such intensive study, however, the “free school” apparently struggled. A subsequent document noted that “bound servants slaves and others are in general precluded (by the necessary attendance during the Week upon the business of their Employers)” from regularly attending. Abandoning the “free school” during the week, the signatories instead decided to “Engage a School Master of good character” to teach “such persons as shall be sent to a Sunday Evening School.” [7]

An interesting name appearing on both school documents was that of John Hunter. I immediately recognized his name from earlier research in the Board of Trustees Papers, where a signed note from Hunter provided trustees with a bid to supply “a sufficient quantity of good and sufficient stone lime for the purpose of building and creating a new College[.]” [8] Hunter was also a slaveholder himself, registering a “Negro slave Tom” in 1780. With that in mind, the subject of future research will be if Hunter was awarded the contract, and if so, was slave labor used in laying limestone for the first college building? Further, the unlikely alliance between Nisbet and slaveholding board members to create a school for enslaved children will require additional research. What were Nisbet’s views on slavery, and were they the source of the underlying tension between the Scotsman and Dickinson’s majority-slaveholder board?



[1]  Henry Hill to George Washington, June 22, 1773, Washington Papers, Founders Online [WEB] ; General Orders, August 4, 1777, Washington Papers, Founders Online [WEB] ; Henry Hill to George Washington, March 4, 1797, Washington Papers, Founders Online, [WEB] ; Harold Donaldson Eberlein and Horace Mather Lippincott, The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and its Neighbourhood, (Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott, 1912), 257-261, [WEB]; John Jay Smith, Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and His Children, (Philadelphia: Privately published, 1854), [WEB].

[2] Sarah Hartge, “Richard Hill,” Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), [WEB].

[3] William Henry Egle (ed.), Pennsylvania Archives, (Harrisburg: William Stanley Ray, 1897), Series 3, vol. 14, 271, [WEB]; Egle (ed.), Pennsylvania Archives, Series 3, vol. 16, 651, [WEB].

[4] Minutes, September 15, 1783, Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 1783-1809, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 3, Box 1, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[5] Henry Hill to William Irvine, March 27, 1793, Correspondence Related to the “New College,” 1793-1803, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 5, Box 3, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[6] Founding of Carlisle Free and Sunday Evening School, 1788, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[7] Subscription, c. 1788, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[8] Bid, John Hunter, November 24, 1798, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 5, Box 3, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *