Just a few years after its founding in 1636, Harvard University established the Indian College in the 1640s to educate Native Americans as well as English colonists. It did not attract a sufficient number of students for continued operation and funding from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England. The college closed by 1693 and the building was torn down. Its bricks were re-used for another building. In 1997, the college installed a historic plaque in Harvard Yard to commemorate the Indian College.
In the 1640s, Harvard faced a financial crisis, which it attempted to resolve by obtaining funds to educate and convert local Native Americans. As a result, Harvard's charter of 1650 called for "the Education of the English and Indian Youth of the Country." Harvard obtained funds from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England which agreed to build a two-story brick building in Harvard Yard. This building, the Indian College, was completed in 1656. But, no Native American students attended it at that time, and the building was used for colonial English students instead.
The building was also used to house a printing press. Under the missionary John Eliot's direction, in 1663 the college completed printing a translation of the Bible into Massachusett language, which was the first Bible in any language printed in British North America. James Printer, an Algonquian-speaking Nipmuc who converted to Christianity, did much of the translation and typesetting. The press issued 15 books in the Algonquian language and 85 in English. At least four Native American students attended the college:
- Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Hiacoomes were classmates. Members of the Wampanoag tribe from Martha's Vineyard, they attended a preparatory school in Roxbury and were admitted to Harvard for a scheduled graduation of 1665. A few months prior to graduation, Hiacoomes returned to Martha's Vineyard to visit relatives. On the return trip, he was shipwrecked on Nantucket and not seen again. Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck successfully graduated, but died a few months later in Watertown, probably from tuberculosis. His Latin address to the Society, beginning "Honoratissimi benefactores" (English: Most honored benefactors), has been preserved.
- John Wampus entered in 1666, but left the next year to become a mariner.
- A student named Eleazar entered in 1675, but contracted and died of smallpox shortly after.
Because of the illnesses which many Native American students encountered when entering the college (and the English community), the building was little used for its intended purpose. When Harvard Hall was completed in 1677, the English colonial students moved out of Indian College.
By 1680, the press was not used at all. Harvard officially closed the press in 1692. In 1693 the college, intending to reuse the bricks to construct a new building, asked the SPGNE for permission to tear down the Indian College building. Their condition for approval was that Native American students "should enjoy their Studies rent free in said [new] building." In 1693 the old building had been torn down. In 1997, in a ceremony attended by 300 people, a historic plaque was placed in Harvard Yard to commemorate the Indian College.
- "Ceremony Honors Early Indian Students", Mass Moments, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, May 3, 1997. Accessed 22 Oct 2007
- "History of the Indian College", History of American Civilization program, Harvard University. Accessed on line October 22, 2007.
- "The Ancient Proprietors: Wampanoags", Part I: Nantucket's First Peoples of Color, The Other Islanders, Frances Ruley Karttunen, Nantucket, Massachusetts: Nantucket Historical Association, 2002. Accessed on line October 22, 2007. This online book has also been issued in a print edition (New Bedford, Massachusetts: Spinner Publications, Inc., 2005, ISBN 0-932027-93-8.)
- "John Eliot and America's First Bible", Dr. Herbert Samworth, Sola Scriptura. Accessed 22 Oct 2007
- pp. 58–60, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, E. Jennifer Monaghan, Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005. ISBN 1-55849-486-3.
- The Vineyard's First Harvard Men Were Indians, Arthur R. Railton, The Dukes County Intelligencer 29 (February 1988), pp. 91–112.